Introduced, Translated, Annotated, Edited and Indexed by Philip Terry and David Bellos
Reviewed by Karen Langley
Regular readers of Shiny New Books may recall the Bookbuzz piece earlier this year in which I took a look at the Oulipo writers and their works. A group notorious for the use of constraints and wordplay, one of their most famous exponents was the French author Georges Perec. Translating works structured around specific restraints and constructs is always likely to be complex (to put it mildly!) so it’s a joy that so many of his books have been made available in English. However, there are still many which aren’t, so a new edition of one of his most playful works from Gallic Books is very welcome!
I Remember was first published in 1978, shortly after his magnum opus, Life, A User’s Manual, had won the Medicis Prize. In his introduction, David Bellos (who has translated a number of Perec’s works, as well as producing a heavyweight biography of the Oulipan) calls this “one of the oddest works of literature ever written”, and it certainly is unusual. I Remember is definitely autobiographical in concept, yet its structure is unlike any conventional retelling of a life. Instead, it gathers together 480 simple sentences which start with the words ‘I remember’; and these record a sequence of individual memories Perec has of his life which build up to create a picture both of his past, and also the past of the France of his time.
I remember the holes that used to be punched in Metro tickets.
So Perec recalls a particular kind of car which belonged to his uncle; advertising jingles and radio shows; old scout songs; events from world news and politics; and actual happenings, like breaking an arm and having his cast signed by his classmates. It’s a very specific and personal set of memories, ranging from his young days to his later years, and by necessity very French! You might argue that this is no kind of memoir or autobiography, but actual life is not usually remembered in a linear fashion. We recall events in fragments and scraps, much like I Remember, and these pieces create a tapestry which makes up a life lived.
I remember that at the bottom of the footbridge near the top of Rue du Ranelagh that crossed the Ceinture railway line and led to the Bois de Boulogne, there was a little shack which served as a shoemaker’s workshop, and that, after the war, it was covered in swastikas because the shoemaker had been a collaborator, or so people said.
As Bellos points out in his foreword, no one person’s life and memories are going to be the same as another’s; and the whole process of recalling these fragments is going to be completely different for each of us. So in the process of recording your own personal I Remember you might find points of intersection where you share the same world memories (and indeed I did find the familiar here myself); and in other cases Perec’s memory would not resonate at all. The point being, I suppose, that no human being’s experiences will ever be completely identical and that’s what makes us all unique.
I remember that during his trial Eichmann was enclosed in the glass cage.
Perec’s own past was a complex one: his parents were Polish-Jewish immigrants; his father died fighting for France in the Second World War; and his mother perished in Auschwitz. He was a troubled child, and probably a troubled man; and perhaps by structuring his memories through the prism of things which many would recall, he was trying to avoid the deeper elements of his life (which he had written about three years earlier, somewhat allusively, in W, or the Memory of Childhood). Whatever the reason for his choice, he certainly created a fascinating work.
I must say a word about the marvellous piece of scholarship which I Remember is; the book brings together two heavyweights of Perec/Oulipan scholarship in the form of David Bellos and Philip Terry. As I mentioned, the former has translated Perec and written his biography; Terry is responsible for the recent Penguin Book of Oulipo, as well as having translated other Oulipan authors. As well as translating I Remember, they’ve edited and provided annotations, as well as a very individual index. The notes, in particular, are wonderfully entertaining, containing as they do all manner of illustrations and personal asides; and as Bellos points out in his introduction, Terry has very cleverly come up with some English equivalents of puns when the original French is completely untranslatable. The result is a marvellously readable and entertaining book which, as well as being great fun, also makes you think about the whole process of memory and the tendency to nostalgia.
I remember that all the numbers whose digits add up to nine are divisible by nine (sometimes I spent whole afternoons checking that it was true…).
According to Bellos, the book was incredibly popular on release in France, most probably because it tapped into the consciousness of Perec’s contemporaries, bringing to mind their collective memories. However, it’s still popular nowadays, and has spread outside France. Maybe that’s because of our culture, and the fact that we do have events in common. Or maybe it’s because we recognise the fragmented nature of our own memories and feel inclined to record our own ‘I remembers’. When the book was first released, Perec requested that the publishers include some extra pages at the end for readers to start recording their own memories in the same way. Pleasingly, Gallic have done exactly the same here; so there’s no excuse for the modern-day reader not to pick up a pen or pencil and start to write down their very own Perecian memories. Reading I Remember was a fascinating and thought-provoking experience, and evidence (if it was needed) that our collective memory is most definitely becoming a universal one.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and wishes her memory was a bit less fuzzy…
Georges Perec, I Remember (Gallic Books, 2020). 978-1910477854, 140pp, paperback.
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