Which great French novelist was also a crossword-setter?

Answer: Georges Perec. And it shows in his writing. A review of Portrait of a Man, by Georges Perec, translated and with an introduction by David Bellos

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

Portrait of a Man Georges Perec (translated and with an introduction by David Bellos)

MacLehose Press, pp.173, £12.99, ISBN: 9780857052384

One could have endless fun setting quiz questions about Georges Perec. Which French novelist had a scientific paper, ‘Experimental demonstration of the Tomatotropic organisation in the Soprano (Cantatrix sopranico L)’ included in a scientific festschrift at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique? (The article charted the ‘yelling reaction’ — YR —of singers pelted with ‘Tomato rungisia vulgaris’.) And which French novelist wrote the world’s longest palindrome (5,566 letters)?

Perec would have enjoyed being the subject of a quiz, though, to do him full justice, the questions ought to have been cryptic: he was a crossword-setter as well as a novelist. His works are notoriously structured around puzzles and linguistically fraught with anagrams, puns and word games of all kinds. His most notorious novel, La Disparition, is a lipogram — a text in which one letter does not appear. The missing letter is ‘e’, and the novel is a bravura exercise, brilliantly translated by Gilbert Adair as A Void.

At this point, I imagine many readers will decide that Perec is not for them. He undoubtedly attracts terms like ‘ludic’, ‘post-modern’ and ‘metafictional’; and even his beard and hair seem to scorn social realism, looking as unreal as Wooly Willy’s clumps of magnetised iron filings.

But he is deeply engaging. The game-playing is not indulged in for its own show-off sake: the ‘void’ at the heart of La Disparition is profoundly human. Perec was Jewish; his father was killed in the war, his mother disappeared, taken to Auschwitz when he was six. It is a novel about the difficulty of remembering properly what is literally unspeakable: the universe of the novel is warped by absences. There can be no ‘mère’, no ‘père’, no ‘je’ and no ‘Perec’.

I have always wished that I had been able to read A Void with the innocence of its first reviewers, unaware of its lipogrammatic nature. Dawning realisation should have been part of the experience of reading. I therefore took care not to read the (excellently informative) introduction, or even the blurb, before starting on Perec’s first novel, Portrait of a Man, rediscovered, translated and introduced by David Bellos.

The opening pages are frankly hard- going. It begins, excitingly, with a murder; but is narrated in no coherent voice or tense, veering between first, second and third person, present and past, apparently at random. At this point, I could see why Perec’s publishers rejected it. And I thought, wearily, that these grammatical disjunctions must once have been an exciting, but sadly now a stale and obvious device to signal mental disintegration.

And yet Perec is like no one else. His themes are indeed the postmodern ones, of disintegrating certainties, and the dissolving of personal identity; but the novel is more genuinely intriguing than this opening suggests. The central themes are explored, not through a possibly gratuitous murder but through the ambiguous art of art forgery.

The narrator, Gaspard Winckler (who resurfaces in later works, as Perec fans will know) is a master forger. The ‘portrait’ he is striving to imitate and to emulate is Antonello da Messina’s so-called ‘Condottiere’: the compelling face of a supremely confident man, possibly a brutal mercenary, with a clear, challenging, triumphant gaze, and a small scar on his lip.

Winckler, an art-mercenary for hire, is a disciple of the Sienese school of forgery, which sprang up in response to the late 19th-century demand for art works from the Middle Ages and early Renaissance — the desire, ironically, was for ‘authentic’ art, pre-dating the era of mass production and religious doubts.

The finest master fakers of Siena included Icilio Federico Joni — who fooled Berenson — Alceo Dossena and Umberto Giunti (whose portrait in the style of Antonello is pretty damn good). Works identified as being by named authors of this school now command high prices, and are themselves faked. (The immediate inspiration for Perec’s novel may have been Han van Meegeren, who became a national hero in Holland when it transpired that, far from selling off art treasures to the Nazis, he had fooled them into buying his own works. His ‘Vermeers’ are laughably bad; though this makes the joke against Goering all the better.)

Perec is not interested in the ‘what is any work of art truly worth’ side of the authenticity debate. He is, however, fascinated by what makes a work of art ‘authentic’. The paradox of a master forger is that a convincing forgery of a work by a great artist has itself to be a great work of art. It is relatively easy to imitate a ‘school of’ painting with the ‘cut-and-paste’ school of forgery — taking a collar from one painting, a background from another, an eyebrow, a jaw ine, a feather, a jewel, a pose from others, and cobbling them together to make a new whole. But the truly original artist is something else: and Antonello da Messina, whose compelling combination of northern and Italian influences was unique, spawned no school in his lifetime.

The real suspense in this novel does not lie in Gaspard’s frantic attempts to tunnel out of his studio to escape the minions of the man he murdered, but in his struggle against an inward crumbling when forced to stare for months into that insolently triumphant stare, painted by an artist of insolently triumphant genius. Under it all lie the long shadows of loss and striving for identity felt by a Jew in postwar Paris, for whom the very word ‘authentique’ had an inescapable resonance.

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