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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Georges Perec

general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Wishes

Title: Wishes
Author: Georges Perec
Genre: Fiction
Written: (1989) (Eng. 2018)
Length: 232 pages
Original in: Wishes - US
Wishes - UK
Wishes - Canada
Vœux - Canada
Wishes - India
Vœux - France
  • French title: Vœux
  • Written between 1970 and 1982, these pieces were originally privately distributed by the author
  • Translated and transmogrified, and with an Introduction by Mara Cologne Wythe-Hall [Marc Lowenthal]
  • With an introductory note by Maurice Olender

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Our Assessment:

-- : fascinating unusual exercise, both in the original and in this translation/transmogrification

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Wishes collects the small albums that Georges Perec wrote for and distributed to his friends, in privately printed editions of one to two hundred copies, an annual New Year's tradition. (There are ten of these albums here; one of them was not originally a New Year's album but is entirely in keeping with the rest.) Perec describes them as: "short texts, generally based on homophonic variations", and translator Mara Cologne Wythe-Hall (a pseudonym entirely in keeping with the spirit and approach of Perec's texts) begins his Introduction explaining:

     Meticulously silly, Georges Perec's Wishes demonstrates language's fundamental urge never to get to the point: the meaning of words has been subordinated to their sound, allowing these sounds in turn to generate new, often nonsensical, meanings.
       As the descriptions suggest, these texts do not lend themselves to translation: homonymny is difficult enough to deal with, but with the texts additionally playing off the word-sounds and meanings they become almost inextricable from the original French. So it's no surprise that a full translation of Perec's Vœux has not previously been attempted. John Sturrock provided a brief sampler-introduction in Species of Spaces and Other Pieces -- a helpful overview that gives some sense of what Perec was doing, but, at a mere four pages, offers only a glimpse.
       The approach Mara Cologne Wythe-Hall takes in the now complete collection of Wishes is to double down on Perec. As he explains in his Introduction:
     I have made two translations of each pamphlet, the first one literal (which I've labeled as a "translation"), the second more of an adaptation working from the generative lists Perec used (which I've chose to call, by way of distinction, a "transmogrification").
       Perec's albums each come with a 'Table' -- homophonic guides to help readers along -- (except for one, in whose place Perec puts the reminder: "One must start accepting / that a text can stand / on its own"). Many of the albums involves author-names or (book, film) titles, the contents then homophonic variations on these. So, for example, the 1978 collection of 'Anthumous Works' is a play off of the titles of Perec's own work; the accompanying gloss-table provides the Perec-text Les Revenentes-homonym, 'les rêves n'hantent', translated as 'Dreams don't haunt', while the corresponding piece reads:
In times past, dreams obsessed their dreamers. But since then they have been thoroughly examined by psychoanalysis, and one can now say that henceforth, never again:
       The second version -- Mara Cologne Wythe-Hall's transmogrification -- finds an English homonym for the the title -- 'Lay her oven on it' -- and the entirely new story created for it reads:
We were in my aunt's kitchen when a cockroach scurried out from beneath the oven. My cousin crushed it, hesitated, and then asked me what he should do with the carcass. I replied:
       (Here the homophonic title-variations complete the story, an added twist to these particular pieces.)
       The homophonic renderings are often somewhat tortured (in both Perec's French and Mara Cologne Wythe-Hall's English)-- but of course allow for amusing flights of fancy in the stories the author(s -- Mara Cologne Wythe-Hall after all creating entirely new texts just as Perec did) then construct around them. 'James Hadley Chase' becomes 'J'aime ça, de laides chaises' (translated as: 'I like them, ugly chairs'), while Mara Cologne Wythe-Hall's transmogrification is based on the reading (hearing ?): "Jim is sad: leech chase'. In the sequence of 'Dictionary of Filmmakers' Perec plays off of movie-titles -- including some French titles of foreign films, while Mara Cologne Wythe-Hall retains the original: Advise and Consent is treated as 'Tempête à Washington' by Perec ('Trempette à vache: un jeton', translated as: 'Quick cow dip: a token'), while Mara Cologne Wythe-Hall plays off the original, with: 'Add vice ? Sand-con sent'.
       The themes (as it were) for the albums range from 'Translations from Latin' -- bringing yet another language into the mix, the pieces then based on homophonic readings of the Latin -- to the names of musicians and mystery writers, and titles of films, the works of Queneau, and Perec's own works. The albums can feel a bit like exercise-albums, but everything is very much in the spirit of the Oulipo, and Perec -- playful, above all else, and almost mischievous, creatively experimenting with just how much can be done with language and meaning. In focusing on sound and puns, Perec forces the reader into a different form of reading too -- an interesting change.
       At their best, Perec's small pieces are inspired riffs on the challenging combinations he comes up with in his homophonic variations -- and Mara Cologne Wythe-Hall meets the unusual challenges well, and even shows himself the equal of the master with a few of his own transmogrifications. So, for example, 'Lester Young' is rendered 'Laisse taire Jung !' ('Let Jung shut up !' by Perec, and the accompanying piece is:
One day Freud made a completely Freudian slip. He was having a discussion with Jung and Ferenczi: Ferenczi was doing all of the talking, and Freud wanted to ask him to let the other speak a little. But he did exactly the opposite !
       Mara Cologne Wythe-Hall's transmogrification, meanwhile, makes 'Less stir, Jung !' out of the name, and the accompanying piece is:
Jung asked Freud how he wanted his Martini.
     "Stirred, not shaken," Freud replied.
     Jung stirred away.
     "But not that much !"
       The only thing that would have made this lovely volume more useful would be to have included Perec's original French texts as well, allowing more direct comparison of the texts. Still, even as such, it's a great collection (with nice small touches, such as including bibliographies of Perec and Queneau's in the enhanced tables/contents for the relevant pieces -- not strictly necessary for the texts themselves, but very welcome for anyone looking slightly beyond the texts themselves), in a lovely edition.
       Wishes isn't the sort of text one reads front to back in a sitting. The presentation here -- first all the texts in literal translation, then all of them transmogrified -- allows for different reading-approaches -- focusing first on one set of variations, then the other, or flipping back and forth between them to compare -- but in any case, Wishes is the sort of writing that one lingers over, re-reading bit by bit, flipping back and forth to the table-guides, a collection of variations on a game that is puzzle as well as entertainment.
       Certainly not for everyone, but a must for fans of Perec, the Oulipo, and anyone interested in translation (since the translation-issue here are truly multifarious).

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 July 2018

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Wishes: 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 Oulipo books under review
  • See also the Index of French literature at the complete review
  • See Index of books dealing with Translation
  • Other books from Wakefield Press 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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