There is G. Wodehouse story about a man who was afraid to speak because of an acute stammer. So he sang his sentences. Trying to offer tea to an attractive fellow-passenger in his train compartment, he would warble "I have a nice thermos. I have a full thermos" to the 1920s tune "I Want to Be Happy."
After the silent end-point reached by modernism, postmodernism arrives warbling. Beckett's anguished stutter, Eliot's intoned valedictories and Joyce's river of words variously proclaimed that in the future the human condition would have no more language for its messages. Immediately appears a whole assortment of voices: camp, decorative, ornate, gothic and neo-Wagnerian (to take, as arbitrary samples, the theater of the late Charles Ludlam, the scrolls on skyscrapers, the reverential velvets of "The Age of Innocence," Jane Campion's "The Piano" and Tony Kushner's "Angels in America"). Tunes to give the messages permission, not merely to be uttered but even to be conceived; costumes to permit a walk.
In the 1960s, a group of Paris writers and intellectuals evolved their own kind of permission. OuLiPo--standing in French for "Workshop for Potential Literature"--had as many variations as members, but it generally involved the use of anagrams, puns, grids, mathematical sequences or arbitrary verbal restrictions; through which the writing was supposed to pass. It sounds pedantic and arcane, but the mock-serious rules were not there for their own sake. They operated on the principles of "samizdat" (each writer sets up his own tyranny to allow himself the zest of writing underground) and of the high wire (if the earth becomes too alien to walk upon, try a tightrope.)
Raymond Queneau was the presiding elder of this airy congregation. His "Exercises of Style" was 99 variations on a man getting on and off a bus. Across the 99 ruled lines on his page ran an unruled stream of paradox, humor and suggestion. Another member was Georges Perec, the French son of a Polish-Jewish father who died fighting in the French army against the Germans, and a mother who was rounded up by the French police and disappeared into Auschwitz.
Before OuLiPo, Perec wrote a comic and melancholy novel about a pair of young intellectuals who sink into Yuppiedom, going from all-night discussions of Stendhal to market-research brainstorming. "Things" was one of those books, like Scott Fitzgerald's or John Updike's, that allow critics to get a handle on a generation. Having grasped it enthusiastically and making the alternately buoyant and depressed young author a celebrity, the French critics were put out to find the handle coming off in their hands.
As David Bellos writes in this immense, buoyant and utterly revealing biography, the struggling author descended from his brief summit "to begin his second decade of obscurity." The literary Establishment thought little of the OuLiPian maneuvers that Perec began to engage in. Among other things he turned out a palindrome 500 words long, a list of everything he had eaten and drunk in the course of a year, and a detective story called "The Disappearance." A man disappears and, successively, everyone who looks for him disappears as well. What also disappears is the letter e ; the book contains none. And what disappears finally is the disappearance. The only critic who reviewed it never noticed the lack of e's; it is almost as if Perec had made him up.
Perhaps the critics' annoyance caused them to underrate the very different kind of writing in Perec's novel, "W." It is in two parts; one a terse, painful autobiographical story of a Jewish boy who loses his parents and takes semi-disguised refuge with relatives in the Pyrenees. The other part is a Kafka-like parable of an island society run on absurd and horrific principles. The two stories, though not entirely integrated, impart their opposite strengths to each other.
The airborne and ingenious puzzle-maker, the anguished searcher of his and his family's history, the teller of terrible parables--they fought inside Perec and perhaps shortened his life. He died of cancer in his mid-40s, and the pages and years in Bellos's biography separate the photographs: poker-faced student, sad-eyed and irrepressible clown, and a man gazing unbelievingly into silence. Perec wears a mask of tragedy that smiles. What seems miraculous is that before he died he was able to bring it all together.
"Life a User's Manual" is one of our century's great books. It is built on an OuLiPian scheme. As if a wall had been removed, we look into the 100 rooms of an old Paris apartment-house. Following the pattern of a chess-knight's move--a straight hop followed by a diagonal--the book skips from apartment to apartment contemplating the tenants, their furniture, the contents of their drawers and their dreams, what has happened or will happen to each one, or to a relative or to someone they once knew, or will invent, or read about. It is an Arabian Nights for modern times; not only for the individual tales but for the meaning that lies in the sinuous act of telling: to stave off death. Perec's tenants are real, fantastic, abstract, mournful and comic. They are light as air and make us weep.
When "Life a User's Manual" appeared in English a few years ago, the translation was by Bellos. It is inspired; a dance partner that, if anything, enhances the dance. Perhaps it was a risk for him to undertake the biography as well. But after translating the book Bellos has, in the best sense of the word, translated Perec.
Bellos believes in his subject so wholeheartedly that, paradoxically, he feels no need to gloss over his personal or literary weaknesses. It is warts-and-all (Perec suffered from warts, in fact, and a sense of being ugly), only Bellos is extremely fond of the warts. Writing about the great deal of his work that has not been translated, he is able to convey the humor and gravity of even the most complicated pieces. Sometimes, it is true, he pursues the mathematical and verbal games so assiduously as to be wearying.
Bellos lives in Perec and prolongs him, sometimes excessively. We learn the names of each of his high school teachers, his grades, the subway stops and transfers he used when he ran away from home for a few hours as a child. But the biographer has achieved an overwhelmingly human portrait, as vivid as it is complex, not only of Perec but of the mechanisms, intrigues, passions and comedies of Paris intellectual life in the '60s and '70s. When he comes to the last days, he writes so quietly and movingly that the reader almost worries about Bellos's own health. He never met his subject, but the 800 pages of his biography have the intimacy of a memoir.