This Way and That

To Dream a Dream: Georges Perec’s Night Visions

Everyone else’s dreams are boring, but for a writer like Georges Perec his dreams can be a way to understand his other writing. Lauren Elkin journeys into Neverland with the Oulipian writer.

2013 really has been Georges Perec's year. With the first English translation of his dream journal, La Boutique Obscure, out earlier this year from Melville House, and a new collection of Oulipian responses to his story A Winter Journey published last month by Atlas Press, Perec, who died much too young in 1982 of lung cancer, is finally becoming a major cultural reference point in the English-speaking world. Last month, City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco hosted an Oulipo festival (or "laboratory"), partly organized by Daniel Levin Becker, translator of the dream journal and contributor to the Atlas Press volume.

The dream journal is a demonstration of the truism that other peoples’ dreams are an incredible bore; Perec’s dreams are no exception. (The critics have not been shy about pointing this out.) One of the entries reads: “I spoke with a doctor for a long time about my sinus infections.” However, this volume suggests a way of approaching this most idiosyncratic of Oulipians (themselves an idiosyncratic breed) that makes a virtue of boredom, an aesthetic even. The flatness of the sinusitis dream actually provides us with a compelling way of approaching the rest of Perec’s work.

Things: A Story of the Sixties (1967), Perec’s first novel, conveys in an ironic, affectless voice the story of a young couple told through the possessions they covet and acquire. W or the Memory of Childhood is a restrained kind of memoir, alternating chapters of autobiography (Perec’s childhood memories culminating in his mother’s deportation to the Nazi death camps) with those of a fictional story about a dystopic island called W run by and for young athletes. Then there is the mystery novel A Void (1969), perhaps the most well-known example of Oulipian experiment: it is written without using the letter E. (The letter E had its revenge three years later with The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex, in which — as you might have guessed— E is the only vowel used.) His masterpiece, Life a User’s Manual moves through a typical Parisian apartment building with the regimented order of the knight’s progress over a chessboard, over two and down one. The method catalogues characters, backgrounds, their hobbies and quirks, in a way that often seems arbitrary or irrelevant, eschewing the demands of the traditional novel that everything in the portrait be there for a reason, if only to convey an effect of realism. In Life a User's Manual, Perec uses excess to slip the bounds of realism.

In the essays collected in English as Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, we glimpse Perec the man, instead of the novelist: engaging, witty, and charming, and only slightly OCD. The catalogue (and its corollary, the index) is Perec’s favorite genre; he produces list-essays like “Some of the Things I Really Must Do Before I Die,” “Notes Concerning the Objects that are on my Work-table,” and “Attempt at an Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Food-stuffs Ingurgitated By Me in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-Four.” To say nothing of his legendary “An Attempt to Exhaust a Place in Paris,” in which Perec visits the Place Saint-Sulpice over a period of three days and notes everything he sees there: shops, cafés, people and their gestures and movements, the buses, the weather, the resemblance between the people and the pigeons, musings on human nature (“Why are two nuns more interesting than two other passersby?”) and general observations (“A woman goes by; she is eating a slice of tart”).

By replacing “literature” with lists and indexes, Perec urges the reader to pay attention not only to the extraordinary but to — as he terms it— the infraordinary, or what happens when nothing happens. We must learn to pay attention to “the daily,” “the habitual”:

What we need to question is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms. To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us. We live, true, we breathe, true; we walk, we open doors, we go down staircases, we sit at a table in order to eat, we lie down on a bed to go to sleep. How? Where? When? Why?

Describe your street. Describe another street. Compare.

Make an inventory of your pockets, of your bag. Ask yourself about the provenance, the use, what will become of each of the objects you take out.

Question your tea-spoons.

What is there under your wall-paper? (“Approaches to What?”)

Perec once told Gilbert Adair that the point of answering all these questions is “to describe what remains: that which we generally don’t notice, which doesn’t call attention to itself, which is of no importance; what happens when nothing happens, what passes when nothing passes, except time, people, cars, and clouds." This is in order to remind us of what we take for granted, to remind us that the world is put together in a particular way, to get us to see the joints and nuts and bolts.

Perec used to do market research (like his protagonists in Things) and was friendly with the sociologist Henri Lefebvre. This may account for the sociological undercurrent of his work. But in the dream journal, originally published in French in 1973 and now available in English for the first time, Perec moves from sociology to psychology.

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Just to its threshold, however; Perec— even in such an ostensibly personal book as a collection of his dreams— is always a most external writer. For all that he takes us into his personal space, describing his bedside table, his bookshelves, cataloguing everything he drank and ate for a year, we learn nothing of Perec’s inner life. Typical: Perec loved word games, Sturrock writes, because they are a “demonstration of verbal expertise freed from the need to be expressive.”

Still, we are permitted several ways in, through the recurring images, vague suggestions, and gaps that haunt the dreams. Perec helpfully— or not to helpfully— points the reader toward his anxieties and preoccupations in the form of an index: he has 3 dreams of baldness (his own as well as others’), 3 dreams of Algerians, 9 dreams of anger (“see also Annoyance”), 4 dreams about socks, 16 dreams of things that are white (wine, olives, cats), 35 dreams that involve money, clustered around the summer of 1971. But there is much he leaves unindexed, including 1 dream of a monkey and 9 dreams about dreaming. The word “mother,” though also unindexed, appears 8 times in 8 different dreams (1 attributed to someone else).

He dreams often of prison camps, but though mothers do not appear in them. In one of these dreams, he knows he's not actually there: “Naturally, I am dreaming and I know that I am dreaming, naturally, that I am in a prison camp. It’s not really a prison camp, of course, but an image of a prison camp, a dream of a prison camp, a prison-camp metaphor, a prison camp I know only as a familiar image, as though I were ceaselessly dreaming the same dream, as though I never dreamed of anything else, as though I never did anything but dream of this prison camp.”

Is it a lucid dream? Or does the prison camp loom so large in his mind that he knows he cannot really be there, for it is something that happened to his mother and not to him? Ordinarily, in order to explore whether this impression might be correct, I would go and look at all the instances of prison camps in Perec’s work to see how he represents them, how close to reality they appear. I would look at the rest of his work to see if he was interested in lucid dreaming. I'd read everything I could get my hands on where Perec wrote about prison camps. All to see what kind of textual support might emerge, to endorse a reading of this dream.

But with a dream, perhaps, all interpretations are valid.

Perec calls his dreams "overdreamed, overworked, overwritten", in line with the excess of information that marks his other writing, to its credit or to its detriment. But then there is something excessive about dreams themselves. They do not adhere to any principles of narrative, they wander, they are incomplete, they don't respect any form and respond only to their own internal logic that dissolves upon awakening. Perec does for the dream what he did for the list and the index, transposing them from banality into the realm of literature, somewhere between the poem and the story.