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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography

Georges Perec

David Bellos

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To purchase Georges Perec

Title: Georges Perec
Author: David Bellos
Genre: Biography
Written: 1993 (rev. 1995)
Length: 714 pages
Availability: Georges Perec - US
Georges Perec - UK
Georges Perec - Canada
Georges Perec - India
Georges Perec - France
  • A Life in Words
  • Winner of the Prix Goncourt for Biography, 1994
  • Includes a Bibliography of the works of Georges Perec
  • Includes 42 illustrations and 49 photographs

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Our Assessment:

A : an exemplary biography

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 23/11/1993 Peter Lennon
The Independent . 11/12/1993 Hugo Barnacle
Independent on Sunday A 2/1/1994 Galen Strawson
The LA Times A 12/12/1993 Richard Eder
The New Statesman A 3/12/1993 Shaun Whiteside
The New Yorker . 7/3/1994 .
The NY Rev. of Books A 3/11/1994 Geoffrey O'Brien
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction A Spring/1994 Irving Malin
TLS . 3/12/1993 John Taylor
VLS . 4/1994 Sally Eckhoff
The Washington Post . 9/1/1994 Michael Dirda
World Lit. Today B+ Fall/1994 Brian Evenson

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "Bellos is very thorough in describing Perec's traumatic early influences, and the incredible array of mathematical and formal devices he used to generate his extraordinary works, but some factors seem to be underplayed. One might be Perec's brain itself." - Hugo Barnacle, The Independent

  • "This 800-page biography is unlikely to be bettered. David Bellos is Perec's principal translator into English and he is, like his subject, a powerful organiser of facts. He is impressively thorough and makes very few detectable errors. He is self-effacing, honest, clear, authoritative and acute." - Galen Strawson, Independent on Sunday

  • "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. (...) Bellos lives in Perec and prolongs him, sometimes excessively. (...) 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." - Richard Eder, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(E)normously enjoyable and enlightening." - Shaun Whiteside, New Statesman

  • "(E)ngaging." - The New Yorker

  • "It is Bellos's considerable achievement to have turned his account of those painstaking incremental labors into a continually absorbing exploration of writing as a mode of being. He makes it possible to grasp how the child orphaned by World War II and the Holocaust became the writer for whom the world at any given moment might hinge on a concealed anagram or a footnote designed to lead astray." - Geoffrey O'Brien, The New York Review of Books

  • "Bellos offers a convincing, if incomplete -- aren't all biographies incomplete? -- portrait of a word-obsessed man. (...) There is no doubt that this subtle and thrilling critical biography will not be equaled by future Perec biographies. It is the first and last great, disturbing word about an artist." - Irving Malin, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "Georges Perec: A Life in Words is anything but a reverent biography. Bellos is honest without being sensational (.....) Reasonably well researched and documented, Bellos's book is an important contribution to Perec studies, nearly as rich and exhaustive as Perec's own Life: A User's Manual. Here is gathered as much as any reader would want to know about Perec, and probably much more." - Brian Evenson, 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:

       Georges Perec (1936-1982) was among the more unusual literary figures of the 20th century. Despite dying relatively young he left a considerable oeuvre, and several of his works -- notably Life A User's Manual (see our review) -- are regarded as modern classics. Long associated with the OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle -- the "Workshop for Potential Literature") Perec liked to play with language and force constraints upon it -- most famously in his novel La disparition, written entirely without the letter "e". This made his work difficult to translate; nevertheless, Perec has also found a large audience in other languages.
       Gilbert Adair famously translated La disparition (as A Void), but it is David Bellos who has translated most of the major texts. He has proven in his English renderings to have an excellent understanding of Perec's literary objectives and methods, and in his exhaustive (but never exhausting) biography he shows an excellent understanding of the man as well.
       It is in most ways an exemplary biography, and it is difficult to know where to begin with the praise. First, perhaps, the presentation. Bellos (and his publishers) have gone to great pains to make the volume as easy to use and as clear as possible (there is even an introductory "user's guide"), with great success. In this age of careless presentation the book is a marvel to hold and use.
       Bellos has written an enormous book, but it is neatly divided up into relatively short chapters (sixty-six of them), each with its own focus. There are notes, but not an excess of them, and each chapter includes a short listing of sources at the end. An extensive bibliography (though "more a map than a catalogue raisonné) and three beautiful indices (of Perec's Titles, of Names, and of Topics) make the volume easy to use and an excellent reference work. Useful illustrations (including maps, lists, and flow-charts) help explain aspects of Perec's literary games, and the photographs also help in forming a full picture of the man.
       Bellos' account of Perec's life is also exemplary. Perec's family background and history is carefully set out (and much tied in, here and later, with Perec's W or The Memory of Childhood). Perec lost both his parents during World War II, and the times then and afterwards were difficult for him and his extended family (though some had enjoyed spectacular success before the war). Nevertheless, the young Perec travelled surprisingly widely in his youth (thanks largely to his far-flung family).
       Bellos' focus is very strongly on Perec himself, and outside events -- from World War II to the Algerian crisis to May, 1968 -- enter into the narrative almost only insofar as they touched upon Perec's life. Occasionally this can be disorienting -- Perec perhaps seeming to far removed from the world at large -- but generally the absence of this background noise and colour work to good effect. Bellos seems to strike the proper balance almost throughout.
       Perec knew relatively early that he wanted to be a writer, but his path was not a smooth one. He did not take his studies very seriously, and could not escape most of his military service (though he was safe in knowing that since his father had died "in the service of France" he could not be sent to the front in Algeria). In one of the unlikeliest twists in his life he wound up as a parachutist -- among the most dangerous branches of the service. Fortunately, he soon got a desk job and managed to avoid jumping out of planes too frequently.
       In 1961 he obtained a position as an archivist in a science lab, a job that he apparently was ideally suited for and at which he excelled. It also allowed him flexible hours and a steady income (though, because of his lack of academic qualifications, no possibility of advancement). Despite some literary success he remained at the lab until 1978.
       Perec's first literary success came with his first novel, Things, in 1965. He had written a great deal before -- reviews, articles, and the like -- and had worked on fiction for several years; Things was the first work to be published -- and it immediately won the Prix Renaudot. It became a surprising literary success, and Perec a minor celebrity.
       True success did not come until much later, as Perec's career advanced only slowly (and by some strange twists and turns). La disparition appeared in 1969 but was met with a decidedly mixed reaction. W or The Memory of Childhood (1975) already made a greater mark, and then came the great triumph in 1978 with Life A User's Manual.
       Bellos does an excellent job of presenting Perec's work, both in tying it in with his biography as well as considering them from a strictly literary point of view. Not surprisingly, he is strongest in his presentation of the texts that he translated -- especially Things, W or The Memory of Childhood, Life A User's Manual, and 53 Days. These sections are perhaps the most valuable in Bellos' biography, a neat demonstration of the insight that the meeting of biography and translation can produce. (Bellos himself, however, never truly appears in the text -- aside from small asides mentioning the "English translator" -- which feels somewhat odd.)
       Bellos also does an excellent job of presenting Perec's often unhappy personal life, especially his relationships with women, and he also handles the end of Perec's life very well. Perec's personal friendships are also well handled -- especially the OuLiPo crowd (notably Harry Mathews, two of whose books Perec translated into French). From Perec's taste in food to his alcoholic excesses and his various living arrangements, Bellos offers a great deal of valuable background. Of almost nothing is there too much in this book, and practically nothing seems to have been missed either.
       Perec was an unusual man, and he had an unusual career as a writer. Bellos' book helps, to a certain extent, to counter the too-prevalent notion of Perec merely being an OuLiPo author, being playful for the sake of being playful. In fact, his output is surprisingly varied, and Bellos' extensive explications help make the texts even more approachable.
       One would be hard-pressed to imagine a writer's life better summed-up in a single volume than this one. It is a great achievement.

       Note that the 1995 edition (the one currently available) is a corrected version of the 1993 original. As Bellos notes, however, it does not take into account Gilbert Adair's translation, A Void, and other works of Perec that have come to light in the mean time. However, the fact that the volume is not entirely up to date does little to diminish its value.

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Georges Perec: Reviews: Georges Perec: OuLiPo: Books by Georges Perec under review: Other books about Georges Perec under review: Books translated by Georges Perec into French under review: David Bellos: Other books by David Bellos under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       David Bellos is Professor of French at Princeton University. He has translated numerous works, including several by Georges Perec.

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