Home > 1960, 20th Century, Classics, EU Book Tour, French Literature, Novel, Perec Georges > Le mal du siècle Part III: The 20th Century.

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

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.

 

  1. leroyhunter
    August 25, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    I haven’t read this one, but I feel a little guilty as one who has praised Perec so highly. All I can say is I’ve never found the ones I’ve read to be boring!

    Of course the details that you mention or found puzzling would be largely invisible to me, so that’s very interesting – the names, the social habits etc.

    Like

    • August 25, 2011 at 12:52 pm

      Let’s be optimistic: This one was written before the Oulipo. His style changed a lot after that.

      If I decide to try La Vie Mode d’emploi and get bored again, I’m not reading Ulysses. The two ones are so often compared and linked in readers’ memories that I won’t take the chance.

      Like

  2. August 25, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    Oh dear. I’m sorry you didn’t have such a good time with this one. You still make some perceptive and interesting points which as an English reader I wouldn’t have noticed. Does your experience explain, do you think, why Perec is, as you say, less popular in France than elsewhere?

    I haven’t read this Perec. I loved Life: A User’s Manual, and I have A void on the shelf, which comes highly recommended, for the record, by a German friend.

    Like

    • August 25, 2011 at 12:59 pm

      There are a lot of French things in it:
      – the passage about l’Express and the “famous couple” they admire, ie Françoise Giroud and Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, the co-founders of the magazine. They were also a couple and there was a lot of glamour around them. They made a break through in the press industry in those years.
      – the passage about the war in Algeria and the riots in Paris. Métro Charonne, people got killed, chased by policemen. Maurice Papon, famous collabo, was Préfet de Police (chief of the Police) at the time.

      Like

  3. August 25, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    I completely agree with your review… Not bad in its essence but oh sooo boring and how wise you were to have written your post right away. i read it 3 years ago and remember zero…
    I read after having it seen compared to Houellebecq’s Plateforme… Not sure about the details of the comparison anymore. Exotism, I suppose, as that is/was one of my “research themes”.

    Like

    • August 25, 2011 at 3:56 pm

      Well, you had warned me…
      Have you read La Vie Mode d’emploi or W or any other ? I’m not tempted by La Disparition, the idea of writing a book without the letter E sounds so stupid.

      Like

      • leroyhunter
        August 25, 2011 at 9:14 pm

        That’s it in a nutshell!
        I thought it sounded like a great (or at least interesting) idea….
        I guess from those different starting points it’s going to be hard to agree about Perec. No harm in that of course.

        Like

        • August 25, 2011 at 10:26 pm

          Let’s say I like books written in a conservative mode: 1) the writer has an idea for a great story 2) he/she wonders how to tell it as best as possible and write it
          And not 1) let’s write a book without the letter E 2) what kind of story I could invent with that?

          Some will say it’s only stretching the limits of the novel. But I’m not interested in the novel in itself as a literary thing. I’m interested in the stories, the ideas and the emotions.
          “Qu’importe le flacon, pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse”

          Like

  4. August 25, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    In English there’s a term “curiosity killed the cat.”

    As you know I bought and promptly tossed The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise. What is wrong with putting a full stop in sentences, I ask? A toxic experience.

    Like

    • August 25, 2011 at 4:08 pm

      I bet Caroline doesn’t like “curiosity killed the cat”

      Come on, be a little open-minded to literary experiment…If you write a full stop, it means you breathe and let your boss the opportunity to interrupt you. Very inefficient when you’re asking for a raise. 🙂

      Like

    • leroyhunter
      August 25, 2011 at 9:19 pm

      Wow, toxic is strong Guy.
      I felt sorry for the poor wage-slave, having to cope with his measles-infested boss.

      Like

      • August 25, 2011 at 10:51 pm

        I feel sorry for me wasting my hard earned dough. I don’t like experimental novels much. Can’t abide faulkner’s run-on sentences either.

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      • August 25, 2011 at 10:53 pm

        It’s a matter of taste. If I’d known that the book consisted of one none stop sentence, I wouldn’t have tried it. I find that venue irritating.

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  5. August 25, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    Funny enough I do like the expression curiosity killed the cat. It is spot on. It’s actually my motto…Yes, I did warn you, didn’t I?. You can follow some of my advice. 🙂
    I got La Vie Mode d’emploi. I’m sure it is much better but I’m not tempted at all at the moment. Still recovering from a Josipovici experiment…
    I hate books that are built on a idea or try to illustrate literary theories…

    Like

    • August 25, 2011 at 10:27 pm

      Looking forward to the Josipovici review…

      Like

  6. August 26, 2011 at 11:40 pm

    I do like literary experimentation, but not at the expense of telling a good story. I find it can be interesting to see what happens when you take away traditional novelistic devices (although taking away the letter ‘e’ doesn’t really sound that interesting to me!). But often when I read that kind of novel, the best result is that I admire it rather than love it. Sorry, I haven’t read any Perec so can’t contribute to that side of the discussion!

    Like

    • August 27, 2011 at 2:08 pm

      I agree with you. I’m happy to discover new storytellings as long as it serves what the writer has to say.

      Like

  7. September 14, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    This sounds rather like a cross between Jean-Patrick Manchette and Brett Easton Ellis, but without the violence of either.

    “They’re empty and are like things themselves.”

    Quite. That seems to be the point from what you say. I’ll find out soon because as you mentioned at Sarah’s (and thanks for that, I’d missed this review) I have this one and it’ll be my first Perec.

    I do rather like literary experiments (I loved the Josipovici I read), so hopefully I’ll enjoy it more than you did. If not I’ll try to remember to write it up quickly…

    Like

    • September 14, 2011 at 7:41 pm

      I’ll be happy to have your take on this one.
      In 1280 âmes, Jean-Bernard Pouy call them “the flat” couple. As I wrote in the review, I was so jealous not to have found this myself. It’s exactly that : flat as without any interesting quality and flat as a synonym of appartment, as their place is almost a character in the story.
      Well, I still remember it. There is hope after all!

      Like

  8. September 24, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    As I understand it, Perec wrote without E as a reaction to losing his parents in the Holocaust: it’s about writing without the most essential letter, about living with loss. The lipogram is actually an ancient technique, dating back to the Greeks; I don’t see why it’s any more problematic than writing in, say, iambic pentameter.

    I loved “The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise,” although I read it in French (“L’Augmentation”), in its definitive theatrical version. It’s a funny and playful work; I suppose if you miss punctuation, you could pencil in your own.

    “W” is a rather intense book: Perec tries to retrieve memories of his childhood, as a Jewish orphan with no real home, interspersed with recollections of his fantasy world.

    I haven’t read “La Vie,” so I can’t comment. But you might try his second novel, “Quel petit vélo à guidon chromé au fond de la cour?”, which is warm, funny, linguistically exuberant, and, explicitly, everything that “Les Choses” is not.

    I’m surprised by all of the hostility to experimentation. I suspect it may just be puritanical, a feeling that literature should be solemn, plain, and serious; and that the writer and reader should have no fun. Is that it?

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    • September 24, 2011 at 7:06 pm

      I don’t really see the fun in leaving out the letter e to show what it’s like to live without the most important thing in the world, in this case parents who died in the Holocaust?
      Queneau is also experimental and he is funny.

      Like

    • September 24, 2011 at 9:43 pm

      Hi, thanks for visiting. I’m always glad to me another French speaking reader.

      I knew about the link between the absence of E and the loss of his parents. Honestly, I don’t see the point.

      When you write in iambic pentameters, or for a French, in alexandrins, you still have access to all the words of the dictionary. If you want to put a “moineau” (sparrow”) in your book you can. You don’t have to choose a “rossignol” (nightingale) because “moineau” includes the letter E. I don’t see why you should change your vision of the bird because of a literary constraint.
      I’m not opposed to literary experiment at all, as long as it’s a device for the writer to express what he wants to say. Not choose the device and try to build a story around it. In other words, what I don’t like is writing a book around an experiment instead of including experiment in a book to convey a message. Unless it’s perfectly clear that it’s just an experiment, like in Exercices de style. (which I found very funny) Am I clear or not? It’s difficult for me to explain properly what I mean in English, the language barrier simplifies my thoughts.

      I’m surprised by all of the hostility to experimentation. I suspect it may just be puritanical, a feeling that literature should be solemn, plain, and serious; and that the writer and reader should have no fun. Is that it?

      No, it’s not it at all. Literature should be alive, funny, witty if it’s the best way to tell the story. I loved Zazie dans le métro by Queneau and the way he plays with the language. I had huge fun reading 1280 âmes which also plays with the language. (https://bookaroundthecorner.wordpress.com/2011/09/06/1280-ames-by-jean-bernard-pouy/) It’s in passages and it adds something to the story, to the atmosphere.
      On the contrary, The Sorrows of an American has a sadness in the style that suits the theme of the book. It depends on what the writer has to say.

      Btw, I may try W, I’ve heard it’s very good.

      Like

  9. September 24, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    If you live without the most important thing in the world, you have to confront it, and find a way to have fun with what you’re given. Perec’s formal constraints are often bittersweet, but they’re not arbitrary. Nor are they hidebound: he’s always bending his own rules, to surprise and tease the reader.

    “Quel petit vélo” owes a lot to Queneau — and to Vian, both of whom get charming mentions.

    I’m curious — why do you “hate books that are built on an idea”? Is an idea such a bad thing?

    I enjoyed “Les Choses,” but I must admit that I prefer his later books. He does love language, which is bound to engage some readers, and repel others.

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  10. September 24, 2011 at 10:31 pm

    Ah, well, the point is that it’s a metaphor. I was intrigued and moved by the use he made of it, but tastes do differ. I don’t think it was stupid, though.

    Actually, if you’re writing iambic pentameter, you can’t use the word “nightingale,” because it’s an anapest. You could pass it off by accenting the last syllable, but only if you’re willing to accept a false quantity. And if you’re writing alexandrines, you have to marshal your thoughts into twelve syllable chunks, each ending in a rhyme, masculine and feminine rhymes alternating, and not indulge in too many chevilles. My point being that all writing uses constraints; even a simple declarative sentence has restrictions. And why can’t a rhyme, or a lipogram, or a meter be as important as a bird? Or, more crucially, bring as much pleasure?

    Actually, I chimed in here because I find so much of Perec “alive, funny, witty” — although “Les Choses” is indeed one of his more severe efforts. Well, I’d be curious to see your response to “W”; it shows a very different Perec. Cheers!

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    • September 24, 2011 at 10:56 pm

      I had guessed it was a metaphor. Still, it’s so obscure that you need to read about it before. It’s not obvious or something you can figure out by yourself. I’m not comfortable with books that have very hidden references that exclude common readers. That’s also how literature gets to be categorized as out of reach and highbrow. That’s not my vision of books.

      And why can’t a rhyme, or a lipogram, or a meter be as important as a bird?

      Because I prefer substance over form. I want to read about the bird the writer imagines and not about another one because of writing constraints, which is totally accessible with novels. Poetry is something else. I read to enter into someone else’s world and mind. And actually, I have a lot of trouble enjoying Corneille and Racine, they sound rigid to me. And I’ve had a lot of trouble with literature classes, exactly because of the study of feminine and masculine rhymes and so on…I found not pleasure in that.

      Are you a literature teacher?

      Like

  11. September 25, 2011 at 12:39 am

    I think Perec is pretty direct about his constraints, and the use he makes of them. They’re not so hidden! And what is a common reader? I’m uncommon in many ways; I suspect you are too.

    There’s a nice story about the composer Morton Feldman. Someone was arguing with him that art should appeal to the man in the street; Feldman opened the window: the man in the street at that moment was Jackson Pollack.

    But do we have to choose substance over form? Can’t we have both, or one or the other at different times? After all, a nice rhyme can be delightful. And language always has both, or it wouldn’t be language; it would be gibberish.

    Oh dear no, I’ve done a lot of things, but never taught literature. I’m sorry that literature classes were trouble. There are other alexandrines than Corneille and Racine. What about Apollinaire’s “Chantre”? It has only one; it’s a good one.

    (By the way, I just checked my copy of “L’Augmentation”: the theatrical version has plenty of punctuation, so punctuation buffs should head for that one.)

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    • September 25, 2011 at 12:59 am

      I’m a common reader. I have no academic background in literature. Good story about Jackson Pollock but the probability that the common reader on the street happens to be James Joyce is low, isn’t it?

      And yes, of course we can have both form and substance. That’s what I’d call a masterpiece: fascinating substance and delightful or powerful form. The reader’s dream.

      About alexandrins. Poetry is different. I love Baudelaire, he makes alexandrins sing. But Racine and Corneille mostly wrote theatre plays and I think they’re difficult to read, they sound formal (much more than Molière, who also wrote in alexandrins sometimes)

      I suppose the theatre version of L’Augmentation needed punctuation otherwise the actor doesn’t know when to breathe.

      Like

  12. September 25, 2011 at 3:52 am

    Robert Anton Wilson once wrote a piece about there being no such thing as a usual sunset, or an average Shakespeare sonnet; that the idea of the normal was an illusory abstraction. And I’m still not convinced that there are common readers. When Joyce was alive, he read a lot; he read all sorts of things. And he walked a lot…

    Well, yes, everyone’s alexandrines are different; I just read thousands of Raymond Roussel’s, which are unlike anyone else’s. But part of the meaning (and pleasure) lies in the particular constraints, doesn’t it?

    Actors don’t need anyone to tell them when to breathe. And speaking of Joyce, I’ve heard several actresses give fine readings of Molly’s unpunctuated monologue from “Ulysses.” Molly breathes when she wants to!

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    • September 25, 2011 at 8:22 am

      I didn’t mean “common” as a synonym of “normal” but as “ordinaire”.
      I think we touch here the limits of my ability with the English language. You don’t get what I mean and I sound a lot more stubborn and narrow-minded that I really am.
      Hope to see you back for other literary adventures. Cheers!

      Like

  13. September 25, 2011 at 10:06 am

    Emma and Doug
    I think part of Doug’s comments were directed at me as I was the one saying I hate books that are built on an idea or try to illustrate literary theories. I did refer to Josipovici’s In a Hotel Garden which was implicit, sorry, that may have created some confusion.
    I have still not written that review for a very stupid reason. I know people who read my blog and love that book. Josipovici exploits the Holocaust (that’s the idea part ) and writes some of the worst dilalogue (the literary theory part) I’ve ever read.

    Like

    • September 25, 2011 at 1:12 pm

      I’m with you on that one. I haven’t read La disparition but I don’t think that the plot is directly related to the Holocaust. I dare say that I’m happy that Duras used a classic form for La Douleur and left less classic forms for her other books.

      As one of your devoted readers I’m interested in your review of the Josipovici and I hope you’re not holding back a negative review on a Gary novel not to hurt my feelings.

      Like

  14. September 25, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    Oh dear! “Common reader” is the same in English; your English is excellent. But if two readers like different books, which one is “ordinaire”? Voilà le hic! And no, you don’t sound stubborn or narrow-minded, we just like different books. But enough, enough. Cheers!

    Like

  15. September 27, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    Some more about Perec? Read Litlove’s fascinating post

    http://litlove.wordpress.com/2011/09/27/perec-the-magic-of-words/

    Like

  16. September 28, 2011 at 1:10 am

    What a charming article! Thanks for pointing it out.

    One last thing: you do realize, don’t you, that “La Disparition” is not a solemn experiment, but a comic novel, a detective parody, a jeu d’esprit in the same spirit as “Exercises de style”? You may dislike it anyway, but I should mention that in my defense… All the best, and I look forward to your thoughts on Verne.

    Like

    • September 28, 2011 at 8:38 am

      You’re welcome.
      Don’t trouble you I’ve already sort of promised to Leroy in the comments of my review of 1280 âmes that I’d try another one. Btw since you can read complicated alexandrins in the original, you might want to read 1280 âmes by Jean-Bernard Pouy. Leroy said it sounds like Perec…

      Like

  17. September 28, 2011 at 6:08 pm

    Thanks; the Pouy sounds like fun (though I’ve never read any Thompson). Cheers!

    Like

    • September 28, 2011 at 9:07 pm

      Time to discover Thompson then? 🙂 Let me know what you think of the Pouy if you read it eventually.

      Like

  1. January 1, 2012 at 1:10 am

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