Monday, March 7, 2011

Georges Perec (March 7, 1936)

Perec was once asked why he didn't write about his personal experience as a child of Holocaust victims -- as a preschooler, he was hidden during World War II and later raised by an aunt and uncle. He referred to his famous and extraordinary work La Disparition (translation: The Disappearance; English title, A Void), a work in which the letter "e" never appears (which is as difficult in his native French as it would be in English, maybe moreso). He said approximately "If a mother could disappear, a letter could disappear." That is, he wrote very obliquely about his experience as a child sent away from Paris and told to forget who he was. Only in one book did he write a bit about his total lack of memory of those early years, and thus his painful amnesia about his parents.

Perec belonged to a group called Oulipo that experimented with language and form in very avant garde ways. But in the background, he seems to have dwelt on his mother's disappearance. After the war, his family applied for benefits for this orphan. They could not get a death certificate: his mother had disappeared into the camps. However, they received a "Certificate de Disparition." When I learned this, I was stunned to see how much this experimental literature was connected to his terrible reality.

I love the playfulness of Oulipo, which included a number of other famous writers, and met in a cafe near the campus of the University of Paris where I have eaten lunch. I'm fascinated by the development of his philosophy, and by the way Perec stuck to writing despite only modest success until nearly the end of his short life. I think that he exemplifies the way that French intellectuals repress any difference between themselves and some sort of ideal Frenchness -- including the way they must avoid any overt Jewishness, even American-style secular Jewishness. It's very different from the way American Jewish intellectuals have developed. But above all, I'm fascinated by the way he still felt that his Jewish identity was at his core, somehow.

Note: I wrote this from memory, and don't own a copy of any of the books where I read his biography. I could be misremembering.

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