Interpreting the Holocaust Dreams of Literary Puzzle Master Georges Perec

OUILPO Pioneer's Journal Finally Arrives in English

That Obscure Object of Literature: French-Jewish writer Georges Perec’s dream journal “La Boutique Obscure” has finally been published in English.
GETTY IMAGES
That Obscure Object of Literature: French-Jewish writer Georges Perec’s dream journal “La Boutique Obscure” has finally been published in English.

By Vladislav Davidzon

Published May 28, 2013, issue of June 07, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

● 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.

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.