Georges Perec: A Life in Words

David Bellos

Harvill Press 1995
A book review by Danny Yee © 1996
Despite its length, Bellos' biography remains tightly focused on Perec and his works. It begins with an account of Perec's family background — his parents moved to France from Poland; his father died in battle during the invasion of France and his mother in Auschwitz; and he was brought up by his aunt — but even this is very much tied to the autobiographical elements of Perec's work. The dramatic events of French history — the Villard-de-Lans uprising, the Algerian war, May '68 — are passed over except in so far they directly involved Perec. Perec's friends and acquaintances, though many were notable figures in their own right, never tempt Bellos aside. Even the literary movements with which Perec was involved, such as La Ligne générale or OuLiPo, are never explored independently. Despite this the interest never flags.

There is, naturally, a lot of information about Perec's major works in Georges Perec. Bellos guides us through the combinatorial foundations on which Life A User's Manual was built, the motivations for the monomaniac lipogram A Void, the deliberate falsehoods of W or The Memory of Childhood, and the trip to Australia during which 53 Days was written. But it is also a goldmine of information about less well known works: radio plays performed only in Germany; ventures into cinema; the world's longest palindrome; a spoof scientific article based on his work as an assistant in a neurobiology lab; and an assortment of other works. (A complete thirty page bibliography of Perec's work is included.) But Bellos offers little critical analysis of Perec's works per se — they are never really separated from Perec himself. There is, for example, no attempt at posthumous evaluation; the biography ends with Perec's death.

Bellos' biography will have little appeal to those who have not read any of Perec's works. (It had the odd effect of making me want to reread those I had already read, while discouraging me from reading others.) But anyone who has enjoyed Perec's writing will find it a real treat: I have read few literary biographies that link writer and writings so tightly together. The same insights required as a translator of Perec stand Bellos in good stead as a biographer: the result is both magisterial in its sweep and deeply personal in its engagement, and I am not at all surprised that it won the 1994 Prix Goncourt for biography.

October 1996

External links:
- buy from, or
- review and links at the Complete Review
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%T Georges Perec
%S A Life in Words
%A Bellos, David
%I Harvill Press
%D 1995 [1993]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 1860460747
%P xxx,802pp,32pp b&w photos