Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Les choses (Georges Perec)

--The blurb--
"Jerome and Sylvie, the young, upwardly mobile couple in Things, lust for the good life. They wanted life's enjoyment, but all around them enjoyment was equated with ownership. Surrounded by Paris's tantalizingly exclusive boutiques, they exist in a paralyzing vacuum of frustration, caught between the fantasy of "the film they would have liked to live" and the reality of life's daily mundanities. In direct contrast to Jerome and Sylvie's cravings, the nameless student in A Man Asleep attempts to purify himself entirely of material desires and ambition. He longs "to want nothing. Just to wait, until there is nothing left to wait for. Just to wander, and to sleep. Yearning to exist on neutral ground as "a blessed parenthesis," he discovers that this wish is by its very nature a defeat."
blurb from Barnes & Noble

--The review--
I read this in the original French, but it is also available in translation in several languages, including English. "Things" is often sold in the same package as "A Man Asleep", although they are very different novels. The writing style is immediately arresting: the novel barely seems to be about anything, and yet as Perec's rich description flows, it somehow becomes about something, even though there is very little actually taking place. Consumerism and, as suggested by the title, 'things' and materialism all take centre stage along with Sylvie and Jerome's greed and melancholy perspective. It is reminiscent in some ways of the paradox presented by the main character of George Orwell's "Keep the Aspidistra Flying", who aspires after wealth but simultaneously revels in poverty.

Empathy with the characters doesn't seem to be one of Perec's main aims, in a detached Camus-esque fashion. Because the aim is made clear from the outset in the equally aloof style of writing, where things are the immediate focus rather than people, this doesn't prove a negative aspect of the novel. However, the languorous style doesn't mean that Perec is short of surprises: even a novel about nothing has an event to disrupt the tale's previous state of equilibrium, it seems, and yet it seems an appropriate end to the novel. While in many ways it is about 'nothing', it addresses contemporary problems (which, curiously, are still contemporary, despite this novel being written in the 1960s) in a captivating style, largely driven by the momentum of the lives of two ordinary, flawed people. A highly recommended work by an author who should be far better known outside France.

Other works by Georges Perec
Which Moped With Chrome-Plated Handlebars at the Back of the Yard? (1966)
A Man Asleep (1967)
A Void (1969)
The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex (1972)
Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (1974)
W, or The Memory of Childhood (1975)
Life: A User's Manual (1978)
A Gallery Portrait (1979)
Ellis Island and the People of America (1980)
53 Days (1989)
The Winter Journey (1993)

*For the interest of my Anglophone readers, this is a list of works that have been translated only; there are other Perec works which are not available in English.

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