Portrait of a Man by Georges Perec: We should have known it would be good
Review: Much-loved French writer’s rejected first novel is finally published
Georges Perec’s debut is virtuosic in execution and is not merely a curiosity for scholars. Photograph: Louis Monier/Gamma-Rapho/Getty
Portrait of a Man
And so another “lost” first book, rejected by publishers and left in a suitcase, appears. But this time it is different. Georges Perec’s debut is virtuosic in execution and is not merely a curiosity for scholars. Instead it is a definitive farewell which also leads us back through everything he wrote. It is a great flourish, a gesture of artistic panache and multiple ironies. Such a belated revelation is only to be expected from him; few writers have been quite as clever as the singular French experimentalist, a genius who proved that intellectual games and word play could also be rooted in humanity and warmth, and, however corny it sounds, sheer joy. There is no coldness in Perec; his cerebral energy is countered by longing, humour, fluidly expansive descriptions and, always, a tinge of melancholy.
The publication of this dazzling confession from a Perec familiar, Gaspard Winckler, here in the guise of forger turned murderer, turned lost soul, is more than just an immensely entertaining reminder of a soaring imagination. It is a valuable key, possibly the key, to the puzzle that was Georges Perec, the author of Life: A User’s Manual (1978; 1987), a chess board of a novel about daily existence in a Parisian apartment building in which each room resounds with varying levels of struggle. No one is quite as they seem and most are that bit worse off.
Publishing loves stories. George Perec’s life had its share of them. Born in 1936, he was the son of Polish Jews who had settled in Paris during the 1920s. His father died while serving in the French army during the second World War, while his mother is believed to have been killed in Auschwitz or may have perished in transit. Perec was raised by his aunt and uncle. Between his decision to become a writer at 18 and his cruel early death from lung cancer on March 7th 1982, either two or four days before his 46th birthday (there is some confusion about his actual birthday, March 3rd or 5th), he created an interconnected body of work which amounts to a literary world dominated by Life: A User’s Manual yet undercut by the profundity of W and The Memory of a Childhood (1975; 1988). A weird charm graces everything he wrote. No wonder one feels slightly apprehensive about reading a first book that is only now being published, 32 years after his death.
If unlucky in the sad legacy of his parents and his own terminal illness, Perec, with his love of art and words, was fortunate in having a devoted, intuitive translator in David Bellos, who has also proven to be an intrepid biographer. Georges Perec: A Life in Words was published in 1993 and at 800 pages is exhaustive as well as definitive. Bellos is the best guide any writer – or reader – could hope to encounter. That said, in the case of this “new” first-now-last book, a reader is best advised to go directly to Perec’s narrative, enjoy it, and only then read the superb Bellos introduction which is informative, generously detailed and, frankly, a bit of a spoiler which I would have preferred to have seen placed as an afterword.
As for the story, it is wonderful and a natural screenplay in the making. It begins with a simple observation: “Madera was heavy.” Gaspard Winckler can confirm this fact because he has just killed the man and is attempting to heave the corpse out of the way. This marks the beginning of an unforgettable literary monologue in which our hero, a career forger turned murderer – nobody’s perfect – considers his deed through a variety of vocal registers ranging from calm to hysterical, all filtered through the first, second and third person.
His thoughts are scrambled; there is the problem of the dead body and there is also a multitude of memories and images from the past. In the middle of this chaos something keeps niggling away at Gaspard: the matter of his patron- now-victim’s accent:
“He tries to recall the precise tone of Madera’s voice, the timbre that had taken him by surprise the first time he’d heard it, that slight lisp, its faintly hesitant intonation, the almost imperceptible limp in his words, as if he were stumbling – almost tripping – as if he were permanently afraid of making a mistake. I don’t think. What nationality? Spanish? South American? Accent? Put on? Tricky. No. Simpler than that: he rolled his rs in the back of his throat. Or perhaps he was just a bit hoarse? . . . ”
Gaspard continues to muse. All he wanted to do was to finally create a work of art when accepting a commission to forge someone else’s masterpiece. It all went wrong and Gaspard in responding to what he sees as his own failed ambition kills his master. The deed then leaves him with the need to flee. He begins by digging his way out of the cellar in which he is hiding. The description is hilarious and very quick, surefooted as it races between control and panic. In hindsight we now know that although the book was initially turned down, there was a conditional acceptance. Perec was asked to make changes and to cut the manuscript. He even received an advance. The re-worked version was accepted but then the publisher changed his mind. Perec was allowed to keep the advance. He was furious and remarked to a friend, as Bellos reports: “I’ll go back to it in 10 years when it’ll turn into a masterpiece or else I’ll wait in my grave until one of my faithful exegetes comes across it in an old trunk.” Close; it was a suitcase and how eerily prophetic are Perec’s words.
The story of Portrait of a Man is simple: a killing triggered by artistic frustration, and in that alone it is quite a metaphor but it is Perec’s methodology which thrills, as do the rhythms of the prose to which Bellos has been characteristically faithful.
Gaspard, a drifter who had been mentored by Jerome, a master forger, considers his victim and then ponders his crime: “Why is it so easy? Why is it so hard? You don’t move. What’s the point of having a conscience? You killed a man. That’s serious. Very. Not a thing you should do. Madera hadn’t hurt you. Why did you kill Madera. No motives. He was fat and alive, he puffed like a sea-lion, he was ugly, he was heavy . . . he hovered around the easel with his hands behind his back . . . he would go away and slam the door and you could hear his steps echoing in the stairwell, under the arch, and for a long time after that as you got back to painting with slightly unsteady hands, feeling outraged without knowing why, almost in a panic from the presence of that man . . . making you feel as flustered as a schoolboy who’d been caught out . . . your brush hanging idly in your hand and an absent look on your face, looking at that never-endingly unfinished portrait of another evil and aggressive visage . . .”.
The multi-toned monologue with its dissection of his motives is then followed by an interrogation-like exchange which doubles as a psychotherapy session. Portrait of a Man is unlike anything else that Perec wrote and yet it is the most welcome sum of the many parts of his rare art.