Thursday, July 14, 2022

Perec and Paris

My reading project this week is the works and life of the French writer Georges Perec (1936-1982). Reading about him is fun for me because I was in Paris a number of times in his lifetime and shortly thereafter. On these visits, I frequently visited the streets and neighborhoods that are mentioned in Georges Perec: A Life in Words by David Bellos, which I wrote about yesterday. Although I never met any of the quite famous people that played a role in his life, I'm reminded of some things I saw and did in Paris. Here are some of the special ways that I connect when reading about Perec:

  • Perec in his early years lived for a time near Place Jussieu, location of the science faculty of the University of Paris, and much later at another nearby location on Rue Linné in the same neighborhood. Len worked at the university during both of our long stays in Paris. And we once borrowed an apartment on Rue Linné or an adjacent street. Our brief stay there was actually at the same time Perec lived there, though of course we never saw him nor would we have known who he was at that time. 

  • In a café near the university, where Len and his colleagues used to eat lunch, a mirror on the wall had signatures of the Oulipo members who used to meet there a decade earlier. So I've seen the signature of Perec. The café was familiarly known as Chez Dédé. (This small detail was not in Belloc's book, and I can't find it on the internet either. However, I think this might be how I heard of Perec and Oulipo.)
  • Perec also lived for a time next to the elevated Metro Line 6, from Nation to Etoile. Our apartment in Paris in 1976 faced another section of the elevated track, so we experienced the noise levels that are described in the biography.

    The elevated metro line outside our apartment window, 1976)

  • Perec loved the restaurant Balzar in the Latin Quarter. Our friend Michelle also loved Balzar, and took us there on a number of occasions. Evidently it was popular with professors and researchers because it was close to many labs and academic buildings.

    source -- Wikipedia

  • NOTE: French Wikipedia provides some insight into the customers of the Balzar restaurant. It lists as regulars: writers Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, and André Malraux; the historian Jean Tulard; the politicians Jacques Toubon, Václav Havel and Mário Soares; the movie figures Louis Malle and Johnny Depp; the physicist Walter Kohn; and philosophers Hélène Cixous and Jacques Derrida.
  • Perec worked in a research laboratory located in the Sainte-Anne Hospital Center in the 14th arrondissement. During our long stay in Paris in 1976, the owner of our apartment lived on the hospital grounds where her husband, a doctor, was a department head. Therefore, I had to go there to pay the rent each month as she wanted payment in cash.
  • Perec was very fond of films, and often saw the new films being made in France and Hollywood throughout his lifetime. He also worked on scripts, he made an entire film, and he contributed to other aspects of cinema. When I read the names of the films he appreciated, I have lots of memories of them, though of course I was at a great distance and he was often up close.

    "Un Homme Qui Dort" or "A Man Asleep"
    is a film made in 1974, directed by Bernard Queysanne
    and written by Perec. (I haven't seen it.)

Other Things About Perec

In addition to the facts of Perec's life in Paris in the 1970s and 1980s, some other topics described in his biography make me feel connected to him:

    • During World War II, as an endangered Jewish child, Perec was hidden in a village and in a school near Grenoble. On more than one occasion, I have visited that area of the mountains of the Grenoble area. In fact, a colleague of Len's once took us on a long walk in the mountains there and got us quite lost.
    • Perec’s job for nearly 20 years was working as a cataloguer in a medical research laboratory where the research topic was the neuroscience of sleep. This field of study was in its infancy in the 1970s when he worked there, and so was the work he did: making an information retrieval system using index cards to help the researchers find relevant publications on their chosen topics. Both of these fields (sleep and information retrieval) have interested me at various times in my life, and I once had a job in a company that was developing computerized information retrieval tools. So again, I feel vaguely connected.
    • On a completely different subject: Perec's parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. fled from their native Jewish cities and shtetls in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe in the early part of the 20th century -- as did my ancestors.
    • Perec was proud to be a collateral relative of I.L.Peretz, the Yiddish writer, and especially was interested in the story "Bontsha the Silent." The name Perec is a spelling variant of Peretz. The stories of I.L.Peretz are of great interest to me, including the famous "Bontsha," though I have no personal connection to the author.
    • Perec was Jewish by ethnicity and self-identification, but did not practice the Jewish religion or any religion. This of course is characteristic of many modern Jews in both France and the US -- including me.
    I also feel connected to Perec because I am very fond of word play, crossword puzzles, and books that experiment playfully with a variety of forms — though I’ve never created any works of this type. Perec was a great writer of inventive literature. He contributed clever inventions to the meetings of Oulipo, the society of writers and mathematicians in which he was active. I've been enjoying Perec's works for a long time. I admire him greatly!

    I’m sharing this with my blog friends who are participating in Paris in July at Tamara’s blog… and I wish everyone an enjoyable Fourteenth of July, celebrating liberty in whatever way feels good. I’ve enjoyed several Paris celebrations of the day, and especially remember the fireworks and the parade that we saw in 1989 to celebrate the bicentennial (blogged here).

    Blog post © 2022 mae sander.


    Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

    You could have been sitting at a table next to him for all you know! What an amazing parallel of your time in Paris.

    Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

    I am amazed at how your life in Paris was so interwoven with Perec's. Sometimes coincidences are really spooky.

    Emma at Words And Peace / France Book Tours said...

    Awesome, thanks for sharing all this with pictures. If ever I go around your city, I feel we need to meet, we have so many literary tastes in common - except Le Grand Meaulnes, lol

    Marg said...

    Really enjoyed how you interspersed facts about Perec with your own experience of living in Paris!

    Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

    It makes me wish the social media of today was available to you then, and you could carefully scan through all the short videos and extensive photography you would have taken (had these been available) to search for an image of this author. Because, apparently, you have walked past him, eaten near him, and even attended the same events he attended.

    It would make for a good Perec-ian novel.

    Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

    It makes me wish the social media of today was available to you then, and you could carefully scan through all the short videos and extensive photography you would have taken (had these been available) to search for an image of this author. Because, apparently, you have walked past him, eaten near him, and even attended the same events he attended.

    It would make for a good Perec-ian novel.

    Jeanie said...

    THis is fascinating, Mae. I love reading about your time in Paris and the connections are really personal and quite remarkable. Walking in one's steps. How lucky you were to have those experiences.

    Cindy said...

    What a great experience! Thanks for sharing!

    Heather G. said...

    Love how you weave Perec and your experience in Paris together. I've heard of that cafe where the great French existentialist hung out together or frequented. Fascinating. Thanks for sharing this and putting it all together so beautifully.

    AnneKristy said...

    I love the reading project and the tour you took me on!

    Terrie said...

    As usual, you do an amazing job of providing so much in depth info on a topic. It's fascinating to see what's going to capture your interest each week. I love the personal connection with this research and story. Have a great week.
    here's me:
    Terrie @ Bookshelf Journeys

    Tina said...

    You have had suhc an amazing time there and I loved reading about it. You brought it all to life and i could imagine the scenes as your described them. I have only been to Paris once and enjoyed it.