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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

W or The Memory of Childhood (1975) by George Perec


Book Review
W or The Memory of Childhood (1975)
by George Perec

   The Oulipo movement, a loose association of (mostly) French writers and academics who were the vanguard for experimental French fiction in the mid 20th century, is largely unknown outside of the academic specialty audience in English.   The major formal innovation of the Oulipo writers was to impose constraints on their fiction writing.   That is an approach which has found disciples outside of fiction, you can think of the Dogme movement spear headed by Lars Von Trier (mid career Harmony Korine was an adherent) and the career of American artist Matthew Barney, who literally built his career on a performance art series called "Drawing Restraint" where he physically restrained himself in different ways and then struggled for the Audience.

  It's natural to think that experimental fiction written in French would lose "something in the translation," since it is written to be difficult to understand in the original French.   From this perspective, W or The Memory of Childhood is an accesible entry point for readers exploring the works of Perec and the Oulipo school.  It is both a straight forward narrative written from the perspective of the author, who is a Jewish child in Nazi occupied France, and an equally easy to understand parable about a fictional island nation off the coast of Chile, where everyone is engaged in an endless athletic struggle.

  The details of the fictional athletics obsessed society are part Thomas More's Utopia, part Gulliver's Travels and part 1984/Brave New World, and of course, directly inspired by Nazi Germany and would I presume are the Author's dim memories of the so-called Nazi Olympics.  I'm not sure if, by 1975, Perec was still operating under the voluntary restraints of the Oulipo movement.

  By comparison, Things: A Story of the 60's, is obvious the product of  conscious restraint, with first-name only protagonists who lack any sort of inner life.   Although the stylistic restrictions are absent, there is still an obsession with rule in order, manifesting in the detailed descriptions of the horrific rituals of the fictional athletics-obsessed society of the parable half of the book.

  There's also an interesting overlap with another 1001 Books title, V by Thomas Pynchon.  In V, Pynchon writes a plot that hops back and forth, combining at a point, the V of the title (who is also a mysterious character in the book.)   In the version of W or The Memory of Childhood that I read, the author includes a foreward where he explains that the proper English translation of the title is, "Double V" not the English letter W, and this is because the inclusion of two parallel but related stories.  2 V's, in other words.

  This approach is also echoed by the common film grammar of creating narrative tension in action sequences by moving between two separate locations without making clear the temporal relationship of the two sequences. 

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