I’ve taken a break from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s massive novel-memoir My Struggle to read a very different kind of autobiography: Georges Perec’s I Remember. Knausgaard’s six-volume work sprawls over 3,600 pages. Perec’s runs to 480 sentences. Every sentence begins: “I remember…”
I found Perec’s book on a walk home, in a Little Free Library on Ocean Park Boulevard. Like that volume of Vasko Popa’s poetry I mentioned a few weeks ago, it stood out amid the Sue Grafton and Dan Brown novels. Nothing against Grafton and Brown. But as Monty Python used to say, here was something completely different.
Here is a typical page, starting with “I remember” no. 273:
I remember that Saint Crispin and Saint Crispinian are the patron saints of shoe-makers.
I remember a very beautiful recital given in Chartres Cathedral (in 1953?) by the pianist Monique de la Bruchollerie.
I remember an anecdote that traced the invention of mayonnaise back to the siege of Port-Mahon (under Napoleon III).
I remember that Jean Juarès was assassinated at the Café du Croissant in Rue Montmarte.
I remember oil slicks (the first, the Torrey-Canyon) and red mud.
I remember that the word robot is a Czech word, invented, I think, by Carel Capek.
I remember the adventures of Luc Bradfer.
Perec borrowed the concept from Joe Brainard, a New York writer and artist whose 1970 autobiographical I Remember has accumulated benedictions from The New Yorker (“a cult classic”) and Paul Auster (“one of the few totally original books I have ever read”) among others. Recently reissued by Britain’s Notting Hill Editions, it’s the version I should have started with. But the day I walked down Ocean Park, Perec was in the library box, and Brainard was not. So I’ll save the original for another time.
At first, Perec turned Brainard’s project into a parlor game for his friends, everyone around the table sharing a memory foreign, perhaps, to younger people. (The poet Kenneth Koch used the same technique a few years later to teach writing in the schools).
You can try this at home! A group of friends generating I remembers around a table will unfailingly excavate half-forgotten cultural references, most ephemeral, a few profound.
In the United States, for instance, one person might sing a commercial ditty (I remember the jingle “Wouldn’t you really rather have a Buick! A Buick! A Buick! A Buick!”), or recall a film (I remember the first movie I saw by myself in a theater, when I was eleven: “Woman Times Seven” with Shirley MacLaine and Peter Sellers, at Studio 13 on Sunset Blvd). Another might recall something more significant (I remember every Friday night watching Walter Cronkite read the Pentagon’s list of American, South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong killed in action). All three of these I remembers are my own, and anchor me very specifically to L.A.’s Echo Park in late 1960s. Were I to recite a hundred more, you would know quite a bit about me, my city, and my era.
Perec loved a game, and transformed Brainard’s idea into personal ritual, writing a few I remembers every day. When he closed in on five hundred of them, he published the lot.
Though both Brainard and Perec earned the acclaim of other writers, I have to concede the obvious: such a list, collected between two covers, is as airy as spongecake. For this reason, I Remember is the kind of project which leaves some readers seething. I can imagine them, lips curled in contempt: “What the fuck! Anyone could write this! My five year-old can write this!”
That’s absolutely true. Anyone could write this. The thing is, most people don’t. If they did, they would find what Perec found: that a world of day-to-day experiences is disappearing by the second.
That disappearance has its consequences. Among the most important: the that alienation of one generation from another. Let’s take two “I remembers” – both, again, my own. First: I remember the clickety-click-click-click the house phone made when the dial spun back counter-clockwise. And, second: I remember the four glass Adohr milk bottles, delivered once a week to the back door, and I remember the milkman taking back last week’s empties.
These remembers are foreign to anyone my daughter’s age. They have simply … vanished. Poof!
Without thinking much about it, most of us imagine that our parents and grandparents experienced the world more or less as we do, despite their absurd clothing and impractically ornate hair. Writing (or reading) hundreds of I remembers compels reflection on the sheer foreignness, the strangeness, the eerie dissonance of the lives they actually led. Such revelations can check the arrogance that possesses every rising generation.
It also reminds us just how fragile and selective memory can be. What we forget is as much a reflection of our preferences and prejudices as what we remember.
In his book Oblivion, Marc Augé observes that to remember absolutely everything would drive us to utter insanity. We are endlessly purging memory: this, apparently, is one purpose of sleep. Our nocturnal descent into selective amnesia is not random. “Tell me what you forget,” Augé writes, “and I will tell you who you are.” For those of us whose lives overlapped Brainard and Perec, it is interesting to compare notes, toting up the events and experiences important to ourselves but, apparently, trivial to them. Augé is right: I am what I remember, and I am therefore what I forget.
As I read I Remember, I had a vague sense that I’d heard of Georges Perec before (he’s quite well known in France but not in the United States). Then I remembered (!) a friend telling me about a 300-page French novel she’d just read, written without using the letter ‘e’. That novel was Perec’s La Disparition, available in English as The Void. (Consider the miracle translator Gilbert Adair wrought: he preserved the original plot and style while transubstantiating the entire e-less text from French to English!).
La Disparition showcases Perec’s talent for imprisoning his work in arbitrary rules and then, like Houdini, creatively escaping his self-imposed confinement.
I Remember also does without the e – that is, the ego, the self. In I Remember, Perec exists only through the things and experiences he recalls. What this leaves is not so much an autobiography as a painterly self-portrait composed from ambient textures, sounds, odors, and sights of Perec’s postwar France. With surprising acuity, I Remember recalls a particular life, lived in a particular time and place.
Can “anyone can write” such a list? Yes, of course. This is not, however, a criticism of Perec or Brainard. It is instead an invitation. Anyone who imagines she can recall how it felt to live from moment to moment decades in the past really ought to do so. In the end, all of us must account to our children for what we, their ancestors, have become.