“On the places of Georges Perec”, on France Culture: walking and remembering with Perec

First of all, let’s admit that listening to this documentary series brought tears to our eyes

“On the places of Georges Perec”, on France Culture: walking and remembering with Perec

First of all, let’s admit that listening to this documentary series brought tears to our eyes. Then say that as soon as it was finished we listened to it again and rather three times than once. Because it is particularly beautiful and dense. And with a density that is not only scholarly but sensitive, and beyond its primary object of study (the places of the writer Georges Perec), it is overwhelming. Because through Perec the question of origins, lack and trace is raised. And this is all that the historian Claire Zalc, with extreme intelligence, rigor and sensitivity, questions.

Episode 1: rue Vilin (Paris 20th, now almost destroyed), where Georges Perec lived from his birth in 1936 to 1942, the year his mother was arrested before being murdered at Auschwitz. From this disappearance, and from his abysmal lack of memories, Georges Perec will never recover. So, he will write, describe, try to “exhaust” – this is the term he uses – rue Vilin.

If the question of traces is central for Perec, as his biographer Claude Burgelin recalls here, Claire Zalc adds: "When we work in the camps, collecting traces means fighting against the deliberate efforts of the project managers of the Shoah to erase the traces of their enterprise of annihilation. Gathering the archives also means trying not to let the lives of the victims disappear. Perec, in a certain way, when he places the texts of his descriptions and memories in envelopes, creates an archive. »

“Save from oblivion”

In 1974, Perec decided to open them to write W or Childhood Memory (Gallimard, 1975), putting an end to the Lieux project, which remained unfinished (Seuil, 2022). The wonderful Robert Bober (author in particular of the film En remontant la rue Vilin, INA, 1992) puts forward an explanation: “Naming what there is to save from oblivion is what he always did. If he stopped, it was because he didn’t want to see his parents’ house destroyed. Queneau, of whom Perec was a great reader, said: “I have to go and see before all this disappears.” Perec also went to see before all this disappeared, but he stopped before all this disappeared because it would not have been bearable. »

La Disparition (Gallimard, 1969), his famous novel without the letter "e", it was at Moulin d'Andé, in Eure (episode 2), that Perec wrote it in 1968 while Paris was living there. time of the barricades and that millions of strikers bring the country to a standstill, as Claire Zalc recalls. And to ask the question: “Is he missing the event? », which is coupled with a doubt for her while she works on this documentary at a time when wars are increasing (Ukraine, Israel). And to ask ourselves: “What is the point of making history when it passes through us as it does today and when the extremes call for a retreat into identity and place us under house arrest? »

Trying to grasp, not what the official speeches call the event, but what is underneath: the infra-ordinary, that's what Perec has always done - notably in his text on Ellis Island (episode 3) where he went with Robert Bober in 1978. Perec says what remains of what was the reception center for millions of immigrants bound for New York between 1892 and 1954. This is also the first time that Georges Perec writes what it means for him to be Jewish: “It is obvious, if you like (…), a mark, but a mark which does not connect me (…) to anything concrete. (…) It would rather be an absence (…), an uneasy certainty behind which another certainty emerges, abstract, heavy, unbearable: that of having been designated as a Jew, and because a Jewish victim, and of not owing life than to chance and to exile. »

Report to Poland

It is then that Claire Zalc gives us an inestimable gift, because she had this passage translated into Yiddish by Rodolfo Niborski, whose beautiful reading is supported here by The Transfigured Night, by Schoenberg, while Schumann and Schubert irrigated the first episodes .

The last episode takes us to the birthplace of Georges Perec's father and his adoptive aunt: in Lubartow, a small town in eastern Poland, inhabited between the wars by 3,300 Jews, almost of whom -everyone was murdered. By disappearing behind Perec, Claire Zalc questions her relationship with Poland, country of birth of two of her grandparents and place of assassination of theirs. And that’s also what makes this series so beautiful. Because by following in Perec's footsteps she questions herself and us all about what these words mean that so often resonate today: roots, origins, belonging.

In this respect, On the Places by Georges Perec is a political series, which does not prevent it from being poetic and so well put to music and on the air by Diphy Mariani, whose work we must absolutely salute here.