“La Boutique Obscure,” by Georges Perec
After the celebrated French writer Georges Perec began psychoanalysis in the late 1960s, he made a habit of jotting down his dreams. He perfected the ability to awake mid-dream, make a few notes, and go immediately back to sleep; he later delivered the notes to his analyst.
Though Perec was dutiful, the assignment was a failure. His psychoanalyst found the dreams inauthentic. He identified Perec as a “dream-maker,” or someone who dreams their dreams on purpose, in order to recount them. Perec ultimately confessed to this strange accusation: “I did not take my dreams to my analyst but stole them so as to put them in a book.”
Indeed, the dreams were compiled and delivered to Perec’s publisher. This volume, La Boutique Obscure: 124 Dreams, has been translated for the first time into English by Daniel Levin Becker, forty years after its original publication, and thirty years after Perec’s death. It is the last of the author’s major works to be translated, and perhaps not coincidentally, the only work Perec ever expressed doubt about having published.
La Boutique Obscure is, as one would expect, a book of fragmentary impressions. The language is often elliptical or nonsensical, and the sequencing resists any narrative momentum. There are mysterious allusions, wordplay (Perec is notoriously difficult to translate), and disorienting changes of scene: a bridge is crossed, a letter stolen, a race ran, the dream ends. And yet in spite, or perhaps because of, these dangling details, the book captivates. Some fragments may be petty or obscure, but occasionally Perec’s dreaming mind alights on an image that condenses the pathos of an entire life.
As in several of Perec’s books, the most notable feature of La Boutique Obscure is an absence. The text offers a jumble of dreams, without any hint of dream interpretation. Perec even includes a meticulous index, as if to slyly reference the uselessness of trying to find a sense of meaning in the book. His refusal to link dream with biography is what Perec termed an “aggression,” and it is certainly the primary tension, even the raison d’etre, of the work.
All that duly noted. I confess, however, to being not only devoted to Perec, but an amateur dream interpreter of the worst kind, that is, able to find any meaning in anything. Reading La Boutique Obscure, I found myself perversely eager to do exactly what Perec himself refused: to situate the dreams in the context of the dreamer’s life and times. In other words, La Boutique Obscure presented itself as both a curious read and an absorbing detective game.
About the author’s real life, I began with only the basics—Jewish refugee in France, family killed in the Holocaust, member of the French group OuLiPo, died early of cancer—but I sleuthed through a memoir, essays, and a biography by David Bellos, digging up more satiating bits of autobiographical detritus. Perec lived a rich life, and my gleanings did not disappoint; a few notes comparing Perec’s dream-life and waking-life follow, in no particular order.
Dream No.119: Perec finds that the cheese in the shop looks like “fat slices of brain.” He buys a piece, and the price rung up is exorbitant, “highway robbery!”
Waking life: Perec was a devoted foodie and aesthete, who, in his precious few moments of financial ease, spent money on elegant dinners, fine clothes, and expensive cheese. He keenly felt the pinch of living on the cheap. Money also frequently appears in his dreams—lost, found, exchanged, counted, hidden.
Dream No. 5: Perec’s dentist tells him that his teeth are rotten.
Waking life: This dream is real. Perec’s teeth were indeed rotten and his dentist told him so. He hated dental work and purportedly bit his dentist’s hand as a child. His front teeth turned black, so that he preferred to be photographed with his mouth shut.
Dream No. 65, 68: Perec dreams of files and filing.
Waking life: For twenty years, Perec worked as the archivist for a neurophysiology research lab, where he developed several widely admired (pre-computer) methods of indexing large amounts of information. He was also the general secretary of a cohort of writers who called themselves Lg, short for La Ligne générale. Perec helped created Lg’s elaborate internal structures and processes, and was responsible for maintaining Lg’s Index, an intricate collection of cards. Not many literary groups can claim, as did Lg, to be “the most bureaucratic organization ever devised.”
Dream No. 78: Perec gathers up the courage to jump from the Eiffel Tower.
Waking life: Perec was trained as a parachutist in the French Army. He was terrified at first, but came to describe parachute jumping as “an ineffable joy.”
Dream No. 77: Perec can’t sell the body parts of his murdered wife because his name is not on the appropriate register.
Waking life: Perec was caught in a nightmarish situation in which, according to French law, he should have been released of his obligation to serve in the Army because his father had died in combat in service to France during WWII and his mother had been deported. But though his mother most certainly died at Auschwitz, her official status was listed as “missing” rather than “deceased,” and the morbid revision took years for Perec to push through bureaucratic channels. In the meantime, he needlessly served all but three weeks of the mandated two years of military service.
Dream No. 95: Perec dreams that he finds the letter ‘e’ in A Void.
Waking life: An anxiety dream. A Void is Perec’s 300-page novel written entirely without the letter ‘e.’
Dream No. 94: Perec dreams of a house that encloses infinite space. Its “perspectives have been drawn such that no one could imagine an infinite space contained therein.”
Waking life: This is a serviceable description of Perec’s masterwork, Life A User’s Manual, an account of each apartment in a Parisian building. The central story, told amidst cacophonic detail, is about the methodical pursuits of a man who aims to live without having made any kind of mark on the world.
Dream No. 122: Perec has to empty the cat litter box before he goes to a film shoot of A Man Asleep (a novel Perec wrote and then adapted to film and co-directed). After the film shoot, he walks by shops selling wooden plaques that are lying on the ground. “I’m not particularly happy,” he notes. The dream is titled “The Wedding.”
Waking life: After his parents died, Perec was raised by his aunt and uncle. The day of this uncle’s funeral, there was a scheduled film shoot for A Man Asleep. The equipment rentals could not be rearranged, and so Perec went to the film shoot in the morning and rushed to the funeral afterwards. During the shoot, he oddly chose not to tell his crew that they were filming a street of great significance: the location of his childhood home, where he’d lived with his parents. Moreover, as the camera was running, a young boy happened to scamper out of Perec’s old apartment and streak across the street, his apparition suggesting that waking life is occasionally more dreamlike than dreams. Coincidence or not, the central character of A Man Asleep comes to the same conclusion.
Dream No. 12: Perec plays the card game Go with a writer, then “plays” with another writer’s novel, then plays Go again with a friend.
Waking life: Perec’s works are wildly variable in tone and style—his aim was to attempt every kind of writing—but they share a sense of play. He was the most serious of writers, and was yet willing to indulge his ludic impulse. He mixed literature with play in a way that confounded his peers and seemed to bely his ambition; his friend Roland Barthes, for instance, refused to read one of Perec’s works, judging it a mechanical game rather than a true novel.
Perec held the world record for the longest lipogram and another for his 500-word palindrome. He spent days crafting the perfect crossword puzzle. He generated Life A User’s Manual by using a series of rule-bound matrixes and lists. When he wasn’t playing to write, he was simply playing: Scrabble, pick-up-sticks, endless rounds of Go. His fingers were spotted with blisters from the pinball machine.
The first dream of La Boutique Obscure, and one of the most haunting in the book, recounts a nightmare about a prison camp, deportation, and a hiding spot discovered by a guard. The dream conveys great anguish and fear, and yet Perec’s faith in the redemptive power of games was such that he ends the nightmare with these words: “We can save ourselves (sometimes) by playing. . . ”
Perhaps we could, if only we could all play so well as Georges Perec.