on 12 June 2002
Two very different books - this is, after all, Perec, whose project was to write one of everything. Things was the novel which brought him to the world's attention, a satire on consumerism, ambition and self-satisfaction which is subtle and affecting.
The more striking book, though, is A Man Asleep. It is the story of a student who withdraws from the world, told in the second person - an extremely unusual literary device which, in Perec's hands, is incredibly effective. Everyone I know who has read this book has been stricken with near-clinical depression! The novel's hypnotic voice is irresistible.
on 22 January 2015
Although Perec was a brilliant writer from the use-of-language (or technical) point of view, perhaps comparable to Proust for composing beautiful sentences, the way he chose to tell the two stories in this edition - Things and A Man Asleep - I found quite tedious after a short time.
The first chapter of `Things' sets the style - a rambling description of an apartment in Paris, told in the conditional tense (eg: The second door would reveal a study ... the walls would be lined with books ...)
The point is that the narrative represents the desires of a young Parisian couple who want all the material things that life can now give (in the early 1960s), but they will forever be disappointed because they can never earn enough to buy all these things.
It's an interesting idea, and Perec must be one of the first writers to explore the failings of the modern consumer society, the pointless search for happiness amongst material possessions. But unfortunately it doesn't lead to a great novel. The characters are deliberately kept vague and shallow, so of course we are never drawn to them - we can't even dislike them because they barely exist. But it's not just characterization that's lacking: there's no real plot and no dialogue, just a great deal of description, or `telling'.
The second short novel in this volume, A Man Asleep, is told in the second person (You are alone ... You often play cards all by yourself ...) and follows a young man who finds himself indifferent to the world around him, but as with `Things', it lacks the usual requirements of a good novel.
Again it has a Proustian flavour, both in the subject matter (lying in bed unable to sleep, pondering the dark shapes of the furniture) and in the length of the sentences (whole pages, sometimes), but without the joyful side to Proust, or the humour. Perec suffered from depression and both stories are semi-autobiographical - hence the depressing mood and subject matter.
Perec undoubtedly explored some interesting ideas in his writing, which seems to be about the use of language as much as anything else. For me though, clever writing cannot compensate for the lack of a good story.