Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Week Five - Jude

Things: A Story Of The Sixties by Georges Perec (1965)
Recommended by Stuart Evers

From the urban streets of America to Paris we go – a journey I did on the District Line this week.

I started a Georges Perec novel about ten years ago. It was the French writer's most famous one, Life: A User's Manual, a novel of interwoven stories about people living in a housing block, written under all manner of fancily-fangled constraints. Literary puzzles and riddles ran right through its seams. Perec had also written a book without the letter "e", I recall – 1969's The Void – which was impressive, although I was also impressed by the bloke who had translated it into English, following the same rules.

I don't know why I didn't carry on reading Life: A User's Manual – I was probably half-reading ten books a time, and was more preoccupied with the pub. I remember liking it though, especially the way in which it went into intricate detail about everything (much like John Updike's Rabbit Run does, come to think of it). So when I came across it again early last year, on a wedding invitation from my friends Stuart and Lisa, I knew I had to make acquaintances with old Perec again.

But let's not forget Stuart. I've known Stuart for nearly 12 years now. When we met, he was working for a publisher, and had worked for a bookseller: he's now published a novel and ten short stories about smoking for Picador. He is funny and silly and lovely, and has remarkable hair. He also loves books so much that his success couldn't have been given to a better person.

Also, when Jeanette and I told him about this project he misunderstood it a bit: he thought we simply wanted 52 books from our friends, any friends. So what did he do? Send us a list of 52. Wowsers. I picked this for the reasons stated above, and because it was slim, but yet – Stuart promised me – also superb.

This book has been a proper escape this week. This is Perec's first novel, written when he was 29. The translation – as far as I can say this without actually knowing the original – is great, creating a swirling, compelling, meditative mood. It helps that this book involves long collections of les choses that its protagonists are obsessed by: "knitwear, silk blouses, shirts by Doucet, cotton voile ties, silk scarves, tweed, lambswool, cashmere, vicuna, leather and jerseywool, flax and, finally the great staircase of footwear leading from Churches to Westons, from Westons to Buntings and from Buntings to Lobbs". It's strange how giddying and lovely lists can be.

It's about Jerome and Sylvie, two young people floating along in the lives, working for a market research company, believing real life is around the corner. They have everything and nothing. They feel cast adrift from any moorings thanks to a feeling of lack. They need more to be happy. They want more. They never get it. But in many ways – hey, people – they have it already, and the moral of this book should feel easy-breezy on paper. But the style in which it's put across suggests something else – a cutting satire on our whims and desires, and something tragic.

This book's subtitle – A Story Of The Sixties – explains its motives. This is a story about the rise of capitalism, and its effects on people's lives, especially young people bedazzled by consumerism and choice. The book is written mainly in the conditional tense, which gives it a riddle-like feeling...they "would", they "could",  if only they these conditions could be met...then, things would be OK. These things could offer so many alternative, wonderful futures.

This novel also feels oddly fresh, just like the Jane Jacobs book last week, partly because our society is still occupied by the same concerns. And there lies the sadness, the ridiculousness, of it all. The couple's friendships unravel. They notice the Algerian War, but barely. There is also hardly anything in the story about Jerome and Sylvie's love life, or any emotional reasons as to why they are together. Of course, wanting something more in your life, and having that as a shared goal, is a fairly natural impulse. Wanting some things to do that for you implies a distance, one that slowly eats them away.

A work trip takes us somewhere else towards the end of the book – to the possibilities of escape, of rootings in a very different world – but here is no cliff-hanger here, no plunge into the deep-end, no final judgement, unless you count the Karl Marx quote at its end as a wagging finger, which of course, it is. There is only the dream of two people, feeling listless and empty, and the uneasy easiness of us seeing ourselves in these sentences. "The quest for truth", as Marx's quote goes, all too well, "must itself be true".