Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature

Paul Grimstad writes:

Robert Frost’s crack about free verse – that it’s tennis without a net – might be modified to describe Georges Perec’s novels: they’re tennis with nets everywhere. His whodunnit La Disparition (1969), a lipogram, was written without the use of the letter e (it was translated into e-less English as A Void by Gilbert Adair in 1994).[1] W, ou le souvenir d’enfance (1975) finds in the letter of its title both a cipher for a missing child thought to have survived a shipwreck, and a vision of a rigidly ordered polis on an island off Tierra del Fuego inhabited, as Perec put it in a letter to Maurice Nadeau, ‘by a race of athletes wearing white tracksuits emblazoned with a big black W’. The 99 chapters of his last and longest novel, La Vie mode d’emploi (1978), were arrived at through three interlocking constraints: the planning of a narrative around a cross-section of a Parisian apartment building; the use of a bi-carré combinatoire to derive each chapter’s ‘schedule of obligations’ (setting, decor, age and sex of characters, distribution of incidents and objects, literary and historical allusions); and, so as not to leave the chapter sequence to chance, a polygraphie du cavalier, or ‘Knight’s Tour’ chess problem, which is the pattern a knight makes when travelling to every spot on the board without revisiting a single square twice (Perec tweaked the 8 x 8 layout of the chessboard to accommodate the 10 x 10 layout of the apartment block). Asked, in an interview with Claude Bonnefoy in 1977, why he resorted to such contortions for the making of fiction, Perec replied: ‘Je me donne des règles pour être totalement libre.’

(LRB 6 December 2012)