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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Portrait of a Man
Known as
Il Condottiere

Georges Perec

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To purchase Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere

Title: Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere
Author: Georges Perec
Genre: Novel
Written: (1960) (Eng. 2014)
Length: 129 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere - US
Portrait of a Man - UK
Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere - Canada
Le Condottière - Canada
Le Condottière - France
Der Condottiere - Deutschland
Il Condottiero - Italia
El Condotiero - España
  • French title: Le Condottière
  • US title: Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere
  • UK title: Portrait of a Man
  • Completed in 1960, Le Condottière was not accepted for publication and long thought lost; it was first published in 2012
  • Translated and with an Introduction by David Bellos

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Our Assessment:

B : struggles some with its material, but more than enough of it works

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 11/12/2014 Steven Poole
L'Humanité . 1/3/2012 Alain Nicolas
Irish Times A 6/12/2014 Eileen Battersby
NZZ . 5/1/2014 Ingeborg Waldinger
The Spectator . 15/11/2014 Caroline Moore
Sunday Times . 2/11/2014 David Mills
Sydney Morning Herald . 28/2/2015 Peter Craven
TLS . 17/12/2014 Lauren Elkin

  Review Consensus:

  Intriguing; a bit confounding but worthwhile

  From the Reviews:
  • "In the end, it is most tempting to read this fascinating but awkward novel (the publisher Gallimardís rejection for "excessive clumsiness and chatter" does not seem overly harsh) as an allegory of Perecís own anxieties of influence, as he attempted to become a novelist." - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "Le Condottière est-il un roman policier ? Oui, si l’on considère qu’il remplit scrupuleusement les clauses du contrat du genre. Mais, à l’image des tableaux que peint son héros, c’en est un « vrai-faux » avant la lettre. Très vite, il apparaît que la question centrale n’est pas le meurtre, mais le rapport complexe qui lie authenticité et vérité, invention et mensonge." - Alain Nicolas, L'Humanité

  • "Georges Perecís 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. (...) As for the story, it is wonderful and a natural screenplay in the making. (...) 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." - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

  • "Der ungestüme, zwischen Ich-, Du- und Er-Form wechselnde Redefluss (und Bewusstseinsstrom) des Helden, eines Kunstfälschers, spiegelt dessen verzweifelte Identitätssuche wider. Geschwätzig ist anders." - Ingeborg Waldinger, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "The opening pages are frankly hard going. It begins, excitingly, with a murder; but is narrated in no coherent voice or tense, veering between first, second and third person, present and past, apparently at random. (...) And yet Perec is like no one else. His themes are indeed the postmodern ones, of disintegrating certainties, and the dissolving of personal identity; but the novel is more genuinely intriguing than this opening suggests. The central themes are explored, not through a possibly gratuitous murder but through the ambiguous art of art forgery." - Caroline Moore, The Spectator

  • "It is an odd book by a man who made oddity his signature and his password. In fact, it's in some ways a more conventional novel than most of Perec's one-off narrative experiments and it's also one that is probably close to the heart of the young experimenter's preoccupations as to what art -- that near impossibility -- could possibly achieve if you could somehow get it done. (...) Portrait of a Man is a novel (if it's a novel) about self-realisation and art as the kind of authentic lying that constitutes a form of truth. It has an impressive resonance, you can tell from this first novel how much the breakaway Perec was steeped in literature and in the history of painting as an allegory of the action of the writer who sees the world ending up in a book." - Peter Craven, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "Gallimardís refusal must have felt like the real-life equivalent of Gaspardís failure, and this biographical context makes the novelís story of artistic failure all the more poignant, a Perecquian meta-fable. But this portrait is also the story of a young man becoming an artist, trying to find his true subject -- and we can see in these early missteps the promise of Perecís later success." - Lauren Elkin, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere wasn't Georges Perec's first novel -- he completed the still-untranslated (but now published in the original French ) L'attentat de Sarajevo in 1957 -- but it is an early, pre-Oulipian work that was long thought lost and only first published in 2012. (David Bellos' Georges Perec's Lost Novel -- a good chunk of his Introduction to his translation -- gives a good overview of the fascinating story of its writing and recovery.)
       While stylistically it is a young author's work, thematically it is already vintage Perec, treating questions of identity, art, reality, forgery, and purpose; it is also something of a murder mystery -- not so much whodunit (it opens with protagonist Gaspard Winckler dragging away the corpse of the man he's just killed) but more in keeping with the fundamental-questioning familiar from French existentialist-tinged fiction. Indeed, Gaspard's wondering about why -- why did he kill the man, and how did he reach that point -- is at the heart of much of the novel. He struggles with it throughout, and even late on can't come up with a clear answer:

     "Why did you kill Madera ?"
     "I don't know ... If I knew, I wouldn't be here ... If I'd known, I suppose I wouldn't have done it ... You think it's easy ... You commit an act ... You don't know ... you can't know ... you don't want to know ... But after a while it's behind you ... You know you did it ... and then ..."
     "Then what ?"
     "Then nothing."
       The novel is presented in two parts. It opens in Gaspard's voice, as he drags the body of Madera, the man whose throat he has just slit, down to the door of a cellar-laboratory -- interrupted by the appearance of another man, Otto, before he can even begin to clean up the messy scene. Gaspard shuts himself up in the laboratory -- his studio for many months --, faced with the great failure that was clearly pivotal in precipitating events: his painting, Portrait of a Man, his Condottiere. The frenzied first pages shift from first to third to second person -- the I, he, you all a Gaspard who sees himself as backed into a final corner, doomed.
       The entire first part continues much like this -- though also taking a broader view, filling in background, describing Gaspard's life and career and how he came to this point. The second part is somewhat more straightforward, most of it in dialogue -- but covering much of the same ground, the back and forth between Gaspard and his friend yet another attempt, in conversation, to make sense of Gaspard's life and fatal deed. It begins: "'I'm lost, Streten. I've lost the thread" -- as if Gaspard (or Perec ...) acknowledge the approach in the first part wasn't getting to the bottom of things, and another way is required .....
       Gaspard received fine professional training from a young age -- including: "at the École du Louvre, holding a diploma in Painting Conservation from New York University and the Metropolitan Museum, New York" -- but he apprenticed as a forger, and settled into that comfortable and remunerative covert life. Now in his early thirties, he has never known anything else: he never was able to allow his own identity (artistic or otherwise) to form: he always inhabited others' lives, (re)created other's work; he could never be Gaspard Winckler but rather was: "Gaspard Vivarini, Gaspard Anonymous French School, Gaspard Corot, Gaspard van Gogh, Gaspard Raphael Sanzio, Gaspard de Toulouse-Lautrec". He can look back now (only) to:
     Twelve years. Twelve times three hundred and sixty-five days. Twelve years in the course of which he had been shut in basements, attics, strongrooms, empty workshops, abandoned houses, barns, caves, disused mineshafts and set up, thought up, worked out and carried off alone and on his own one hundred and twenty or thirty fake paintings. A whole gallery. From Giotto to Modigliani. From Fra Angelico to Braque. A gallery without any soul or guts ...
       Now, in retrospect, he sees: "Forging isn't a trade. It's more like a rut. You get stuck in it. You get drowned". And he recognizes that being a forger:
It means living with the dead, it means being dead, it means knowing the dead, it means being anyone at all. Vermeer or Chardin.
       As to any self -- it: "was left out, it didn't count. I was just a hand, a performing tool".
       It was this Madera that commissioned a painting in a whole different league from everything Gaspard had previously done -- "something that could fetch a hundred and fifty million" -- and Gaspard embraced the challenge, selecting Antonello da Messina as the master he would fake. His inspiration, then, was:
to start from the Condottiere in order to paint another Condottiere, a different one, but of the same quality.
       His ambition was to carry off: "what no forger before him had dared attempt: to create an authentic masterpiece". Needless to say, it does not work out as Gaspard planned. For all his technical virtuosity, the resulting painting only reveals to him -- as he admits in painful, raw detail -- his own failures. If he has been able to ignore questions of (his own) identity and purpose until then, the painting -- and the life he's led as a forger until then -- force him to confront them head on. And, as readers know from his murderous action, he doesn't take any of this well.
       But as we see from his tortured flailing after he has done that deed, murder -- a desperate attempt at escape, too -- does not provide true release either.
       Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere poses intriguing questions, and Perec uses the material quite well in addressing them -- but it is an uneven work, in almost all respects. Perec struggles to find a style -- even a voice -- in which to present it. That works fine, in part -- after all, Gaspard himself is unoriginal ("I haven't got any imagination", he admits) and inhabits others in creating his work, and so it makes sense that he barely has a voice or perspective of his own -- but it does make for a sometimes difficult read. There are, however, some very fine sections, with some of Gaspard/Perec's concerns very nicely put.
       If somewhat uneven, the writing is quite interesting, not only as an early example of Perec but also simply of a young novelist trying things out. Bellos does note in his Introduction that: "The text also contains some extremely long sentences", and notes instances where: "I felt I had to take the sentence apart and put it back together again in a different shape" -- which seems to have worked quite well. As striking, however, are the many sections with shorter, more abrupt sentences -- including some almost Céline-like ellipses-filled sequences (like the example quoted above). Clearly, there is also considerable word-play -- most evident when it's practically spelled out, but also otherwise quite well presented in(to) English:
     The rest would be lost in a guffaw. Forger. Faussaire. Fausse ère: wrong period. Bad times. Storm on the way. A forger's forger. Necrophagist ...
       If not entirely a success, Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere is nevertheless more than just a Perec-curiosity, and of at least some interest and appeal on its own, a neat little work of fakery, identity, and purpose.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 December 2018

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Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere: Reviews: 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 French literature at the complete review
  • See Index of Oulipo books 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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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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