One of Perec's early works, Which Moped with Chrome-plated Handlebars at the Back of the Yard? is a novella that plays all kinds of games with literary and narrative conventions — the title is just a hint at what is to come. The remarkable thing is that the result is also an effective story. The plot revolves around the attempts of Henri Pollak and his civilian friends to help the conscript Karasomething avoid being sent to Algeria, first proposing to break his arm, then suggesting that he fake a suicide attempt.
"Let me remind you of the main points which your reader's brains have, or could have, or should have taken on board:
Firstly: that there is an individual named, perhaps, approximately, Karathingy, who refuses to go to the Mediterainean (I'm not quite sure about that spelling) the climatic conditions being what they are. In fact we have been rather vague about all that, with a view to weaving little mysteries around our modest tale;
secondly: that there is a group of fine fellows, one of whom I am among, who are as brave as Marignan, as strong as Pathos, as wily as Artemis and as proud as Artaban;
thirdly: that there is a third person, surnamed Pollak and forenamed Henri, ranked sergeant, who seems to spend his life going from the one to the others and from the others to the one, and vice versa, by means of a phutting little moped;
fourthly: that this moped has chrome-plated handlebars;
fifthly: that other individuals, who might be called a supporting cast, wander around between the interstices of the main matter, thus putting it in the limelight, according to those excellent precepts I learnt from the best authors when I was young;
sixthly: that as things stand where we left them, you have the perfect right to wonder: My God, my God, however will it all end?"Which is just one of the narratorial intrusions into the story.
In 1969 Perec published La Disparition (translated as A Void), a lipogrammatic novel in which the letter e does not appear. What follows that more naturally than a novella which uses no vowels except e? Set in England, The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex (Les Revenentes, 1972) is a light-hearted underworld tale about a jewel theft which involves an extended orgy, clerical and criminal. This is the raunchiest of Perec's works, though the orthographic constraint gives it the feel of a tongue-twister rather than a piece of erotica.
"The fetters stretched, then sqweezed the Emeenence's neck. Vertebrers wrenched, veyns reddened, the end seemed neyegh. Yet, the sqweeze's effects were the Reverend Excellence's meek member's reberth: he swelled, stretched, then erected.
When she'd seen the expected effect, Estelle spred her legs then held the Reverend Excellence between them, wheyele the Reverend Spencer severed the fetters. The Emeenence's fresh sceptre, well-fleshed, sheer steel, entered her!"The result is certainly contrived — the basic constraint in English reduces one to around 5% of a 50,000 word dictionary, though The Exeter Text is not strict in its spelling — but it has a certain fascination to it. And again Perec manages to tell a decent story.
A Gallery Portrait (Un cabinet d'amateur, 1979) is stylistically more conventional, but also lacks a real storyline. It starts with Heinrich Kürz's painting A Gallery Portrait, depicting his patron Hermann Raffke with part of his collection, on display in an 1913 exhibition in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Ramifying from there, it provides descriptions of the paintings in the portrait, accounts of their history and provenance, and details of their subsequent history. This includes an immense mass of detail, in which one is never sure what is real and what is not — and the more art history one knows the more disturbing this will probably be, though more of the little jokes spread throughout will be appreciated, too.
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