Words from Marcel Bénabou, the Permanent Provisioinal Secretary of OuLiPo
Two or three years ago, while I was navigating the “Perec List” – a wonderful institution that allows readers - admirers of the French writer Georges Perec to exchange information on the internet – my eye was drawn to a post. It elaborated a project by two artists, with lovely sounding names, Norie and Maria. They were asking for assistance with the project from the Perecian ‘family’. Without a moment’s hesitation, I decided to reply and offer my assistance. Not only because they were from Australia, a country where Perec spent the last summer of his all too short life in 1981. But also because their somewhat paradoxical, even provocative project, judging from their invitation to the List, seemed to me marvellously to fit the very specificity, the singularity of Perec.
What was it about? It consisted in creating an audio-visual work while searching in Paris to find la rue Simon-Crubellier, the street in the 17th arrondissement where the building so meticulously detailed in Life a User’s Manual supposedly was located. Now several aspects of this project seem to me to link it to Perec’s vision of the world. I will briefly go over them.
To treat an imaginary street like a real street, to put into place all the concrete apparatus of an actual enquiry (questioning passers-by, the supposed neighbours, interrogating various officials) to track down a phantom place -- this was above all to confuse and muddy the trail, to indulge scandalously in the exhilarating joys of mystification. An approach that one knows to be so dear to Perec, who so loved to play with fakery and practical jokes in his works.
It was also, a bit more seriously, trying to break down the conventional border between real and imaginary which was precisely one the of aims of Perec the novelist.
It was finally, and for me this is perhaps the most striking aspect of the project, to recognise the force and persuasive power of the literary work, Life a User’s Manual, which made this kind of manoeuvre possible and almost essential. Yes, the whole swarming life of these 99 little cells of the building which form the 99 chapters of the book, the reader feels a natural desire to anchor in real life and these antipodean artists were so totally right to go looking for this place.
But in doing so, they took a great risk, of finding themselves, ironically and with a Perecian twist, caught up in the world of the book. And adding one more “story” to all those that make the novel – “the story of two Australians who left in search of a street that doesn’t exist.”