● La Boutique Obscure
By Georges Perec
Translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker
Melville House, 214 pages, $18.95
The Anglophone world is currently undergoing one of its periodical revivals — this time, of the panegyric experimentalism and formalist frolics of the French avant-garde literary collective Oulipo.
The Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle), a workshop, movement and a taxonomic method, sprang up in the early 1960s with the intention of fusing the crystalline purity of mathematics with the formal constraints of literary play — puzzles crafted out of literary texts that sprung up from puzzles. The movement tinkered fruitfully and often pointlessly, with genres ranging from murder mysteries to crossword puzzles and palindromes. It counted Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino and Jacques Roubaud among its savviest practitioners.
[Georges Perec,}(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GcjzsBL7OIg) who died tragically early of lung cancer a few days shy of his 46th birthday, was the Oulipian who most consistently and gleefully transfigured genre conventions while still writing remarkably readable fictions. His novel “La Disparition” (1969), translated by Gilbert Adair into English as “A Void,” was written without the letter e. The book’s title refers to a document certifying death when a body is not present; the missing ‘e’ has been construed as a cipher for judenrein European civilization.
Perec is currently seeing something of a renaissance; his magnum opus, “Life: A User’s Manual,” has recently been reissued along with a spate of his other novels, and many of his lighter and quirkier literary curios are now being translated into English for the first time.
“La Boutique Obscure,” his dream journal, collates 124 dreams, which he kept from November 1968 until August 1972 for the salutary purposes of furthering his psychoanalysis. It’s characteristically original if perhaps less ecstatically mad than might have been expected.
Perec proclaimed it the world’s first “nocturnal autobiography,’’ though certain motifs are reminiscent of an older tradition, such as the mystically laden dream books of Swedenborg. The tonal melding of the quotidian (he buys expensive cheese and frets about money), the commonplace sexual effusions of the nocturnal world along with the fantastically literary (Perec opens a secret door at work to find a Surrealist artist’s studio, and escapes down a crumbling staircase from the Palais de la Defense), owes something to the journals of surrealist and anthropologist Michel Leiris.