La Boutique Obscure: 124 Dreams
Translated by Daniel Levin Becker
Melville House, Paperback
224 pages, 978-1612191751, £13.99
Oulipo is a French literary movement founded in 1960, and which Georges Perec joined in 1967. Its premise is to use constraints in order to produce ‘potential literature’. Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito’s book The End of Oulipo offers a brief and engaging summary of the movement which encourages the reader to pursue its experiments further. The text acknowledges that, although the group is in its sixth decade, it is still publishing and expanding, with Daniel Levin Becker being the youngest member of the group. Levin Becker’s new English translation of Georges Perec’s dream journal La Boutique Obscure is an example of the continued interest in Oulipo, although The End of Oulipo asks the question ‘can potential literature outlive its potential?’
Esposito argues that Perec is ‘among the greatest avant-garde writers of the twentieth century’, and does so convincingly in the first section of the book, ‘Eight Glances Past Georges Perec’, which gives a detailed overview of his life and works. The premise of Oulipo is that, by use of artistic constraint, the artist becomes liberated. Esposito argues that Ouilpian restrictions have the ability to depict the world in a different manner from that of drab realism; the dream diary, therefore, is perhaps the ideal form for Perec’s work as it presents a fresh opportunity to order reality via the narrative of the dreaming mind.
Constraint and the notion of ludic experimentation make their way into Perec’s subconscious in La Boutique Obscure. Many of the dreams related contain a variety of games that play with language. Scott Esposito writes that ‘exhaustion is inscribed in everything Georges Perec ever wrote’, be it in his 5000 word palindrome, his novel A Void (which does not contain any words with the letter e in them), or the 60 page index of Life a User’s Manual. From the jubilant and acknowledged childishness of sliding down a bannister, to disturbing reminisces of war, La Boutique Obscure presents a wide array of dreams with different subject matters, attempting to exhaust the endless subject matters of the subconscious while delighting in pastiches such as ‘a Brechtian musical comedy’, ‘a novel in the third person’, ‘an action movie in colour’ or an ‘urban western’.
Perec experiments with typography and graphic representation to strike at a more visual depiction of the dream world. He self-consciously reveals the decisions he makes when linguistically presenting each dream. Describing a nightmare regarding a run in with a policeman, Perec recalls that the officer writes ‘copulate’ on a piece of newspaper. As he describes the incident, this word appears in a different, larger font to evoke its visual impact. Elsewhere, Perec places alternative word choices closely above the words he has used to indicate a struggle with enunciation. In The End of Oulipo, Scott Esposito supports Georg Lukács view that the novel responds to an incomplete modern world: ‘the novel, by contrast, is a product of a hopelessly fragmented world and can only deal with pieces of an incomplete reality.’ This fragmented world is the reality of Perec’s dream journal with its variant omissions. The End of Oulipo mentions Perec’s Je Me Souviens, ‘which, à la Joe Brainard, begins every sentence with the words “Je me souviens” (“I remember”).’ In contrast, La Boutique Obscure can be said to begin each dream entry with ‘I forget’. The book details the process of writing through constraints via its own experimentation with form and appearance. Such experimentation is capable of abolishing the idea of the perfect author, and may delight the reader on the trail of Perec’s authentic voice, before the editing process strips it of its essence. In translator Levin Becker’s afterword, he writes that Perec’s ‘nocturnal biography’ is capable of granting a direct encounter with the writer, one that is perhaps more illuminating than the act of reading a memoir.
Esposito writes that ‘Oulipian literature performs a balancing act between produced and potential work, between what appears on the page and what is suggested beyond it.’ Significant to the reality of the text is the symbol ‘/ /’, which denotes an intentional omission. Alongside this symbol, expansive gaps within the text draw the reader’s eye to the vast blank spaces of the work, where omissions become as important as admissions. Perec’s style shows us the ways in which dreams differ from memories by dint of their mutability and instability. Many proper nouns are replaced within the text by initials or pronouns, or in some instances, full stops. The reader may not always be sure who ‘he’ or ‘she’ is, but ambiguities can be sources of delight as they effectively mimic the sliding representations of people within the dream framework. Frequently, the text concerns itself with knowing and unknowing, with memory and forgetting, the words ‘somewhere, someone, something’ occurring often throughout. Dream entries may start with ellipses, and some both begin and end without beginnings or ends. Dream no. 117 ends with parts two and three listed as ‘(forgotten)’ and the entirety of dream no. 96, entitled ‘The Window’, is an intentional omission denoted by that ‘/ /’.
The End of Oulipo quotes from Tom McCarthy’s ‘Stabbing the Olive’; ‘we don’t want plot, depth or content: we want angles, arcs, and intervals; we want pattern. Structure is content, geometry is everything.’ This is very true of La Boutique Obscure. It would not be recommended to approach the book as one might approach a novel, considering each entry as succeeding the previous. These isolated vignettes work better when taken apart from the whole. The book has moments of humour and moments of horror, but it cannot be said to present a clear picture of Perec’s interiority or to present anything of distinct biographical reference about its author. Except to say that Perec’s dreams undoubtedly share common form with our own: the same fears, the same desires, the same uncertainties.
One of the perils of faithfully relating a collection of disparate dreams is that they can sometimes have little interest or meaning to the reader. Perec thankfully spares us the grizzly details of dream no. 9 in which he has a long conversation with a doctor about his sinus infections. The inclusion of the banal as well as the significant serves to support the depiction of reality, but this banality can lend an occasional tediousness to the text. However, in the section on Edouard Levé in The End of Oulipo, Esposito notes that the writer ‘makes his home within the prosaic in order to show us things we have never seen before… both men have no interest in psychology, they simply give the details, leaving it to the reader to decide what lies beneath.’ The greatest facet of La Boutique Obscure may be Oulipian in nature, the concept being more important than its content and providing a novel manner of approaching the transcription of dreams into language.