Georges Perec was the author of crossword puzzles, which might lead one to assume that his literary works likewise have solutions. But to say his most famous novel, La Disparition (A Void ), written without the letter e, is solved by its premise is to dismiss its puzzling qualities as literature. His book of dreams, La Boutique Obscure, illuminates a conundrum at the heart of Perec’s project: Dreams, despite a plethora of clues, do not have solutions. They are all clue. Or as Perec writes, describing one of these dreams, “From far away, it looks like there is a nearly completed puzzle in the center. . . . Close up, though, you realize the whole thing is a puzzle . . . a fragment of a larger puzzle, unfinished because it can’t be finished.” A Perec book can seem a completable puzzle at a distance (from the back cover, say). But the closer you read, the harder it is to find the edges, because the clues generate more clues. Do his books even have an edge? Or might the puzzle of his novels extend so far that a reasonable title could be Life: A User’s Manual?
La Boutique Obscure has a clearly defined beginning and end (May 1968 to August 1972). But as a book, it is no more than nearly complete—a fact underscored by Perec’s ground rules, which include “The sign / / indicates an intentional omission.” Although Perec employs this device infrequently, the rule alerts the reader to the book’s lacunae, of which there are many.
Names, for example, are routinely replaced with initials, another method of “intentional omission.” But dream 22, titled “Initials,” includes this caution: “Most of the terms in this dream are like crossword clues.” A simple initial would be a lame clue to a master like Perec. We might quickly associate “P.” with Perec’s wife, Paulette, from whom he was separating in these years. But “Z.,” who appears just as frequently, has no easy corollary unless you follow Perec biographer David Bellos’s reasoning that, via Barthes, “Z.” is a substitution for “S.,” and thus Perec’s lover Suzanne.
And what to make of “J.L.,” who appears not as a character but whose own dreams interrupt Perec’s journal? These are not only signed by another but violate chronology, occupying the space between December 1970 and January 1971 despite being dated 1966, 1968, and 1972.
The Palais de la Défense, I
I am in the Palais de la Défense. It is crumbling.
I rush down a staircase with my wife.
The stone bridge
A stone bridge, at the crossing of a road and a river.
A signal sign indicates the name of the place:
The Palais de la Défense, II
I am in the Palais de la Défense. Its enormous vault seems to be opening, then closing.
Later: I am still in the Palais de la Défense. There is no longer a vault, or, rather, the vault, the palace, are everywhere.
These dreams stand out from the book in another manner—they avoid what Perec’s psychoanalyst Jean-Bertrand Pontalis criticized as qualities that “make you wonder . . . whether [the analysand] really experienced their dreams or whether they dreamt them on purpose as dreams . . . in order to recount them.” In a professional paper, Dr. Pontalis elaborated: “[His] dreams were, so to speak, deposited, checked off, and dealt with . . . like texts to be deciphered.”
Perec himself describes this entanglement of dream with text in the preface: “I thought I was recording the dreams I was having; I have realized that it was not long before I began having dreams only in order to write them. These dreams—overdreamed, overworked, overwritten—what could I then expect of them, if not to make them into texts, a bundle of texts left as an offering at the gates of that ‘royal road’ I still must travel with my eyes open?”
Indeed, for the most part it is texts, not dreams, that Perec presents here. Many even employ genre devices: “’Twas a story replete with twists and turns,” begins No. 52. “A ‘Brechtian’ musical comedy,” starts No. 60, which includes “a duet dance number, very Astaire-Kelly” and lyrics to a song.
But then there are the entries—like the three above—that seem to be more than just an offering at the gates of Freud’s “royal road to the unconscious.” In these, Perec commences work on the puzzle he presented to himself, the one he would eventually piece together in his marvelous autobiographical novel W, or The Memory of Childhood (1975).
As he wrote about the analytical sessions that coincided with the composition of La Boutique Obscure: “It became a tiresome game of reflections. . . . When I tried to speak, to say something of myself . . . I felt immediately as if I was starting again on the same puzzle, as if, by going through all the possible combinations of pieces, one by one, I might one day find the image I was after.”
Perhaps it was an aspect of this image that Perec finally hit upon in the closing text of La Boutique Obscure, “The denunciation”—a wartime scenario that has the deep symbolism, the silences, and the affect that Dr. Pontalis missed in many of his patient’s dreams. This is also where Perec stopped the book; was it because the dream presented a solution, rather than further clues?
Damon Krukowski is a musician, writer, and the copublisher of Exact Change books.