Things: A Story of the Sixties – George Perec   Leave a comment

 

This is a very unusual experimental novel, I chose to read it purely because it is on my list, ‘1001 books to read before you die’.

Georges Perec, (1936 – 1982) was a French novelist, filmmaker and essayist. His father died as a soldier early in the Second World War and his mother was murdered in the Holocaust, so many of his works deal with loss, and identity.

Things (Les Choses) was his first novel, published in1965. It met with great success and won the Prix Renaudot for that year. It is semi-autobiographical in that Perec also worked in market research, and he also spend some time in Tunisian Sfax, as do his characters.

The novel tackles the theme of rise of consumerism, and considers both the attraction and emptiness of this lifestyle.

The story is unusual in that does not have a plot, in the traditional sense and there is no dialogue at all until the epilogue. The grammatical tenses used by the author change during the novel from the conditional in the first part, to the present in the second part and finally to the future in the epilogue.

In the first section the book gives an overview of the lives of two Paris university drop-outs, Jérôme and Sylvie. They are disillusioned with society and took positions in market research, mainly because then have more leisure time and flexibility, but rarely as much income as they desire, and occasionally so little that they run out of cigarettes and need friends’ dinner invitations in order to get enough to eat.

Drawn by consumerism, which they tackle daily in their job, they aspire to a lifestyle beyond their means, suffering the anxiety of not being able to afford the items which will define their social status.

The main characters prefer their bohemian lifestyle and are suspicious of becoming more devoted to a career, thus they are conflicted with their sense of entitlement to the goods available to them and the cost to their lifestyle to access them.

Perec uses the conditional tense to plunge the reader into the dreams of his two characters, most of which focus on their material desires, including residences, furniture, and fashionable clothing. The first chapter consists entirely of a description of a desirable apartment and its furnishings. The characters in the novel do not hold as much textual importance as the things.

 

In the shorter Part 2 narrated in the future tense, they apply for teaching positions, in Tunisia away from their oppressive Parisian lives; in an attempt to earn money and thus keep their bohemian lifestyle. However during their 8 months in Sfax, they feel disconnected from the surrounding society and grow increasingly numb even to their formerly intense material desires. They truly do not fit anywhere.

In the Epilogue Perec switches tenses, offering not what has happened or is happening but looking ahead. “Things could have carried on in the same way”, is the first sentence of this section. Of course, they will not. Instead the return to France, they bow to the inevitable and taking respectable bourgeois roles in marketing firms:- they rejoin the rat race. These probably give a decent outlook for their lives now, but the novel projects a sense of failure. The attempt to escape ‘the system’ has failed. The book ends very abruptly.

The theme of young people struggling to afford the material goods which they hope will define them, clinging to the lifestyle of their university days, and pursuing a peripatetic career, is still very relevant today.

An interesting read.

 

 

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