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(a reader’s review by nin chan)
I keep thinking about this novel, even though it’s been about a month since I completed it. When I put it down, I knew that I had finished a great novel, a book that I found to be more accomplished even than Perec’s “W”, and certainly more moving than any of the other Oulipo experiments, but the more I meditate on it the more I am convinced that it is one of the great novels of the 20th century. By that I mean that I would class it alongside Ulysses, How It Is, Journey To The End Of The Night, As I Lay Dying, Hunger, Tropic Of Cancer, Time Regained, The Castle, Spring Snow, The Stranger, Nostromo, Lady Chatterley, Buddenbrooks, The Waves, Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, etcetera etcetera. Somehow, it is everything that I wish One Hundred Years Of Solitude had been, though I feel the same way about another great novel I read shortly before L:aUM, Halldor Laxness’ sublime Independent People, which, for all of the cosmetic differences that distinguish it from Perec’s novel (it is about Icelandic sheep farmers, after all!) is a novel of comparable power, scope and tone. I’m not entirely sure why this is.
... To this day, I keep thinking about certain of my favorite anecdotes in the book- the couple that revived their love lives by engaging in high-risk felonies, the theosophic medium whose husband was AWOL from vietnam, the daughter who discovers her mother’s old photographs and weaves a fanciful genealogy for herself, the countryside chef who joins a travelling Moliere troupe before becoming a TV star in Hollywood. After Beckett, we all know that a novel fails, that it could not hope to encapsulate the cacophonous cornucopia of life. Perec is acutely aware of that, but he wants to contrive the most spectacular, the most poignant failure the novel has ever known. The entire novel is a dramatisation of that, is it not? Bartlebooth’s vainglorious agenda is the most beautiful tragicomedy in all of literature, more so than Don Quixote’s, than Phileas Fogg’s.
What I find even stranger about the book is Perec’s endeavor to craft a formally classical novel. True, the book owes a lot more to Sterne, Rabelais, Cervantes and Chaucer than the ‘realist novel’ as such, but apart from some superficial traits it doesn’t have any of the formal brazenness of the new/anti-novel. For all of its unwieldy, unruly expansiveness- Perec is undoubtedly making a Borgesian statement with his endless spew of stories- the structure of L:aUM is more cohesive than one initially thinks, a fact that is made evident in the final scene. The preamble, repeated in the body of the story proper, is crucial to understanding the closing montage, and the cumulative effect is truly overwhelming. The entire novel is like a bulging, billowing balloon tied at both ends- the prolegomena and the coda impose some form upon the amorphous protoplasm. It is, I suppose, in this regard that the parallels to Ulysses are somewhat appropriate, though Ulysses is much, much, much more of a calculated product than this is, hardly a surprise, since Joyce, the last great Symbolist, is also the furthest thing from a Kafka, a Beckett or a Borges!