Sunday, March 19, 2006

Somehow I never knew about these before

but I've just read two strange and very fine novellas by Georges Perec (the first of which made him celebrated in France when he published it in 1965), Things: A Story of the Sixties and A Man Asleep (the first is translated by David Bellos, the second by Andrew Leak).

They are both stories about desire and its disorders; the first (which is really pretty incredible) pulls off the amazing trick of being sociological fiction without any of the traits we associate with sociological fiction (it would make an interesting pair if you taught it with Bourdieu's Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste but perhaps also with some other books about disordered desire, I am thinking for instance of Augusten Burroughs' Dry--which has the advertising connection as well).

What I liked most about Things: a dry and pointed style that often works by summary, critiquing the characters and their beliefs and yet also detached from them in a way that subdues the prose. I am interested in the way summary can work as critique in general, but here's a wonderful passage in which you can hardly tell (I wish I had the French-language original) how sharp the irony might or might not be, you are lulled by the words even as you feel yourself to be reading something rather like Flaubert's Dictionary of Received Ideas.

Here's a taste, anyway (the two main characters are a couple in their mid-twenties defined by their taste, their lack of money, their muddled thinking about their way of living and a preference for itinerant work as market researchers in preference to the bourgeois lifestyle--aspects of which they nonetheless covet; the passage below highlights the banality and hypocrisy of their nostalgia for the past times of the Spanish Civil War or the Resistance given their hardly being affected by the Algerian war "being pursued before their eyes"):

In advertising circles--which were generally located by quasi-mythical tradition to the left of centre, but were rather better defined by technocracy, the cult of efficiency, modernity, complexity, by the taste for speculating on future trends and by the more demagogic strain in sociology, as well as by the still very widespread opinion that nine-tenths of the population were fools just able to sing the praises of anything or anybody in unison--in advertising circles, then, it was fashionable to despise all merely topical political issues and to grasp History in nothing smaller than centuries. It happened to be the case, furthermore, that Gaullism was an adequate response, an infinitely more dynamic response than people had at first declared far and wide that it would be, and that its danger lay always in some other place than the one where people thought they had found it.

And A Man Asleep is almost unbearable to read (I really could hardly stand to read it, and that is a compliment), it so acutely captures depression:

It is not that you hate men, why would you hate them? Why would you hate yourself? If only membership of the human race were not accompanied by this insufferable din, if only these few pathetic steps taken into the animal kingdom did not have to be bought at the cost of this perpetual, nauseous dyspepsia of words, projects, great departures! But it is too high a price to pay for opposable thumbs, an erect stature, the incomplete rotation of the head on the shoulders: this cauldron, this furnace, this grill which is life, these thousands of summonses, incitements, warnings, thrills, depressions, this enveloping atmosphere of obligations, this eternal machine for producing, crushing, swallowing up, overcoming obstacles, starting afresh and without respite, their insidious terror which seeks to control every day, every hour of your meagre existence!

Lear-like, no? I am not sure about that last exclamation point; but I am in love with the phrase "the incomplete rotation of the head on the shoulders," that is the most poignant phrase, it brings tears to my eyes...

There is also an amazing pair of paragraphs about reading the newspaper that I am too lazy to transcribe in their entirety but that perfectly capture a certain aspect of the state of being depressed; the sequence ends, at any rate, with these sentences:

...reading Le Monde is simply a way of wasting, or gaining, an hour or two, of measuring once again the extent of your indifference. All hierarchies and preferences must crumble and collapse. You are still capable of being amazed by the way in which the combination, according to a few ultimately very simple rules, of thirty or so typographic signs is able to generate, every day, these thousands of messages. But why should you eagerly devour them, why should you bother deciphering them? All that matters to you is that time should pass and that nothing should get thhrough to you: your eyes follow the lines, deliberately, one after the other.

1 comment:

  1. Hello there -- just passing through -- A Man Asleep is awesome, I agree. There is also a movie of it, about which the most interesting piece of trivia I know is that it has a female narrator, in order to make clear that despite the fact that the movie (and the book) is narrated in the second person, the narrator is not the protagonist.