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Le mal du siècle Part III: The 20th Century.

August 25, 2011 38 comments

Les Choses (1965) by Georges Perec (1936-1982). 140 pages.

 I decided to read Les Choses (For English-speaking readers, Things: A Story of the Sixties, translated by David Bellos) to try a book by Georges Perec, a French writer who seems more praised abroad than in his own country. So I was curious. In French we say “La curiosité est un vilain défaut” (Curiosity is a flaw) and I have to say it’s true this time. What a boring reading! Ironically, the most interesting part of the book was the transcription of a lecture Perec gave in the Warwick University on May 5th 1967 about literature.

The good thing about Les Choses is that I can say anything I want about the book. Nothing could be a spoiler and ruin someone else’s pleasure as I can’t imagine someone reading it for the plot. I also hurried to write the review in fear that I’d forget at Mach speed everything I read. I interrupted my reading and couldn’t remember the names of the characters when I started again. And there are only TWO character names in the book with very French names, not foreign names impossible to plant in memory. Very bad sign.

Les Choses is the story of Sylvie and Jérôme. They are so linked to each other in the book, forming a global entity that I’m tempted to write Sylvie&Jérôme or Jérôme&Sylvie. They have no individuality. You know, in a couple, you tend to always tell the names in the same order. If you know Sylvie and her husband is Jérôme, you’ll call them Sylvie and Jérôme and it will be the other way round if you knew Jérôme first. The second name just disappears in case of a break-up or a divorce. Here it’s indifferent. They are exchangeable, not one has a leading temper. You don’t prefer one to the other or feel close to them.

So our characters Sylvie and Jérôme are a young couple. We can guess they were born in the late 1930s as they are students in Paris in 1957. (So I deducted from the text). They’re not really devoted to their studies and abandon them. They live on filling marketing enquiries for different advertisement agencies. They go everywhere in France to interview consumers. They don’t want to have a regular job with fixed schedule. They want to live free from any constraint and yet want to be rich. As their mothers were hairdresser and small employee, there is no old money in their families. They’d want to be “rentiers”. They spend time dreaming about all the things they’d like to have and walking on the streets, looking in shops and drooling over fancy clothes, nice furniture.  

They have friends who have the same expectations. They want to have money to buy things. Lots of things. Lists of things (that’s where the BORING starts). Things bringing a bourgeois comfort. Things like Madame L’Express advertises in L’Express, the newly founded newsmagazine. Things they imagine people with inherited wealth have. But they never start to work to make money because they don’t want to work in a fixed frame, with a boss and working hours. They have no intellectual life, they become vaguely interested in politics during the war in Algeria. They’re interested in nothing except things, ie consuming. But all the things they want are above their means. They’re pathetic. Their consuming isn’t joyful, it’s sad and it’s the basis of their couple. So when they have money, it’s fine, when they don’t, they fight. For me it’s rather ugly and I didn’t like them. They’re empty and are like things themselves. 

A few things puzzled me in this book. First, they’re not married in a time where social pressure was still important. Sylvie never gets pregnant, although the pill wasn’t available at this time — The law will be voted in 1967. Second, people coming from the working class and studying at La Sorbonne were usually excellent students pushed forward by teachers. Those were usually hard-working students, most unlikely to abandon their chance to a diploma and a better life.  

By the way, why did I choose that post title? I read Confession of a Child of the Century by Musset last year. I just read René by Chateaubriand. I think these three books have a common point: their hero is bored by life, empty and ill-at-ease in their century. René is the product of the decaying Ancien Régime. When he’s in his twenties, the old institutions are dying and not encouraging ambition. Octave (In Musset) is the product of the beginning of the 19th C in France. He’s in his twenties after decades of important engagement in politics (the French Revolution, the Empire). Contrary to the former generation, he has nothing to fight for. He’s also desperate and throws himself in a life of pleasure. Sylvie and Jérôme are in their twenties in the 1950s and come after WWII, a time when French people had to choose a side and when some of them choose to fight. Sylvie and Jérôme are the other side of the youth, the one that doesn’t follow Sartre and Camus but wants to take advantage of the new consumer society. Except that they don’t have the money for it. I suspect it is partly autobiographical as, like Jérôme and Sylvie, Perec spent a year in Sfax, Tunisia where his wife Petra worked as a teacher (like Sylvie)  

Though I was terribly bored by the book, I think Perec captured a turning point of our society and was very insightful. He describes very well the silent shift from politics and militantism to a more passive youth. Sylvie and Jérôme are ahead of their time. Even their names are ahead of their times. People born in the 1940s are named Gérard, Jean-Marie, André, Gilbert, Michel or Monique, Chantal, Evelyne, Christiane. There will be Sylvies (after Sylvie Vartan) and Jérômes in the 1970s. He caught the powerful undercurrent and though political engagement will be still strong in the 1960s and 1970s, his characters announce the apolitical generation born in the 1970s.  By the way, I was as bored as the characters, which can be considered as a literary achievement too.

In his lecture, Perec talks about the Nouveau Roman and the new current in French literature at that time. Les Choses was written before he joined the Oulipo movement and in reaction to the literature engagée promoted by Sartre and Camus. He says he doesn’t want to write a book which is an excuse to push forward political or philosophical ideas. He failed. Twice. First, he failed because his book is boring whereas Camus or Sartre isn’t, so the alternative he proposes to their literature isn’t convincing. Second, he failed because his book IS full of ideas and also decrypting the society he lives in. Perhaps it was not his acknowledged goal but that’s what I saw 45 years later.

If anyone has read it, please, leave a comment, I’m terribly interested in someone else’s opinion.

 

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