Thursday, 24 March 2011

On Perec and Memory

I’ve been talking about Georges Perec an awful lot recently; about how his strictures and magpie-ish mind, have, however tangentially, influenced me; about my love for his great work, Life: a User’s Manual. Last night I ended up talking about him twice, and I think I’ve ended up mentioning him in every interview I’ve conducted. It’s a funny kind of reverence, one borne out of memory rather than hard knowledge. When quizzed on the book itself, I find myself hazily recalling jigsaws and static rooms, curious men in curious positions just off the floor.

Over the last few months I’ve picked it up several times, wondering whether to embark on re-reading it: though I know that ultimately I won’t. The memory is like that of a drunken, impromptu night out; the feeling of the euphoria remaining but the details sketchy. I have no doubt that I’d fall in love with it again – just reading random pages gives me a glowing feeling of pleasure – but I’m not entirely sure that I want to be close enough to remember more than that glorious way the novel proper begins: ‘yes, it could begin that way . . .’

Books are unique in this way, and perhaps why they are the art form most attuned to life. Just as we can remember a good day, but not, perhaps, the exact itinerary; books, once read, become less physical objects, works of art or airport trash, but part of us. Film and theatre, any visual media at all, gives us stimuli that help with the remembering; for books we rely on ourselves utterly.

I have a visceral memory, for example, of one particular scene in Delillo’s Underworld, where they’re driving through the desert and reach the top of the ridge, the B52 bombers, painted and de-militarised, shining below in the hazy heat. I can’t recall the words, but can still feel the bump and judder of the jeep as Delillo drives us out into his imagination. At a seminar at the Manchester Literary Festival, a passage from the novel was printed out and I didn’t recall a single word; this from a book I considered a passion ever since I read it.

It is a deficiency as a reader, this lack of exacting memory. My girlfriend is the opposite: she can recall whole lines and paragraphs years after having read something. I envy this, wish that I could quote long from that Delillo passage that so excited me; remember exactly the jokes from Confederacy of Dunces, the swooning melancholy of The Great Gatsby. But that’s not how it works, at least not for me, so for holiday this year, I will be taking Life: a User’s Manual and heading back into Perec’s world. I can’t wait.


  1. Great piece! I had just been thinking much the same: Loved Life a Users Manual, but don't remember much about it. Perec has certainly been formative for me as a writer though.


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  3. Perec is wonderful. If you haven't already done so, i recommend you read David Bellos' biography of Perec, "A Life in Words", which is rather long but very interesting and insightful as well as Perec's best attempt at fictional-autobiography: "W or the memory of Childhood".