Horreur Vacui

Eric Beck Rubin, “Avoided: On Georges Perec,” Los Angeles Review of Books 20 May 2014

… This is what sets Georges Perec apart. His work does not cover, ignore, or defer. It embraces, submits, activates. It contemplates horreur vacui in all its horreur and vacui. … The E that is nowhere in La Disparition turns out to be everywhere. Many talk about making absence present. Perec never talks about it. He does it. … Perec’s variety of form, however, can only temporarily distract the reader from his maniacal focus on one and only one subject: the void. Like its cosmological incarnation, the black hole, the void turns all light into darkness by taking in everything and making it into nothing. It is not satisfied until it brings the universe under its reign. … In W, or The Memory of Childhood, Perec tells us “them” are those who, like his mother, were killed in the Holocaust, who were extinguished in the void of the camps, which left no record of their existences. When Perec asks himself why he writes, he says it is to redress the scandal of their silence. His way of accomplishing this is to make their silence as loud as possible, to increase dimensions of the void.

Finally, amid Gaspard Wincklers — real and fake — and the memory of his mother, Perec places himself among the missing, subjecting himself to the full, destructive Perec treatment. He writes how his name is derived from “Peretz,” a Hebrew word he translates poetically but not inaccurately as “hole.” He recalls how, as a left-handed person made to write right-handed, he got into the habit of inverting his first initial, G, so it appeared as a question mark. He is a Jew, he writes, since both his parents were Jews, but he was baptized a Catholic on 30 October 1943. He tells us how he escaped occupied Paris on an orphan’s transport, though he was not an orphan. Later he explains that he survived a German raid on his school in Grenoble because his birth certificate falsely listed his parents as André and Cécile instead of Icek and Cyrla. Perec makes it evident that he has only survived the war by virtue of losing himself. By the end of W, or The Memory of Childhood, Perec has ensured that all parts of him equal nothing. He has turned a living, breathing individual, with a personal and family history, a place in the world, a record of actions and contributions, into free-floating particles of dust, like all the others.

Now that you have the legend, you can confidently venture into the world atlas of Perec’s output. The maps seem to be covering different times and places — what does the massive novel La Vie mode d’emploi (Life: A User’s Manual), the detailed description of the life of a Paris apartment block, have to do with the slim story Le Voyage d’hiver (A Winter’s Journey), the tale of a newly discovered book whose style and contents specifically predate a number of French classics? But the territory, once approached, becomes familiar. Gaspard Winckler appears in Life: A User’s Manual as a craftsman who cuts the story into 99 pieces (the 100th tantalizingly missing), and the great book at the center of A Winter’s Journey is lost during the course of the Second World War: no copies of the book, no sign to prove it existed (even if the proof is everywhere, in every book you read). Like the 100th puzzle piece, Anton Vowl, Gaspard Winckler, Georges Perec and all his work, it is lost in the void. …

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