August 2014

Micah McCrary

nonfiction

I Remember by Georges Perec, translated by Phillip Terry

Until recently, I'd only been familiar with Georges Perec as the author of Species of Spaces, a collection of essays that, for some, are difficult to class. Perec is a writer of great range, and over the years has been appreciated as one of France's greatest experimental writers, championing the Oulipo (Ouvoir de littérature potentielle, or "workshop of potential literature") group, along with writers like Raymond Queneau and Jacques Roubaud. Queneau cofounded the Oulipo group with François Le Lionnais in 1960, hoping to encourage writing in new formal structures and, equally important, sometimes with constraint. If you've heard of a writer trying to avoid the letter "e" in a novel or story, for instance, know that we have Oulipo to thank.

Georges Perec is a writer who's taken this group -- now a movement, really -- to heart. With works like Life: A User's Manual (La Vie mode d'emploi) and A Void (La Disparition), Perec has never been shy about pushing the formal boundaries of his work, often working in lipograms or by borrowing the style or structure of another writer.

And when it comes to his ambition, Perec's I Remember (Je me souviens, translated by Phillip Terry) is no different. Here, he's composed a book of 479 statements, all beginning with the words I remember. And while many readers may be familiar with this concept through the work of Joe Brainard (from whom Perec borrowed the idea, but without having ever read a word of Brainard's own I Remember), Perec's style and wit here are his own, and easy to appreciate throughout the reading process.

"15: I remember the earliest pinball machines, called flippers in French. But they didn't have any flippers," one reads. Another: "308: I remember the question: 'Nebuchadnezzar, how do you spell it?' and the answer: 'i, t.'" And another: "453: I remember: -- What color do you see when you look at a pea? / -- Green. / -- Better see a doctor, then. Pee's yellow." There's no shortage of idiosyncrasy here, and we can imagine Perec's laughter as he types, enjoying every moment of memory that approaches.

These memories are sometimes, however, not merely individual but also collective: "40: I remember the day Japan capitulated," "265: I remember Lee Harvey Oswald," or "137: I remember the kidnapping of the Peugeot boy," are things for Perec's peers and contemporaries to recall along with him, which helps I Remember perform not only as an experiment but as a record. I Remember functions, thankfully, as evidence for the way autobiography can serve as a historical document.

"I Remember creates waves of partly overlapping sets of readers who share or do not share this or that memory," David Bellos writes in his introduction, "pushing each reader now closer to the center and now further away from it, but leaving one and only one inhabitant of the intersection of all 479 memories." This inhabitant, Perec himself, draws others into his memories by giving them the opportunity not only to relate but to remember, themselves. I remember this, too, they can say, and so they keep pushing on.

In a way, this makes I Remember a kind of collective memoir, and though Perec is still its sole author, readers find the urge to contribute -- in fact, they're even invited to, as Perec asked that his publisher place blank pages at the back of the book so that readers could add their own I remembers to his -- and this itself is a great literary feat. "The 'I remember' device using only shareable memories," Bellos continues,

seems at first glance to dissolve the individual memoirist in a collective identify (that's to say, as a person who, just like thousands of others, remembers Garry Davis, or the capitulation of Japan), but in practice, when pursued far enough, it does quite the opposite: it locates the autobiographer in a 479-dimensional space in which his specific identity is made unique in a way than [sic] no amount of personal confession could achieve.

So I Remember is not only confession, but confession-plus. It's a way for Perec to recount the things that he remembers, but also the things we should all remember. And if we don't, then we might find ourselves motivated to look into episodes and events that were meaningful for Perec but might also teach us about bits of history. If autobiography has a strength beyond evoking the presentation of self, it's that it shows off a world reflected, which is I Remember's primary function.

Bellos says that I Remember is a striking example of "double ascendancy: it is manifestly autobiographical and also obeys a rigid (but not difficult) formal constraint. It is also one of the oddest works of literature ever written." This is a statement that's easy to agree with, as one can see that, through mere experimentation, Perec has created something not just notable, but quirky, poignant, and fun.

"The principle" of the I remembers, Perec himself writes in the postscript, "is straightforward: to attempt to unearth a memory that is almost forgotten, inessential, banal, common, if not to everyone, at least to many." But it's this commonness that keeps the book from actually becoming "inessential" or "banal." The newfound ability for a reader to yell "Me too!" is exactly the bridge that good literature should attempt to build, no matter how personal (or even secret) one is in the beginning. Certain confessions are meant for many voices in unison, and a book like I Remember asks for exactly this kind of choir.

This is a book that asks us to go on a search for more than just nostalgia. However obscure Perec's I remembers may be, they create, according to Bellos, "not nostalgia itself, but the impression, perhaps even the essence of nostalgia":

By the peculiar magic of regulated repetition, the substantive content of Perec's "I remembers" gives way to a literary effect that is intensely pleasurable whilst being also desperately sad: not nostalgia itself (a longing for what has vanished and cannot be recovered), but the air, the mood, the sensation of nostalgia, over and above any substantive memories or regrets.

And if "the essence of nostalgia" outshines nostalgia itself, then this collective remembering helps us realize the palpability of the past -- the palpability of the very meaning of the wish to recall. And it has us voice in a whisper, and hopefully all at once, "I remember."

I Remember by Georges Perec, translated by Phillip Terry
Verba Mundi Books
ISBN: 978-1567925173
224 pages