Once upon a time, before the Channel Tunnel was built, there were two contemporary French novelists. Georges Perec died in 1982 at the age of 45, and nobody in England who was not a French specialist had ever heard of him. With Philippe Sollers it was different. Editor of the avant-garde theoretical journal Tel Quel, and associate of literary and psycho-analytic thinkers such as Barthes, Kristeva and Lacan, his was a name of which no self-respecting British intellectual could afford to remain entirely ignorant – though his novels, so far as I can discover, were neither translated nor read. But as Sollers grew older he abandoned his youthful Maoism to become a worshipper of American capitalism and, finally, some sort of Catholic mystic. Tel Quel changed its name to L’ Infini. And, since fame is capricious, in the last years of Mrs Thatcher’s reign it was Perec, not Sollers, who – with the publication of David Bellos’s translation of Life: A User’s Manual – found a keen British audience.
There were logics in these things, as we shall see. Perec’s reputation might easily have crossed the Channel two decades earlier. His first novel, Les Choses, was published in 1965 to immediate acclaim, and it was soon to be found on French literature syllabuses, if unfortunately nowhere else, in the Anglo-Saxon countries. In 1967, Perec lectured at Warwick University on the situation of the contemporary French novelist. This lecture, given before he joined the experimental group OuLiPo and started to produce fiction saturated in linguistic puzzles, lipograms, cryptograms and mathematical figures, was not quite the heady stuff those days demanded. In it, Perec offered the sort of candid and complex account of his literary influences usually permitted only to the already famous. When it came to situating himself on the French literary scene, he all too sensibly advocated a middle course between the extremes of Sartreian engagement, on the one hand, and Tel Quel’s brew of nihilism and linguistic experiment, on the other.
The Warwick lecture is printed for the first time in Parcours Perec, a collection of papers given in French at a conference in London in 1988. Now that we have Things in David Bellos’s translation, Perec’s acknowledgment in the lecture of the impact of Flaubert, Barthes, Kafka and Melville, together with his citations of the literary theories of Brecht and Lukacs, can be seen to provide an essential commentary on the early fiction. Things and its successor, A Man Asleep, handle with a piercing irony material that is essentially autobiographical. Things has, so to speak, a joint protagonist in Jérôme and Sylvie, a pair of young market researchers whose story is narrated almost entirely in the third person plural. Obsessed with a colour-supplement fantasy of gracious and fashionable living, Jérôme and Sylvie start out in hope but gradually sink into the mire as the story progresses.
Things portrays a brittle, photogenic world, a two-dimensional Paris framed by images from advertising, fashion photography, interior design and film sets. Jérôme and Sylvie start out like browsers through some immense mail-order catalogue, whose pages they have only just begun to turn. But, like Jay Gatsby’s green light, their artificial paradise is destined to remain a promise of the future, a narcissistic fantasy. For all Perec’s stylistic sangfroid one can detect in this prose the shadow of a master whom he did not mention in his Warwick lecture: the inventor of an overheated romantic fiction founded on the dreams of consumerism. Things speaks for the bourgeois, mass-market Sixties just as, eighty years earlier, Huysmans’s À Rebours became the Bible of the Decadents. To move from Huysmans to Perec is to go from the gaslit naughtiness of a Late Victorian brothel to the antiseptic pages of a soft-porn magazine. Yet Huysmans’s arch-Decadent des Esseintes was also the consumer of an imaginary lifestyle, a designer world of objects embodying and surfeiting his eccentric desires.
Colour photography, the cinema and mass production are essential constituents of Perec’s version of commodity fetishism. Jérôme and Sylvie roam through Paris, wide-eyed, like characters from one of the New Wave films of the period, nursing a perpetual hunger and a secret dissatisfaction. They go to all the new releases, but the cinema, like the city they inhabit, can never fulfil their expectations. They are just penniless students, and later freelance professionals, with no antecedents; and the ‘film they would have liked to live’ remains only in the mind.
In Huysmans’s novel it was quite different. Des Esseintes, fabulously wealthy, had the means of realising the ultimate movie from the beginning. He holds precocious dinner-parties at which the guests eat black puddings served by naked negresses while a hidden orchestra plays funeral marches. Tiring of these excesses, he sells his ancestral mansion and becomes the reclusive owner of a country villa stocked with the choicest furnishings and pictures that money can buy. Des Esseintes may have joined the bourgeoisie, but Jérôme and Sylvie have to work for their living. Though they start out like yuppies, they prefer flâneurism to the bureaucratic rat-race and are soon left behind by their contemporaries. How to escape? In one of the wittiest episodes of À Rebours, des Esseintes decides on a complete break with his previous life, and prepares to take a holiday in England. His Anglophile instincts are so quickly satiated that he never gets beyond the Gare du Nord. Jérôme, and Sylvie, like Sixties neo-romantics, throw up their market-research jobs and go to live for a time in a small town in Tunisia. Here, faced with Third World actuality, they experience a ‘life sans everything’ in which, like the most traditional of expatriates, their main compensation is to go to the café and read the Paris newspapers
Things is without dialogue and, in the melodramatic sense, virtually devoid of incident: no wonder the project of filming it came to nothing. Despite its autobiographical basis (Perec himself worked in market research and spent a year in the Tunisian town named in the narrative), the main characters are deliberately transparent figures, cyphers without individual features or personal quirks. They think and feel as an undifferentiated couple. Things ends with the image of life as a feast, where ‘the meal they will be served will be quite simply tasteless.’ This is a fine inversion of the so-they-lived-happily-ever-after convention, and Perec’s precision and control in this lucidly translated masterpiece is everywhere apparent.
Things is followed in this edition by A Man Asleep (1967), where the protagonist begins by failing to get out of bed on the day of his examinations. He becomes a hermit, shunning all direct human contact though, he rambles through Paris at night reading the signs of metropolitan life as if scanning the runes of some dead civilisation. The narrative is, again, based on one of Perec’s own experiences, and it is later echoed in the story of the student Grégoire Simpson in Chapter 52 of Life: A User’s Manual. Grégoire’s story barely hints at the intense solipsism of A Man Asleep, however; the later and much briefer version is broadly humorous, with some outrageous puns. In A Man Asleep we take the full weight of the student’s self-pitying view of himself as a ‘missing piece in the human jigsaw’, a motif that anticipates Perec’s majestic obsession with games and puzzles. Yet the novel is also a monologue (spoken, in the film version that Perec directed, by means of a female voice-over) in which every sentence is cast in the second person singular. Like Things, it must be read at one level as the virtuoso elaboration of a simple grammatical figure.
After these brief and penetrating fables, Philippe Sollers’s Women lands with the dull thud of what Henry James would have called a loose baggy monster, though the publishers describe it as a ‘post-modernist odyssey’. Women is, if not exactly experimental, a stylistic oddity since it consists of a 550-page monologue foregoing syntax and sentence structure to produce an effect of continual aposiopesis. The brief phrases linked by suspension points imitate the style of Céline in Death on the Instalment Plan. Published in France in 1983, Femmes came after Sollers’s Paradis (1981), which, Molly Bloom-like, is entirely unpunctuated.
Women is not only, as its title suggests, a kiss-and-tell epic – the confessions of a Don Juan among the post-structuralists – but an explicit roman à clef containing mildly scandalous and instantly recognisable portraits of such celebrated figures as Lacan, Althusser and Barthes. The narrator is – who would have guessed? – a novelist writing a novel, and there are walk-on parts for such fellow novelists as Alberto Moravia, Anthony Burgess (who appears under his own name) and the clumsily veiled author of The Hormones of the New Eve, ‘Angela Lobster’.
Will, an American journalist on intimate terms with the French intelligentsia, is supposedly writing his novel during a year’s sabbatical from his paper. Since he spends much of his time on aeroplanes, flying almost daily to Venice, Rome, Jerusalem or New York, he can manage no more than the hectic jottings which supposedly convey the idea of a voice ‘hovering airily, dynamically, over the page’. He has women friends in all the cities he visits, as well as a wife and son somewhere in the French countryside and a constant stream of eager female visitors to his ‘studio’ in Paris. Will mentions an ‘orgasm notebook’, in which he records his sexual exploits, and it must overlap rather considerably with the novel we are reading. The orgasms are all male, freely bestowed on him by the generosity of his women friends; the latter seem to expect much less in return, and most of them seem quite happy to suffer the misogynistic outbursts to which he continually gives vent.
For Will is a misunderstood genius and a man on the run, pursued by the international feminist conspiracy which hides under such acronyms as FAM (Front for the Autonomy of the Matrix) and WOMANN (World Organisation for Male Annihilation and a New Natality). Will’s interminable monologue is a turning of the tables on female loquaciousness, a refusal to listen to his charmers and persecutors: ‘I’d rather give her a quickie than listen to her whining,’ he says of one of the Femintern members, sounding less like a Parisian intellectual than a Martin Amis hero.
Will, however, is married to a psychoanalyst of East European origin, who lives in France and teaches in New York. He is the friend of Paul Fals (the ‘Trotsky of psychoanalysis’), Laurence Lutz (a philosopher who strangles his wife) and Jean Werth (a homosexual literary critic). A one-time Maoist, Will now dabbles in theology and Catholic mysticism. In case these characteristics suggest that he is readily identifiable with Philippe Sollers, we also have to reckon with the mysterious S., a French novelist who is Will’s friend and translator. S.’s first novel was hailed by Mauriac and Aragon; the same was true, the dust jacket informs us, of Sollers’s Une Curieuse Solitude. Though S. will not allow the novel in question to be reprinted, Will confides that it is far better than most first novels and that it reminds him of Stendhal. ‘No, no!’ S. protests. Women, infectiously high-spirited at times, is not so much a machine to think with as a machine for ego-massage.
When reviewer’s droop and readerly impatience are starting to set in, Will (or his creator) is prepared with a pre-emptive exercise and then a counter-attack. ‘Why does there have to be all this blather?’ he asks early on. S., too, we are told, is not only a self-proclaimed successor of Joyce but a sexist and a pretentious creep. Later the reader is accused of boredom, voyeurism (‘And what about the screwing?’ we are supposed to be asking, as if there were not already enough of it) and ‘systematic hostility’. Should one plead guilty? Perhaps. Whether Women adds to or detracts from Philippe Sollers’s notoriety is, in the end, a pretty trivial question. The book, however, appears in Columbia’s ‘Twentieth-Century Continental Fiction’ series with the assistance (presumably financial) of the French Government. Readers genuinely interested in late 20th-century Continental fiction will, instead, collect and treasure the growing series of Perec translations.