B-Sides: Georges Perec’s “W, or the Memory of Childhood”

One of the strangest, most devastating works of Holocaust literature is about games.

One of the strangest, most devastating works of Holocaust literature is about games. Georges Perec’s 1975 W, or the Memory of Childhood alternates between two seemingly distinct narratives. The 19 odd-numbered chapters (1, 3, 5 … ) are about Perec’s own French Jewish childhood in the 1930s and 1940s. He circuitously relates the death of both parents (his father during the German invasion, his mother in or on the way to Auschwitz), his peripatetic orphan youth, the various stories he learned or invented about his family. The 18 even-numbered chapters (2, 4, 6 … ), though, are an island story of lives devoted to running, jumping, and playing as if nothing else mattered. Interwoven with Perec’s actual childhood misery runs a Jules Verne extravaganza—one that eventually goes terribly wrong.

I have spent the last few years studying the rise of anti-anthropocentric satire within science fiction. Ever since Gulliver’s Travels, the genre has offered a bracingly anti-Enlightenment notion: that mankind is not and should not be the measure of all things. So I was delighted to discover a foray into science fiction by OuLiPo (aka the Workshop of Potential Literature), the madcap French literary experimental movement known for its gamesmanship.

Perec is justly famous for A Void, a “lipogram” novel written without the letter e; and Life: A User’s Manual, a novel told by way of a narrative “knight’s tour” hopping from room to room in an apartment building. I loved the idea of a lineage that began with Perec and ended with the dazzling “universe as simulacrum” pyrotechnics of The Anomaly, a 2020 SF novel by current OuLiPo head Hervé Le Tellier.

In W’s speculative fiction I hoped to find an instance of thinking beyond humanity akin to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. That novel imagines escaping the firebombing of Dresden (which Vonnegut himself miraculously survived) thanks to the Tralfamadorians, tentacled time-traveling space aliens. I was hopeful that memories of his family’s fate in the Holocaust might have pushed Perec to conjure up a similar SF escape from the miseries of our shared actual world.

W’s even chapters certainly seem like such a getaway at first. They ignore the miserable childhood sketched in the odd chapters, focusing instead on a mysterious island in Tierra del Fuego. Founded by Olympic enthusiasts, it is entirely devoted to four identical villages of “sportsmen” who do nothing but run races against one another. Its patterns are reassuringly cyclical: “The Olympiads, held once a year; the Spartakiads, held every three months … and the Atlantiads, held once a month. The dates of Games are laid down by Central Government.” Every form of match and countermatch among the four towns is spelled out. “Next come the local championships between proximate villages; they are four in number; W vs North-W. W vs West-W, North-W vs North-West-W, West-W vs North-West-W.”

It all sounds very clockwork, delightfully OuLiPo. Small wonder, even his biographer David Bellos enjoys the numerological magic, describing W as “a thirty-seven-chapter book that Perec reinvented … the day after he turned thirty-seven, on 7.3.73.”

Yet readers are also being steered downward into the dark. Elinor Kaufman succinctly describes W as “a robust society of athletes … organized by a system that first appears like a rational utopia but by the novel’s end devolves into a terrifying concentrationary universe.”

After a few ominous hints (only winners get to eat a proper meal, losers suffer cruel punishments) the Masters of the island come into full terrifying view in chapter 26, when the women of W are introduced:

The conception of children in W gives rise to a great celebration known as the Atlantiad … The women thought to be fertile are taken [from barracks where they are otherwise imprisoned] to the Central Stadium, their clothing is removed, and they are released on to the track, where they start to run as fast as they can. They are allowed a head start of half a lap before the best W athletes, that is to say the best two in each event, making in all, as there are twenty-two events and four villages, one hundred and seventy-six men, are sent off in pursuit. One lap is usually all that the runners need to catch up with the women, and as a rule it is right in front of the podium, either on the cinder track or on the grass, that they get raped.

The absence of explicit ethical judgment here is precisely the point. In poems like “Death Fugue,” the poet Paul Celan imaginatively explores the problem of a music-loving, poetry-loving camp commandant: What do we do with the fact that things we value, like high art, can be equally precious to the most depraved? Perec’s dispassionate catalogue of W’s terrors asks the opposite question about genocide’s victims. What if the imprisoned come to share in camp logic, because they forget there is anything outside it?

Perec’s “concentrationary universe” is akin to Franz Kafka’s vision (in The Trial and The Castle) of a terrifyingly implacable and inexplicable bureaucracy that permits its focalizing characters no glimpse of an outside world where its judgments might be analyzed or questioned. However, it adds the problem that Primo Levi’s 1947 If This Is a Man and Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) explore. Among the imprisoned, resignation to extermination could be followed by complicity with or even active collaboration in the camp’s murderous agenda.

I learned from David Bellos’s introduction to his lovely English translation of W that Perec is a great-great nephew of the Yiddish writer I. L. Peretz. For me that shed some light on Perec’s idea that living on this island (this camp, this Earth) means giving oneself up to its logic altogether. Peretz’s best known story, “Bontje the Silent,” centers on a long-suffering virtuous character so battered and buffeted by life that when he faces God and is offered anything Heaven can bestow, he can think of nothing to wish for but “a warm roll with butter every morning.” The world has never offered him anything beyond that to imagine.

In the book’s most unsettling turn, even the possibility of escape implied by the act of writing fiction (OuLiPo as a kind of internal exile from a miserable life) comes to seem an eerie resurrection of camp logic. Chapter 37 reveals that Georges made up W at 12 (that is, in 1948 during his displaced childhood) and wrote it over and over, more elaborately, through the chaotic years that followed. This is his OuLiPo origin story: “For years I did drawings of sportsmen with stiff bodies and inhuman facial features: I described their unending combats meticulously: I listed persistently their endless titles.” Perec himself explicitly connects the geography of his invented world back into the concentrationary: “I have forgotten what reasons I had at the age of twelve for choosing Tierra del Fuego as the site of W. Pinochet’s Fascists have provided my fantasy with a final echo: several of the islands in that area are today deportation camps.”

His sort of experimental writing, Perec wrote in 1973, “should seem trivial and futile.” What could seem more so than this story world, the island utopia turned dystopia that a miserable adolescent orphan ceaselessly permutes and elaborates in notebooks as a harmless antidote to a disorderly life? What harm if he sends his imagined sportsmen running from village to village? What harm if he invents Atlantiads?

We might answer that question by comparing W with another instance of high-concept literature shaped by science fiction, Hermann Hesse’s final novel, The Glass Bead Game (1943). In it, an orderly nation of the future—likely modeled on Switzerland, Hesse’s wartime home—devotes its principal energies to a complex, indescribable game seemingly played in place of war.

Hesse’s novel accords with the vision of play as a “sacred space” entirely apart from messy actuality that is sketched in Johan Huzinga’s 1938 Homo Ludens. Efforts to go Hesse one better in imagining an oasis apart from the dismal word are legion. For example, the recent bestseller Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is just one among many later versions of the Groundhog Day notion that no bad outcome is irreversible. It makes game space a sanctioned retreat where all that ails the real world can be slightly amended and corrected. No matter how bad your actual life, there will always be a way to heal it in a virtual world. Play, reboot, repeat.

W initially promises something like the same formula. And yet, Perec’s real point in W is to cast a cold eye on the tradition of gleeful experimental speculation to which OuLiPo itself belongs. The impulse to get beyond the oddity of the present-day world into the evenness of “unending combats” and “endless titles” initially seems the logical solution to the nightmarish chaos of Perec’s own childhood. Then, because even his own OuLiPo experiments deserve scrutiny, he has no choice but to count that dream world’s costs: rape, murder, cannibalism, and worse.

Like Homo Ludens, my account of anti-anthropocentric science fiction puts a lot of faith in games. I recognize that SF has a dystopic element as well: H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau exemplifies the genre’s willingness to depict the hubris and blindness of so-called wise men given absolute power over their little made-up worlds. Still, Huizinga’s notion of a space apart appeals to me more than Hannah Arendt’s grim warning that hunting for oases in art can sometimes be exactly what turns the world outside art into a desert.

Science fiction’s enduring appeal is its capacity to offer readers a chance to look with alien eyes both at Earth and at the vast universe beyond. Perec, though, hammers home the costs of such dream departures. There is for one thing the sheer physical cost of gamesmanship: in W, as in Nazi camps, bits of precious bread are rolled to form game tokens (sportsmen can choose between playing and eating). Even worse, though, is the terrifying suspicion that the forms of escape that art offers actually have deep structural affinity to the fascism Georges is fleeing.

The final image of W makes that clear: if one could even visit the empty Fortress of the Masters, nothing would be found there but “deep down in the depths of the earth … piles of gold teeth, rings and spectacles, thousands and thousands of clothes in heaps, dusty card-indexes, and stocks of poor-quality soap.”

Readers have no idea if the card indexes are forgotten records once kept by the Masters or confiscated goods; we do not know if the soap was confiscated or instead made out of the bodies of fallen sportsmen and women. That mystery is precisely the point. Fascism sought order and made chaos; its victim turns from that chaos and replicates the order, right down to its deadly conclusion. In flight, he returns to what he fled. In renunciation, repetition. icon

This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames. Featured image: Enamel plaque in homage to Georges Perec by Christophe Verdon. Café de la Mairie, place Saint-Sulpice, Paris. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)