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the Complete Review
the complete review - radio-play

The Machine

Georges Perec

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To purchase The Machine

Title: The Machine
Author: Georges Perec
Genre: Radio-play
Written: (1968/1972)
Length: 61 pages
Original in: (French)
Availability: in Review of Contemporary Fiction (Spring/2009) - US
in Review of Contemporary Fiction (Spring/2009) - UK
in Review of Contemporary Fiction (Spring/2009) - Canada
Die Maschine - Deutschland
  • Published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction (Vol.XXIX, Nr.1)
  • Translated by Ulrich Schönherr, from the German edition, Die Maschine (first broadcast 1968, published 1972), which was a translation by Eugen Helmlé from the French.

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Our Assessment:

A : fascinating, nearly perfect

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The concept behind The Machine is:

This radio play seeks to simulate the functioning of a computer programmed to analyze and decompose Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Rambler's Lullaby II.
       The short, simple poem -- Wandrers Nachtlied II -- is one of Goethe's best-known, and one of the greatest in the German language. When it was first performed on German radio the audience of The Machine would have been entirely familiar with the poem, which presumably enhances the effects of the piece; nevertheless, the simplicity of the poem makes the work readily accessible (especially in printed form) even to those who did not grow up with Goethe's words.
       Perec takes the poem and subjects it to a number of operations -- protocols that are, essentially, Oulipian constraints. And, as he explains:
To the attentive listener it may become clear that this play about language not only describes the functioning of a machine, but also, though in a more concealed and subtle manner, the inner mechanism of poetry.
       Beginning with a purely technical analysis -- "number of words", "number of metrical feet", etc. -- Perec takes apart and pieces back together the poem in all sorts of ways. It is read front to back, bottom to top, randomly. Then come the more elaborate renderings and readings.
       From simple rules ("omission of the last word of each line", "insertion of sounds in the word center") to "proverbialization" and "encyclopaedic diversification" he re-writes the poem in dozens of different forms. It's a study in the ways of the Oulipo (and language/machine-rules) but, surprisingly, also quite illuminating. Poetry does beget more poetry, even in this treatment.
       There's some invention as well: in one of the most inspired stretches Perec has the processors try to reconstruct the poem. Along the way there are some missteps, such as when they go off track and wind up suggesting the infamous "Deutschland über alles" ("germany above everything/in the world") -- which is quickly brought to a stop:
back to processor 1
       While the first two (of four) protocols treat the poem proper -- linguistically and semantically -- the third is "essentially critical in nature", examining: "the possible relationships and cross-references between the poem and the author". Judgements, associations, and quotes make for an intriguing additional layer, though this is the shortest section of the piece.
       The fourth protocol is full of free-association, as other material and poems are quoted, from Hölderlin, Brecht, Borges, Bataille, Emily Dickinson, and others.
       Brilliantly, then, it all moves towards silence, words reduced to sound, and ultimately to a simple, final:
       The Machine is a radio-play, and to be fully appreciated presumably must be heard, rather than merely read -- yet it is on the page, where the substitutions and changes are more easily seen and followed, that it works particularly well.
       An excellent introduction to Oulipo-writing, The Machine is nearly perfect, accomplishing everything Perec sets out to do. It's also wonderfully entertaining.

       Highly recommended, and essential reading for anyone interested in the Oulipo, Perec, or Goethe's poem. Or, indeed, the workings of poetry in general.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 July 2009

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The Machine: Georges Perec: OuLiPo: Other books by Georges Perec under review: Other books about Georges Perec under review: Books translated by Georges Perec into French under review: Other books under review of interest:
  • See Index of Oulipo books under review
  • See also the Index of French literature at the complete 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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