Winter Journeys

Georges Perec

translated from the French by Ian Monk
Atlas Press 2013
A book review by Danny Yee © 2015
Just before the start of the Second World War, a young French literature teacher discovers a book The Winter Journey (Le Voyage d'hiver) in which Hugo Vernier appears to have created "a prodigious compilation from the poets of the end of the nineteenth century, a disproportionate cento, a mosaic almost every piece of which was the work of someone else". Until its 1864 date makes it clear that in fact many of the greatest French poets — Mallarmé, Verlaine, Rimbaud and dozens of others — had copied their best lines from the unknown Vernier! Then, of course, this copy of The Winter Journey is destroyed during the war, and our protagonist can't find another one...

This is the plot of a short story by Georges Perec ("Le Voyage d'hiver") published in 1979. Starting in 1992, that engendered a whole series of Journeys in which other members of the Oulipo "riffed" on Perec's story and one another's contributions. These Journeys recount bibliographical adventures that expand on the original plot, play with lexicographical and phonological variations on the title and the name Hugo Vernier, perform exegesis of earlier contributions, explore other possible anticipatory plagiarisms, parody different genres and works, and so forth. The result is somewhere between a serial novel and a wildly divergent series of stories held together only by a few Oulipian formal constraints.

The first addition, Jacques Roubaud's "Yesterday's Journey", mixes in some French Resistance stories and the uncovering of both twentieth and nineteenth century family histories. In Hervé Le Tellier's "Hitler's Journey" Hitler attempts to find Vernier's book in order to undermine the foundations of French culture. Ian Monk's "Hoover's Journey" extends this tale of Nazi shenanigans to encompass Shakespeare and the FBI. Jacques Jouet's "Hinterreise" describes the adventures of a bibliographic sleuth who uncovers an early 18th century Ugo Wernier, anticipatory plagiarist of Bach, Mozart and Schubert. Michelle Grangaud's "A Divergent Journey" turns to classical literature. François Caradec's "The Worm's Journey" describes the life of a worm eating its way through a shelf of books. And so forth; there are twenty Journeys altogether.

These Journeys were originally published as fascicles in the "Bibliothèque oulipienne". This attractive Atlas Press volume brings them all together, along with Perec's original story, in translations by Ian Monk (though Harry Matthews has translated his own Journey). The result is a playfully outrageous romp, which I really enjoyed and which I suspect will be even more fun for those more familiar with French literature.

October 2015

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- Georges Perec - A Void
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%T Winter Journeys
%A Perec, Georges
%M French
%F Monk, Ian
%I Atlas Press
%D 2013
%O hardcover
%G ISBN-13 9781900565646
%P 343pp