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In the book’s preface, he admits self-consciously — and damningly — “I thought I was recording the dreams I was having; I have realized that it was not long before I began having dreams only in order to write them.” I will certainly not be the first critic to observe the dream’s evolution over the course of four years from vulnerable and inchoate impressionism culled from moments of bare consciousness to the baroque confabulations one step removed from movie scripts, in which the book ends.
Perec is himself keenly aware that the self-fragmenting disassociation from the self that is implicit in every act of writing is further heightened by the Oulipian constraints he employs. Freudian interpretation, always an innately over-formalized ritual of coupling predetermined meanings and specific symbols within the dream world, becomes an even more artificial ideal when one is self-consciously fashioning tales from one’s own psychic essence.
This book illustrates the implicit danger of the fable beginning to consume the mental world of the Fabulist. The traumatic core of the book is in the recurrence of nightmare Holocaust fantasias that constitute the first (No. 1) and last (No. 124) dreams, and to whose imagery Perec returns continuously.
Perec lost both parents to the conflagration of the war: German soldiers killed his father; his mother disappeared, most likely into the maw of Auschwitz. In dream No. 17., he fusses with his clothes inside a concentration camp. One does not need the analytic prowess of Freud to interpret the book’s recurring imagery of yearning to escape from captivity.
A pair of dreams deserve closer attention: The harrowing Dream No. 77 has Perec killing his wife and wracked with guilt, trying to sell her body to be made into alcohol by a distillery, only to be embroiled in Kafkaesque arguments about proper labeling. Dream No. 95 — “The Hypothalamus” on the other hand, is priceless. It details his torments at finding several thousand hidden e’s in “A Void” and deciding while still dreaming “to call this dream the ‘hypothalamus’ because thus is my desire structured.”
The index of “La Boutique Obscure” is a properly Oulipian oddity in itself: It encapsulates moods and processes and objects: “reversing,” “retracing the same path,” “logical or topological paradoxes” “stain,” rather than places, names and people.
The book has been ably translated by Daniel Levin Becker, the youngest knight around the exclusive Oulipo round table, membership being limited to an Arthurian, living 12 (like devotion to King Arthur, not terminating at the time of a member’s death). Becker is only the second American to be initiated after the indefatigable Harry Matthews, and is the author of last year’s very fine monogram on the movement, “Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature.”
“La Boutique Obscure” is the last of Perec’s major works to be translated into English and was composed during one of his most fecund periods, not coincidentally while he worked on his memoir, “W., or the Memory of Childhood.” Despite the many obfuscations and distortions created by the self-consciousness of the “constraints,” the book does reveal something of the inner world of a master working at the height of his powers.
Vladislav Davidzon is a writer and translator currently attending the European Union’s master’s degree program in human rights, in Venice.