The Memory of the Word

Georges Perec’s W demonstrates the power of trauma on a narrator’s point of view. The narrator exhibits difficulty in recounting the past, and it is only towards the end of the novel that two seemingly oppositional narratives reconcile. This essay discusses the narrator's inability to ‘contact the truth’ as a coping mechanism rather than a solely conscious decision.

Metafiction in W creates the dividing boundary between the alternating narratives. Each narrative – that of the island of W, and that of the author’s own history – has a completely distinctive feel, despite their aesthetic, which defines their respective mise en scenes. The novel’s first chapter opens the fictional account of W, emphasising the author’s need to recount past experience through a process of extreme distantiation. Within the narrator’s sub-fiction, he admits “For years I put off telling the tale of my voyage to W.” (3) It becomes clear – particularly later in the novel – that the account of W is used to fill the gaps inherent in the author’s past, leading “up to my twelfth year or thereabouts, (at which) my story comes to barely a couple of lines.” (6) Like opposing magnets however, the alternating narratives repel one another with incredible force. Notice the tone of the account of W, for instance, which, after the ‘narrator’ has provided reason to divulge its details in Part 1 (Chapters 1-11), he ends the sequence and begins Part 2 having shed himself of the “I” by which an individual defines them self. He writes “Far away at the end of the earth, there is an island told of. It’s name is W.” (65) The autobiographer makes very clear both his personal distance and his geographical distance. This is totally ironic: why does the author, in an autobiographical novel, seek to write a fiction which describes an event in the objectivist discourse of transactional report? Furthermore, after setting the scene of W in terms of a geographical and cultural abstract, the remainder of the account is frequently comparable to a rule book, indicating the narrator’s unmentioned experience of the island’s strict enforcement of competition: “The ranking heats held regularly in each village for each team allow the best three of fifteen Athletes to be identified.” (83)

Arguably, the answer here is that Perec is fictionalising his traumatic memories in order to come to terms with his experiences. Cathy Caruth writes that “rethinking of reference is not aimed at eliminating history, but at resituating it in our understanding, that is, of precisely permitting history to arise where immediate understanding may not.” (182) She goes on to state “For history to be a history of trauma means that it is referential precisely to the extent that it is not fully perceived as it occurs; (...) a history can be grasped only in the very inaccessibility of its occurrence.” (187) This is a theme arising through much of the holocaust literature: an inability of those involved to comprehend what they were experiencing, followed by disbelief or denial once removed from the situation. Perec openly admits this phenomena: “For years I sought traces of my history (...). I found nothing, and it sometimes seemed as though I had dreamt, that there has been only an unforgettable nightmare.” (3).

Perec leaves a vital clue for readers in detecting his history behind the veil of children’s fantasy: throughout W, Perec maintains an uncanny fascination with mnemonics (see Perec 136), which serves as a vehicle of authorial synaesthesia. Just as the Perec’s ‘open’ autobiography grows in detail, similar inferences, frequently with shaky connections at best, are amended to the depiction of W. In chapter 21, Perec recounts a scuffle, when another boy hit him in the face with a ski-stick; he ventures “I suppose he also broke one or two of my teeth.” Gaps and memory lapses are frequent in W, and are bridged by the author’s reasoning. To take this idea out on a limb, this could perhaps be used to explain W as an athletic parable to Nazi concentration camps. The nature of the living conditions – a need to conquer, strict rules and unstable conditions – are directly comparable to the athletic realm, at least as far as the young child might perceive. Furthermore, there are boundless references to the competition of racing. While it may seem farfetched and undoubtedly requiring a more intimate study, it is interesting to suggest that, according to the Oxford Dictionary, like the English forms of ‘race’ (a charge or onset, or a social group sharing a common ancestry), equivocation of both of these terms within one word, as race, or overlapping words race and ras is also present in French (Perec’s mother tongue). Perhaps Perec saw this connection as a child within the confines of the camp, interpreting the subject of ‘race’ as he heard it from others around him, and feeding it unwittingly into his perception.

The bipolar narratives within W are a composite of details obtained and inserted from a later date. Perec often admits this through his frequent additions and notes in Part 1, as well as through his reliance on evidence such as photographs. This demonstrates biography’s tendency to be a highly subjective field. This presents itself when Perec challenges his own subject position within his history:
“This nebulous history prompts hazy questions which I have never managed to clarify. How was it that during that period, lasting maybe the length of the summer holidays, and on Christmas Eve, I was the only child in a school that in those days was virtually full up, not with sick children, for whom it was originally intended, but with refugees? So where did the others go during the holidays, and who gave them those afternoon snacks which I alone, inexplicably, did not get?” (122)
Again, memories have faded and are obscured by the external perceptions of others and subsequent reflections of the author. In this case, unlike the descriptions of W which are simply amended to, Perec’s authorial presence is highly noticeable in description of his ‘conscious’ childhood.

W shows the aware reader of the power of not only trauma on memory, but of the input of the author on his or her work. Yet Perec’s attempt to correct details, and sheer obviousness of the input of memory and external perspective shows a lesson in the control of life writing that demands forgiveness of his inaccuracies and lapses.

Works cited
  • Perec, George. W, or the Memory of Childhood. (Boston: David R. Godine, 2003). Print.
  • Caruth, Cathy. “Unclaimed Experience: Trauma and the Possibility of History.” Yale French Studies, Issue 79 (January, 1991): p.181-192