Two of my favorite writers died on this day, 14 years apart: Georges Perec in 1982 and Marguerite Duras in 1996. I have read the latter in French but not the former, though I suspect it is Perec who warrants the investment more than Duras. Neither of them suffers anything like obscurity or diminishing reputation in the English-speaking world (and certainly not in France), and yet I wish more people had read them both, extensively.
To claim a writer (or musician or director) as a “favorite” feels very much a gesture of one’s early twenties, an age when—for a certain kind of person at least—consuming as much art as possible was just about the most important thing you could do, the better to identify yourself to the world by the things you loved. I am 45, and though I still feel compelled to read and watch and listen widely, I am less inclined to canonize artistic infatuations—so when asked about my “favorites” I tend to look back to the intensity of my twenties for the answer.
I first read Marguerite Duras when I was 21. She was recommended to me by a woman I was in love with (so much love to give!), who I’d later move to Paris to be with. The book was The Ravishing of Lol Stein, not one of the more commonly read titles by Duras but, luckily, available at the college library. Except for some reason the edition they had was only there to be read, not to be taken home. So I stayed. I sat in the relative emptiness of a Saturday afternoon at a table on the edge of the stacks and committed myself to finishing the very slim novel by the 9 pm closing time. (Most of Duras’s books are, in the fashion of so much mid-century French literature, what we’d call novellas).
This is maybe the best way to read Duras: with devotional intensity in one sitting. I have not read all her books. (Perhaps naively I have carved out and set aside work from the writers I love to take with me into the sunset years, that I might—despite what Nabokov says about rereading—discover some part of their brilliance for the first time. Nabokov himself is on that list.) But the five or six novels of Duras I have read all seem to inhabit the same space, generate the same mood: vivid exhaustion sustained by simmering obsession. The plot of Lol Stein is hazy to me now, but I remember regret and memory, and much grappling with decades-old decisions and the half-life of their consequences; there is also lust and its ever-present twin, disappointment. The obvious comparison is to Alice Munro and her career-long exploration of women’s lives constrained by circumstance, animated by regret and desire.
But Duras is Munro cooked in tinfoil over an open burner. Her writing induces a fugue state, her obsessions become your own. The more I think about it, how perfect she will be when, in the fog of my senescence, I rappel downward into the intensities of my youth in search of the brightest moments of a life nearly done.
This much I have to look forward to.
Georges Perec is also dead.
I first read Perec when I was 25 and had just moved to Brooklyn. I lived in a room that had no windows. It was basically a box dropped into an otherwise normal apartment. I slept with earplugs and a towel around my head. I read Life: A User’s Manual.
Published four years before his death, Life: A User’s Manual is Perec’s magnum opus, the final masterful expression of all his playful Oulipian genius. Ostensibly about a rich, eccentric Parisian artist and his fellow inhabitants at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, the book is built from a complex series of constraints and rules that I won’t go into here. If you are skeptical about Oulipo and its arbitrary limit-setting—after all, surely 26 paltry letters is limitation enough for expressing all the world’s experiences—don’t worry about Perec. In almost all of his work, even the most obviously generative Oulipian gimmicks recede into the background, forgotten in the face of Perec’s rich observations of all things in heaven and earth, object and glance, sound and scent.
I went into Life: A User’s Manual (translated by David Bellos) thinking I was undertaking a labor of Experimental (E!) Literature, an incoherent assumption quickly abandoned as I saw entire lives tenderly revealed through the itemization of an antique desk’s forgotten contents. Never had I encountered sheer lists of things written with such delight, such love. Reading Perec that summer, in my box within a box, cracked open how I saw the world and the things in it, in only the way great literature can.
I returned a couple of years ago to one of Perec’s very minor works, newly translated at the time by Marc Lowenthal: An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (Wakefield Press). It is what it says it is: Perec attempts to recount with forensic detail every aspect of life in the square (French: place) facing St. Sulpice Cathedral in Paris (which just so happens to be my favorite place to sit in silence in that city). Though written before Life: A User’s Manual, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris feels to me like a later work, a purer distillation of Perec’s lifelong need to record his observations of the world.
It is I, of course, who am in the later period of the project of my life. That I discovered and loved these books 20 years apart is simply an accident. But a happy one.
It would be hard to find two writers with such divergent formal styles and literary philosophies as Marguerite Duras and Georges Perec. They are paired here only because of the accident of their deaths in the cruel early days of Parisian spring: March 3, 1982 and March 3, 1996.
Though I have loved their writing for most of my serious reading life, the thought would never have occurred to me to juxtapose their work, if not for looking through the calendar of “important literary dates” we keep at this website.
I’m glad I did, though. Is there anything better than the accidental recollection of that—or who—you once loved?