Georges Perec's rediscovered first novel review - a fascinating but awkward allegory

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 December, 2014, 12:10am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 December, 2014, 2:12pm

Portrait of a Man
by Georges Perec
MacLehose Press

A master forger conceives of a fantastic ambition: to go beyond the mere imitation of old painters, and instead "to create an authentic masterwork of the past".

That is the high concept behind the recently rediscovered first novel by the much-loved French experimental writer Georges Perec. Written when he was 24, it was never published in his lifetime, having been rejected by le tout Paris. Is it an authentic masterwork, or was the world not much the poorer after Perec's typescript was accidentally thrown away in the wrong box?

The novel opens as the protagonist, forger Gaspard Winckler, is dragging downstairs the body of a man he has just murdered. The reader is at once plunged into Gaspard's fetid and paranoid thoughts, as he attempts to escape from the studio where he has been holed up for months, at work on what was supposed to be his crowning achievement.

Soon the narration begins to jump around chronologically, as Perec draws slow-motion tableaux that portray other states of psychic tension: Gaspard rooted to the spot at a party, Gaspard on a plane thinking about a disappointed girlfriend, Gaspard embracing solitude because of his social anxiety ("he had felt splashed by the existence of other people"), and so on.

The solution of the whydunit is revealed as a non-solution. "Why did you kill Madera?" Gaspard asks himself at one point. "No motives. He was fat and alive, he puffed like a sea lion, he was ugly."

At length, Gaspard escapes from the murder location. The novel's talky, retrospective second half sees him holed up with a friend and obsessively going over the details of his life and strange artistic ambition, which he realises at last was a failure. What narrative suspense remains comes from some superbly engaging discussions of both an actual painting - the 1475 Portrait of a Man by Antonello da Messina - and the making of a fake painting, as Gaspard tries to paint a new Antonello that would have been worthy of Antonello himself.

In the end, it is most tempting to read this fascinating but awkward novel as an allegory of Perec's own anxieties of influence, as he attempted to become a novelist.

Perhaps Perec recognised that Gaspard's failure to create a credible portrait of a man was also his own. By the novel's end, the artist-hero is instead looking to the future, promising himself that from now on he will devote all his energies to the creation of something with "palpable lucidity", something that reflects a "sensibility in full bloom".

And that, after all, is what Georges Perec went on to do.

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