La Boutique Obscure: 124 Dreams
Georges Perec, Translated by Daniel Levin Becker
Melville House, 2013
Review by Javier Fuentes
In La Boutique Obscure, we see Georges Perec in a completely new light. We have come to know him as an author who thrives on constraint; here we are granted access to Perec in his freest incarnation, liberated from any rigorous technical boundaries. One of the most active members of Oulipo, the famous French “workshop of potential literature” founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, Perec is a writer known for his experimental word play and writing constraints. He conceived this book less as a dream journal and more as a literary exercise. La Boutique Obscure captures his dreams from May 1968 to August 1972, a fertile period in which he wrote his celebrated novel, A Void, which he constructed without ever using the letter “e”. In his subsequent novella, The Exeter Text, written during the same period, the letter “e” is the only vowel used.
At the beginning of the book, we are given some specifications in regards to the typography and the formatting so we can better understand the text. But as soon as we start reading and enter this oneiric world, we quickly lose sight of these guidelines. This a world in which we instantly feel suspended, as if navigating a void, striving to be anchored by Perec’s references to time and space. We oftentimes follow the author arriving and leaving train and métro stations, returning to the same address but on different streets, coming in and out of apartments whose locations have been altered–their walls and doors moved and the inhabitants changed.
La Boutique Obscure is comprised of 121 of Perec’s own dreams, three by J.L. and one by P. The names of the characters are designated only by initials, and this implies that he wanted to hide or protect the identity of those who appeared in his dreams. The frequent references to puzzles, chess, Go, etc., hints at Perec’s fascination with games in which tangible logic plays an important role, an obsession we see more vividly in his other works. Instead, here Perec centers on a world, often devoid of rational logic, the world of dreams. Most of his dreams are infused with recurring motifs such as the fear of arrest, the SS and even Adolph Hitler; motifs that make reference to his Jewish ancestry and most likely to his childhood memories. Apart from an explicit reference to an actress’s small breasts that make him think of his mother (Oedipus Express__ 83), the dreams are free of sexual repression as he engages sexually with different women frequently throughout the book. Although I’m sure that those interested in a Freudian read could find plenty of symbolism to entertain themselves.
La Boutique Obscure is the least “Perecquian” of his texts, and it is there where its appeal lies. This is Perec’s only book in which we experience the writer free of self-imposed constraints. This freedom is passed forward to the reader who can decipher the symbols, images and patterns that impregnate these dreams and experience the text in a more unfettered way. Through the repetition of certain elements and through their accumulation, the surreal narrative begins to cross into the realm of reality. This “nocturnal autobiography”, as Perec called it, is as much about his dreams as it is about the consciousness that Perec musters to render those dreams. La Boutique Obscure was written in 1973 and it is hard to believe that it has taken 40 years for the first English translation to appear. It makes for a fascinating read and offers a fresh perspective on Perec’s genius.
Javier Fuentes is an MFA candiate in fiction at Columbia University
and a creative director. He doesn’t live in Brooklyn.