Scott Esposito reviews Georges Perec's La Boutique Obscure

Translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker (Melville House Publishing, 2013)

If, as the structuralists claimed, there are only a certain number of plots, perhaps there are also only a certain number of dream archetypes. That is certainly the impression one gets from reading Georges Perec's dream journals, just now published for the first time in English in a volume from Melville House Publishing under the original French title and translated by the Oulipian Daniel Levin Becker. In the journals one will likely recognize a number of common dreams: the one where you're sure what is happening is real, only to wake up and find it's not; the one where you feverishly try to get somewhere or do something, but just can't; the one that uncannily twists an aspect of your waking world, so that you can recognize it but fail to notice that it's significantly different; the one where something unspeakably awful has happened, and you are overcome with relief to wake up; the one that eerily seems to anticipate the first few waking moments of life.

There is more to unite us in dreams than we may know. We are all so familiar with their strange perversion of logic that the word dreamlike is a useful adjective; likewise, we can all recognize what is dreamlike about the art of Salvador Dalí. Yet, not everything described as dreamlike actually resembles a dream. Dalí's art perfectly captures the feel of a dream without at all resembling any dream I've ever had, whereas Perec's dreams are just the opposite: often they seem to resemble mine, even if they generally don't capture the feel of a dream. Perhaps this is because Dalí attempted to fashion dreams, and Perec has simply transcribed his as best he can remember them, making no ostensible attempt to twist them into something literary. Per David Bellos's biography of Perec, the writer was so invested in fidelity to his project that he trained himself to wake up mid-dream, so as to better transcribe all the details, even going so far as to claim that he had begun to dream just so he could record it. (Though, as Bellos also notes, the author's analyst insisted that they were too polished for Perec to have really dreamed them.)

In a way, the dream would seem to be an ideal form for Perec: recall that Freud famously claimed that the language games that Perec enjoyed compulsively were an escape from the burden of meaning imposed by language. It is not too large of a leap to imagine that dreams were a similar escape for Perec, their transcription releasing him from the same obligation that he was freed from when conjuring the world's longest palindrome or writing a novel without any e's. Perec's use of mechanical processes to draw life experience onto the written page situates the dream project quite comfortably among a number of Perec's other projects undertaken around the same time, among them An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, Memories (inspired by Joe Brainard's I Remember), and many of the essays collected in Species of Spaces. All of these projects involve seeing what literary hay can be made from executing schemes involving the blind transcription of the raw material that Perec finds, be it in a given location, in his memory, or in his dreams. Still, these dreams were in some important ways different from Perec's other art: Boutique is the only book he was known to have regretted publishing; moreover, whatever their artistic merit, the dreams were recorded for a very practical purpose: to help the thirty-something Perec through the disintegration of his first mature romantic relationship. He had passionately affaired with Suzanne Lipinska, the "blond, left-wing millionairess" (Bellos), during the late 1960s when he wrote perhaps his most infamous work, A Void. The end of the relationship coincided with his separation from the artistic community at Moulin d'Andé, where he had lived for a number of years, and found Perec often alone and on the brink of suicide.


Knowing that Perec created this text for no ostensible artistic purpose, one's impulse is simply to dive into La Boutique Obscure―putting aside any critical focus and surrendering completely to the experience of something extraordinary―but reading the dreams quickly becomes a contradictory experience. On the one hand, they feel very close to Perec, particularly at moments when they veer toward the sexual and the bodily. On the other hand, the symbology can be extraordinarily abstract—after all, our own dreams often leave us with any number of plausible interpretations (or at a complete loss). These dreams therefore feel much further from Perec than many of his autobiographical writings, where the links to the author are much clearer. Some of the dreams quite obviously comment on Perec's books (such as the one where Perec suddenly discovers thousands of e's in A Void), and some of them resemble notions that later appear in books (dream 46, titled "Concentration camp in the snow, or Winter sports in the camp," seems to clearly foreshadow W, or the Memory of Childhood), but reading these dreams did not make me feel conspicuously closer to Perec's literature.

So, then, why read them? Given that few of us will have the discipline to spend four years rendering 124 dreams onto paper in those precious minutes before they seep entirely out of our memories, La Boutique Obscure is a fascinating look at the variability that the genre offers. I was struck by just how many of Perec's dreams occur beneath an atmosphere of dread, a feature that I recognize in my dreams as well. They range from dreams where it seems as though some key piece of information keeps Perec from understanding the doom that is about to befall him to others where Perec feels continually conspicuous for all the wrong reasons. This omnipresent sense of calamity presents an interesting irony: if dreams are actually the realm of everything-is-possible that they are so often claimed to be, then why does Perec not recount any dreams that feel infused with a sense of miraculous play? Why does he only report dreams where he feels hunted down as a Jew, and none where he can instead destroy his persecutors? More broadly speaking, why do we not have dreams where we leave behind the shame, history, and constrictions of Western society to experience something far more utopian? It also makes one wonder to what extent Perec's recording of the dreams was deformed by language and by our common idea of what dreams are, that is, the extent to which his memory of his dreams came to him already tainted by dream archetypes.

Although it seems that even in his dreams Perec (and any of us, as far as I'm aware) continues to dwell within the diminished possibilities of our world, there is at least one way that he regularly breaks free: the capacity for things in dreams to take on multiple forms at once. Perec occasionally captures this feeling with a little typographical trick he uses while transcribing them, in which he gives certain words two values at once: "But before ever getting that far, you have to climb a rather steepill hilleap." This multiplicity also comes across in the substance of the dreams, as in this one where a cliff is a tank is a cliff: "Out of a high, narrow window, I notice an immense tank. It's actually a cliff, but it has the unmistakable look of a tank: large metallic plates covered with layers or varnish or paint that are chipping off in patches or coming loose from their base, like huge blisters." This is another common dream experience, where we simply know what a thing is, even if it "looks" like something else, a sensation that surely meant something to Perec, given that he was such a master of creative appropriation. Perec's bread and butter as a writer was in picking up a thing—a chessboard, a detective narrative, a lipogram—and figuring out a use for it that no one before him had noticed, or dared. This capacity to find in things artistically viable purposes for which they had never been intended allowed Perec to get beyond the strictures of his society, defamiliarizing the mass of consumer junk surrounding him in middle-class Paris and momentarily putting him into a realm of miraculous play.

The prurient nature of so many of these dreams (many of them involve fondling and seduction, and several end in coitus) is curious given that Eros is such a lacuna in Perec's work. The descriptions of women in these dreams are unlike any I've found in Perec's literature; his gaze is at times overtly masculine, even predatory: "At one point she gets up and unhooks her bra. Her breasts are swollen and purple, spangled with stains, or rather with hematomata from exceptionally voracious suction, prolonged and repeated. I am jealous of the man who did this to her." Why did he not attempt such writing in other forms? Given his torment over the dissolution of his relationship with Suzanne, why did he never try to process the pain of a broken romance through literature?

These dreams also at times bear Perec's unique, jocular intelligence, and his particular way of embodying sensations within typographical symbols. For instance, dream 96, titled "The Window," consists in its entirety of two backslashes separated by a space, centered in the page:


These two backslashes are also Perec's shorthand for "an intentional omission." This makes the censored dream a very tantalizing empty space. What image brought Perec to call the dream "The Window"? One strains to look through it. Is this window an escape from Perec's dreams, an opportunity to exit before we are thrust back into the labyrinth of his subconscious?

The key difference from Perec's other experiments is that all the other ones dealt with waking life, and when dealing with that we are constantly choosing the details most pertinent to us. Whether or not we regard ourselves as active participants in the process, the fact remains that we shape the narrative of our life from the superabundance of sensory details we are exposed to every waking minute. Dreams, however, come to us as ready-made narratives. They are small enough and circumscribed enough that we might actually write down every single detail that we remember of a given dream. This seems to be just what Perec has done. This absence of the need to shape the narrative is crucial. I regard dreams as most interesting when they come to me as particular, vivid images, or when they are tendencies toward certain conclusions or sensations. By contrast, I find their narratives rarely meaningful, precisely because they lack any of the logic or conscious shaping that a writer like Perec might provide. The longer dreams in La Boutique Obscure tend to drag, the bizarre twists and turns adding up to little, and even many of the shorter ones seem to glimmer with an import that only Perec might see. But of course, trimming down certain parts of the dreams or drawing attention to other moments would be inimical to Perec's project.

Because of this adherence to a constraint, I do think the dreams are an example of Oulipian writing. La Boutique Obscure is formed according to a program that Perec set for himself, but, in my experience of it, this Oulipian method only sometimes yields interesting results. This book is a case where breaking from Oulipian procedure would have probably produced a better work than holding to it. Nonetheless, if La Boutique Obscure is not satisfying as a complete work, there are satisfying episodes throughout. As the founders of the Oulipo well knew, literary experiments are often interesting for what they attempt to do, as well as for the reasons why that attempt either fails or succeeds.

Following the final dream there is, appropriately, an index to which Perec appended the following epigraph, from his good friend and fellow Oulipian Harry Mathews: ". . . because a labyrinth leads only to the outside of itself." It references Raymond Queneau's famous description of the Oulipo ("rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape"), and both imply that escape would in fact be a disappointment: the dreams themselves are a labyrinth through which Perec would like to endlessly circulate. Significantly, an index was a device that Perec also used in Life A User's Manual, a book that is also circular—in addition to the index, the ending blatantly encourages a reader back toward the beginning. In both books it suggests that they are meant to be combed through for hidden meanings, little secret tricks waiting to be discovered.

The quote introducing the index also interestingly matches the journal's epigraph, from fellow Oulipian Jacques Roubaud:

since I think             that the real             is in no way realhow am I to believe             that dreams are dreams
As with the Mathews quote, Roubaud's epigraph implies a certain ecstasy in the labyrinth—whether we are living by the logic of the waking world or by that of the dream, these forms of perception are conduits to something more desirable than what we can name. It is the artist's job to find the sublime passage that is that thing Roubaud sees beyond the real. Perec's method of choice for producing it was to exhaust a chosen conceit. If the labyrinth is the Oulipo's preferred metaphor, then the artist's goal would not be to exit it but to know its every last twist. And then, what is the point of this inspection? This understanding may be exit itself.