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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

"53 Days"

Georges Perec

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To purchase 53 Days

Title: "53 Days"
Author: Georges Perec
Genre: Novel
Written: (1989) (Eng. 1992)
Length: 260 pages
Original in: French
Availability: "53 Days" - US
"53 Days" - UK
"53 Days" - Canada
"53 jours" - Canada
"53 jours" - France
53 Tage - Deutschland
  • French title: "53 jours"
  • Edited by Harry Mathews and Jacques Roubaud
  • Translated by David Bellos
  • The English translation differs slightly from the French original in that some English bits left out of the French edition were restored and the six manuscript pages reproduced as facsimiles have been substituted by six others (ostensibly ones more accessible to English-speaking readers)
  • Incomplete at the time of Perec's death in 1982, "53 jours" was first published in 1989

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Our Assessment:

-- : frustratingly fragmentary -- but what there is impresses, and the rest makes for an intriguing puzzle

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Summer/2000 David Ian Paddy
The Spectator . 21/11/1992 Francis King
TLS . 27/11/1992 .
World Literature Today . Fall/1990 Karlis Racevskis

  From the Reviews:
  • "Given that this is a novel about an incomplete novel, this marvelous work of nested narratives, mirror books, and allusive clues becomes all the more notable because it is unfinished. Far from feeling cheated, the reader takes on the detective’s role, poring over drafts to find clues and hidden structures. It is a must for any reader of the Oulipo, for it shows so much of the puzzle work behind their puzzling work." - David Ian Paddy, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "Harry Mathews and Jacques Roubaud, have assembled all the extant building-blocks for the task. But whether, if and when the book is completed, it will turn out to be a literary masterpiece, who can say ? My own suspicion is that, had Perec himself lived to complete it, what would have been found in the last of a series of Chinese boxes fitted ingeniously one into another would have been merely a void." - Francis King, The Spectator

  • "(T)he reading of the truncated manuscript proves quite entertaining; it will certainly be especially interesting to those already familiar with Perec's work, since it provides us with an unusual insight into the procedures and considerations that organized the author's writing." - Karlis Racevskis, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       "53 Days" is the novel Georges Perec was working on at his death. Only about half of it was completed, but extensive notes suggest much of what Perec planned to do. Long-time Perec friends and Oulipo associates Harry Mathews and Jacques Roubaud put the pieces together and published this version of the text, which was then translated by Perec-biographer David Bellos (who also translated Perec's magnum opus, Life A User's Manual). It makes for a remarkable volume -- and also a sad testament to what might have been.
       "53 Days" is a two-part novel. The first part is titled 53 Days and consists of thirteen chapters, of which the first eleven -- or at least a (very readable) first draft of them -- were completed. The typescript ends a short way into chapter twelve, and it and the final chapter of this section are only presented in (fairly detailed) outline.
       The second part of the novel was to be titled "Un R est un M qui se P le L de la R". It was to have fifteen chapters, and is presented only in very rough outline (in just twenty-two pages).
       However, this volume also contains some 130 pages of drafts and notes (and six facsimile-pages), providing a great deal of information about what was to happen -- and what is behind (inside ?) the text. As one might (or must) expect from a Perec-text, there is a great deal more than meets the eye, from inspiration to allusions to rules governing many aspects of the text -- and the notes give considerable insight into what Perec did and meant to do.

       The first hundred pages of the book read almost like a straightforward, vaguely highbrow mystery novel -- except, of course, that nothing in Perec is truly straightforward. But at first it almost appears so. The narrative is straightforward, the exposition clear, the mysteries only slowly growing in confounding complexity.
       The setting is Grianta, in a former French colony in Africa. The unnamed narrator is a Frenchman who teaches at the local Lycée Français. He is summoned to an audience with the French Consul, who tells him of the disappearance of one of Grianta's more famous French residents, the mystery-writer Robert Serval. Serval apparently knew he was in danger, and told the Consul. He also gave the Consul an envelope, which he instructed the Consul to give to the narrator -- and no one else -- if he hadn't reclaimed it by a certain date.
       The Consul asks the narrator to look into Serval's disappearance -- and in particular to see if he can find any clues in the manuscript that Serval put in the envelope. The narrator is a bit mystified by these events, but agrees. Apparently the narrator and Serval -- whose real name is Stéphane Réal -- had attended school together years earlier, but the narrator has no recollection of him. Looking through the manuscript, a mystery titled The Crypt, doesn't get him much farther either.
       He's sure there are some clues in the story, but it is a tricky mystery, with multiple suspects, a detective who shares the same name as the author, and a great deal of uncertainty:

Every time some piece of the puzzle begins to come into focus, it fades away in a blur, evaporates in a wisp of thin and dubious haze, or gets bogged down in paperwork without sense or substance. Interrogation follows interrogation, statement follows statement -- and each one brings more tiny contradictions to light which further obfuscate the ungraspable, unseeable reality which the investigators are trying so hard to reconstitute.
       The Crypt apparently follows the pattern of many of Serval's books -- and frustratingly only a few aspects of it overlap with the reality the narrator is faced with. It is set in a cold, northern country, and few elements are borrowed from the Griantan world. Frustratingly, the manuscript comes to an end right before the climactic denouement, the last page (pages ?) remaining unwritten.
       The narrator does, however, identify four texts that were used as models for the plot and text, from an Agatha Christie novel (And Then There Were None) to a spy story called The Koala Case Mystery. Only fourteen lines were taken from the latter: after substituting twelve words, they were used verbatim in The Crypt -- making for a typical Perecian puzzle.
       And so the plot thickens, and grows more convoluted, and the books-within-books add layers to the puzzle, rather than yielding the secret to Serval's disappearance. An intuition nags the narrator:
that the truth I am after is not in the book, but between the books
       But even that doesn't get him far enough fast enough. Meanwhile, political unrest in Grianta further complicates matters. And there are those that get wise to the narrator's research and warn him off.
       The crime behind it all suddenly does appear to make sense to the narrator: a plot to steal a giant ancient statue. But by pursuing it the narrator gets himself caught up in events, discovering too late that it's all been an elaborate plot to ensnare him.
       But all this is only the first (and largely complete) part: the second part turns it all around again. The writer Robert Serval has disappeared, and a manuscript has been found in his abandoned car. The title: 53 Days .....
       This time a man named Salini is given the manuscript, in the hope that he can find "the key to our problem" in it. There's little of the detail found in the first part here -- only the bare outlines, as Perec never got around to actually writing out these scenes -- but enough is made clear to see where this was going. Again there's a trail of false and literary clues. And the end reveals:
Salini (to Patricia): Who wrote the book ?
P: A novelist whom we met at            . he is called GP apparently he adores these sorts of problems. We gave him a number of key words, themes, names. It was up to him what he did with them.
       'GP' is, of course, Perec himself.
       The notes and drafts reveal many of the games underlying the novel -- though the translation into English complicates matters considerably.
       Most significantly: the titles. They -- as much else in the book -- lean on Stendhal. '53 days' refers to the length of time it took Stendhal to write The Charterhouse of Parma (and both Perec's book and Stendhal's begin with mention of the same day, 15 May). 'Un R est un M qui se P le L de la R' refers to a variation on Stendhal's "celebrated definition of the novel" (so Bellos): "Un Roman est un Miroir qui se Promène le Long de la Route, 'a novel is a mirror walking along a road".
       There are many more Stendhalian allusions, and a good deal of wordplay and more. The notes and drafts suggest much of what Perec did (and hoped to do), and while it doesn't make for a fluid narrative or gripping story it is interesting to see this raw material out of which one can imagine a fiction being built.
       Mathews, Roubaud, and Bellos have done an admirable job here of presenting Perec's material. The novel it was meant to become is clearly recognisable, and the presentation reader-friendly enough that it is a pleasure rather than a pain to work ones way through. The contrast between the nearly completed first half -- an engaging read and promising start -- and the barely outlined second half is frustrating -- but the book as a whole is still very much worth a look. It is certainly also of interest as a rare behind-the-scenes look at how a novel can be created (neatly shown half done and half only conceived). And for Perec fans it is a must, showing more clearly than most of his texts the workings of this remarkable mind.

       Mathews and Roubaud have admirably stayed in the background here: there are almost no editorial notes by them, no explanations, no theories. In a way this good: all the reader has is Perec's words -- and yet it's perhaps not entirely honest, since presumably the editorial process did involve making decisions and even imposing a certain 'reading' on the text. A bit of explanation (and an introduction to the text) might have been welcome.
       As is, the only editorial notes are translator Bellos' (including five lines quoting the editors -- perhaps there was a longer explanation by them in the French edition ?) -- and he too is sparing in his comments and explanations. Perhaps exegesis is better left for elsewhere, but a bit of introduction, history, context, and explanation would probably have helped most readers along.

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"53 Days": Reviews: Stendhal's La Chartreuse de Parme: Georges Perec: OuLiPo: Other books by Georges Perec under review: Other books about Georges Perec under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       The great French writer Georges Perec (1936-1982) studied sociology at the Sorbonne and worked as a research librarian. His first published novel, Les Choses, won the 1965 Prix Renaudot. A member of the Oulipo since 1967 he wrote a wide variety of pieces, ranging from his impressive fictions to a weekly crossword for Le Point.

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