Looking for a pay rise? Here's how to go about it

Sat, Apr 9, 2011, 01:00

FICTION: EILEEN BATTERSBYreviews The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a RaiseBy Georges Perec, translated by David Bellos Vintage, 84pp. £9.99

IT ALWAYS HAS taken nerve and some cunning to ask for a pay rise. But nowadays it is beyond daring. Asking for a salary increase at a time of pay cuts is bound to be met with a flinty response indicating that you are lucky to even have a job. Still, as Georges Perec announces, “nothing ventured, nothing gained”, and this extremely useful text, complete with a detailed two-page diagram plotting the steps one might take on the way to one’s boss’s – or, more accurately, “line manager’s” desk – could prove vital in securing that much-needed and/or much-deserved raise. If it doesn’t work, never mind: there is immense comfort to be had from the lengthy bouts of laughing that will accompany the act of reading the late, great Georges Perec.

The first obstacle to be encountered in any bid to shame an employer into parting with money is to locate the boss, who may or may not be in the office. If he or she has a secretary, it is important not only to appreciate the power of that secretary but also to possess or acquire the social skills to engage the secretary in conversation. Being dismissed by the secretary is a bad move. Also, according to Perec, it is invaluable to have a store of excuses for terminating any discussion should the boss suddenly loom into view, such as, “i have to pop out to feed the parking meter or i’m afraid i swallowed a fish bone at lunch or excuse me but i must go and have a vaccination against measles.”

Other significant pointers touch on matters of deportment, such as the benefit of pretending to be sufficiently confident to appear to be sitting although in fact to be standing: “while still on your feet you behave as if you were seated and begin to speak of the problem that is nagging at you so now you have got to the point we can indeed call crucial stop scratching relax breathe in . . . lay out your problem with honesty you know full well that what brings you here is a matter of money you earn 750 francs a month you would like to earn 7,500 you know it’s going to be difficult you would settle for 785 pus an annual bonus . . .”

No punctuation, no pauses. This is the stuff of a dream comic monologue. Admirers of Perec will love the razor-sharp whimsy of this clever little tract, which could be so well delivered by a gifted stand-up such as Dylan Moran.

As always with Perec, multiple subplots and digressions lurk beneath every observation. For all the comedy there is an astute sense of the desperation and fear running through the mind of the employee turned penitent. It is also about power – or, rather, the lack of it. The employee must fawn on his employer like the servant of old, inquiring about the health of the boss and his children. There are so many hazards to deal with; on finally being granted an audience with the boss, several hours hence, what are the chances that he might contract food poisoning at lunch or break his leg on the stairs?

Alongside employee desperation is the humiliating spectre of possible – no, make that probable – rejection. The boss might well review your case and simply conclude, “do you really need a raise if you cut out the unnecessaries heating clothing transport if you lunch in the canteen every day and dine on boiled lettuce you should be able to make both ends meet.”

Shades of another genius, the US writer Robert Coover, will come to mind, particularly his bondage classic Spanking the Maid(1982) and its skilfully executed wordplay and use of repetition. But Perec, a follower of Raymond Queneau, was there first. It was Perec who wrote an entire novel, La disparition(1969), without once using the letter E. He belonged to Queneau’s Workshop for Potential Literature and mixed in a circle of literary and intellectual fireworks and games. He died in 1982, aged 46, by which time he was already a cult figure in France through the success of his hymn to the simple jigsaw puzzle, Life: A User’s Manual(1978), a wonderful sequence of interlocking stories about the human debris residing in the 100 rooms of a Parisian apartment building.

In common with Thomas Pynchon, Perec had a love of literary devices, particularly catalogues, lists and descriptions of objects. Riddles, puns, allusions and games dominate his work. Above all, though, for all the cleverness there is the punchy comic timing and an engaging humanity as so evident in Un homme qui dort(1967; A Man Asleep, 1990).

He was born in Paris in 1936, the son of Polish Jews, and in W or The Memory of Childhood(1975) he wrote, “I knew nothing of the outside world except that there was a war.” His first book, Les choses (Things), was published in Paris in 1965 and translated into English within two years; in 1990, after the success in Britain of Life: A User’s Manual, a new English-language version appeared, by David Bellos. In this career academic, Perec had posthumously found a meticulous translator, advocate and biographer – one whose Georges Perec: A Life in Words(1993), spanning more than 700 pages, tells the story of a difficult man while bringing the reader into the world of Perec’s playful and oddly insightful fiction.

Reading Perec’s amusing little narrative, a contender for the prize for the longest title in fiction, may not help you secure a salary increase, but it should ease the pain.


Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times