Philip Terry on the Endless Fascination of Georges Perec’s I Remember

In France today, Perec’s memoir of 1979 Je me souviens is thought of as one of his most diverting and original works. It has been adapted for stage and television, and has been the subject of two books of notes and glosses by Roland Brasseur, Je me souviens de ‘Je me souviens’ (I Remember ‘I Remember’, 1978) and Je me souviens encore mieux de ‘Je me souviens’ (I Remember More Still About ‘I Remember’, 2003). Perec’s formula, too, has been adopted by the Oulipo (the Workshop of Potential Literature, or Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), where it has become the best-known example of a kind of text generator or constraint which they call a ‘texte à démarreur’ or ‘kick-start’.

And yet, the form itself, like many other Oulipian constraints made famous by Perec — including the lipogram, where a text is written without a particular letter or letters of the alphabet, which he put to such devastating effect in his e-less novel La Disparition — is not original to Perec. Perec borrowed the form from New York artist Joe Brainard, whose work he had been told about by his friend Harry Mathews, and among the memories shared by Brainard and Perec is a memory of the hula hoop. He was not the only writer to pick up on Brainard’s invention: New York poet Ted Berrigan wrote a poem with the same title for his collection Easter Monday (1983) beginning “I remember painting ‘I HATE TED BERRIGAN’ in big black letters all over my white wall.” And yet Perec, and subsequently Oulipo, have made this form their own over the years, and in writing workshops have allowed others to explore the delights of the form too.

Anyone can write ‘I remember’s, and so Perec, in the first edition of his book, left a number of pages blank for the reader to write their own memories. Since its publication many others have tried their hand at the form, both inside and outside Oulipo. Harry Mathews wrote The Orchard on the occasion of Perec’s death in 1982, and then on the occasion of Harry Mathews’ death in 2017 Oulipo themselves collected together a series of their memories of him in turn, entitled Nous nous souvenons de Harry Mathews (We Remember Harry Mathews, 2018). And Oulipo have gone on to ring the changes on the idea, with other kick-starts like ‘I forget…’, ‘Where did I read…’, ‘Perhaps you’re one of those who…’, and ‘I was thinking…’, which Hervé Le Tellier turned into his book-length sequence A Thousand Pearls for a Thousand Pennies (1997).

I’ve taught the ‘I remember…’ form to my own students studying Oulipo at the University of Essex, and I am always astonished at how successful it is at eliciting a stream of memories, often memories which otherwise would have remained dormant. We’ve explored too the way in which it can be used in fictional contexts to create or represent characters’ memories. And I’ve recently written using the form myself in my memoir A Belfast Childhood (2019), where the constraint is supplemented by an alphabetical arrangement, and family and friends used the form to collect memories after my mother died in August 2019.

In this translation, following Brasseur’s example, David Bellos has added footnotes to give context to Perec’s sometimes arcane memories of a Paris which has disappeared, as much for its French readers as it has for those on this side of the Channel. As well as the arcane, Perec’s I Remember (and this is one of the things which makes translation difficult) is full of memories of jokes involving multiple puns, such as: ‘Why do musicians get up late?’ ‘Because of the Partita 4 in D Flat.’ (In French: ‘Pourquoi les filles du Nord sont-elles précoces?’ ‘Parce que le concerto en sol mineur.’) Such things can be translated in two ways: either literally, excising the pun, which is then explicated in a footnote (the method favoured by David Bellos); or translate the pun, but thereby distort the translation on the semantic plane (the method I favoured). In the end we had to resort to both these methods to get the translation done, but on the whole translating the pun has been favoured over the literal, so that the reader can experience the play of Perec’s text directly, rather than simply read a report about it in a footnote. Following Perec’s example, we have left a number of pages blank at the end of the book for the reader to write their own ‘I remembers’.

–Philip Terry

I Remember (tr. Philip Terry & David Bellos) is published by Gallic Books on 21 May 2020.

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