A Man Asleep
The Centurion’s Servant, Stanley Spencer, 1914
by Joanna Walsh
La Boutique Obscure: 124 Dreams,
by Georges Perec, translated by Daniel Levin Becker,
Melville House, 272 pp.
Along with a poorly identified person (maybe my aunt), I am visiting a sort of colonial trading post. At the very back of one room we come upon a gigantic puzzle… it’s of a Renaissance painting… close up, though, you realise the whole thing is a puzzle: the puzzle itself (the painting) is but a fragment of a larger puzzle, unfinished because it can’t be finished… there are, if not an infinite number, at least an extremely large number of possible combinations.
— Dream #114, La Boutique Obscure
What are dreams for? Elliptical, intimate, (seemingly) significant; from predicting the future to returning the repressed, these least fathomable experiences have always had an interpretive function laid on them.
A similar question lies at the heart of the Oulipo, the Euro-French literary club founded in 1960, which Georges Perec joined in 1967. The movement replaced its Surrealist antecedents’ espousal of ‘chance’ – “pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought.” – with the application of mathematical ‘constraints’ in order to create ‘potential literatures’, not all of which are, or are capable of being, realised. The Oulipo’s ideological aims – perhaps uniquely for a twentieth century art movement – are less clearly stated and vary from practitioner to practitioner. Its problem might be, as Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito have recently suggested, that it is a literally ‘end-less’ literature. Does it matter if Oulipian texts ‘mean’ anything, have a purpose or even sound good? American group member, Harry Matthews insists, “it’s important to emphasise that what distinguishes the Oulipo from language game enthusiasts is that its methods have to be capable of producing valid literary results.”.
Surrealist ‘psychic automatism’ was most easily achieved in a dream state. Surrealist guru, André Breton, writes in the First Surrealist Manifesto, “needless to say, boundaries have been assigned even to experience. It revolves in a cage from which release is becoming increasingly difficult.” According equal – or greater – weight to the experience of the dreaming subconscious offers him a glimpse of freedom. “An Oulipian,” according to the group’s co-founder Raymond Queneau, is, by contrast, “a rat that constructs a labyrinth from which he will try to escape.”
Surrealism can at first sound the more liberating experience, but look closer and the First Manifesto renders dreaming pedestrianly utilitarian. In a De Botton-esque self-help book tone, Breton asks, “could not the dreams as well be applied to the solution of life’s fundamental problems?”
Do dreams contain hidden structures that can ‘solve’ everyday life, or must artificial structures be applied to them if any ‘meaning’ is to emerge? Perec is very much aware of this ‘which came first’ puzzle.
In Oulipo’s running debate over whether to make the constraints it employs explicit, Perec usually came down on the side of letting the cat out of the bag – but La Boutique (remains) Obscure. Perec’s dreams are the same kind of crazy as most people’s. He discovers hitherto unnoticed doors in his apartment, appears naked in public, has (or fails to have) sex with famous people, is hounded by his boss and other authority figures, finds himself unable to pay for things or complete pieces of work, is stranded in the non-spaces of airports and public buildings, and kills his exes. I’ve dreamt about all these situations: you probably have too.
Despite the index that isolates and counts repeated incidents and objects, and although his dreams are scattered with puns and word games, Perec makes no further attempt at algorithmics. If the task of the Oulipian is to build or impose a recognisable structure across a work, La Boutique Obscure seems a bit of an Oulipofail. Why read someone else’s dream diary, especially one that refuses to draw conclusions about the relation of dreams to the dreamer’s everyday life, or, indeed, anything else?
But if any dream diary is an invitation to interpretation, Perec’s is doubly so, as the Oulipo’s relationship to its reader is always collaborative, the most extreme example perhaps being Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliard de Poèmes  in which sonnets are constructed by the reader from a flip-book of possibilities.
Should we apply Perec’s dreams to his fiction? Like Breton, Perec claimed he dreamt in words rather than images, and his dreams often take on fictional forms: screenplays, operas, theatrical productions (though not books). There’s something forced about trying to use La Boutique Obscure to unlock Perec’s novels. There are amusing commentaries, as in dream #95 in which he is horrified (“you might think I’m dreaming.”) to discover an edition of A Void had been put out full of proliferating banned letter ‘e’s, but searching for a key ‘constraint’ across the 124 dreams is as frustrating as trying to force a piece from the wrong puzzle into the final space of a jigsaw.
If you’d prefer to take a biographical approach (and if you read French), you could consult this exhaustive and exhausting article by Eric Lavallade which unpicks Perec’s dreams with reference to events in his waking life. Convincing but… so what?
If there’s a key to La Boutique Obscure it could well be found in Perec’s non-fiction, particularly Species of Spaces, in which the writer attempts not to impose constraints on everyday life, but to make himself passively receptive in order to discover structures already in existence (“force yourself to see more flatly,” he commands). The structures Perec discovers in Species of Spaces tend not toward creative play with the concepts by which we live, but the appalling playfulness of the systems by which we kill. Perec (via David Rousset’s Le Pitre ne Rit Pas), quotes a Nazi order for bushes of varying heights (“200 trees in leaf from three to five metres high; 100 tree shoots in leaf from a metre…” etc) to screen Auschwitz’s ‘crematorium ovens’. Humanity’s love of sorting produces spaces Perec categorises as ‘the uninhabitable… the architecture of contempt or display’, the ultimate of which, Perec suggests, is the concentration camp.
The bookend nightmares in 124 Dreams take place in concentration camps. Perec’s mother died, in, or on her way to, Auschwitz. If inherent/subconscious structures lead to such terrible dead ends, replacing them with consciously absurd and arbitrary Oulipian constraints might be the only way out of the labyrinth.
I’d also link La Boutique Obscure to Perec’s Lieux project, begun during the dream-diary period, in which Perec proposed a twelve-year algorithmical schedule to capture the triplicate city: “the threefold experience of ageing: of the places themselves, of my memories, and of my writing.”
Perec’s dreams are in part a sort of non-Lieux-project, the arrondissements of Paris rejigged in a jigsaw similar to that Perec suggested in Species of Spaces:
I’d go and sleep in Denfert, I’d write in the Place Voltaire, I’d listen to music in the Place Clichy, I’d make love at the Poterne des Peupliers, I’d eat in the Rue de la Tombe-Issoire, I’d read by the Park Monceau, etc.
But reordering in dreams is beyond Perec’s control. In dream #41 “At one point, a bit distressed, I try ‘to make the image go faster’ (to watch myself run up the stairs faster) but I can’t.” Breton, by contrast, seemed able, if not to control his dreams, to use them to enact fantasies he might have had when awake. “The mind of the dreaming man,” the Surrealist claimed, “is fully satisfied with whatever happens to it. The agonising question of possibility does not arise. Kill, plunder more quickly, love as much as you wish. And if you die, are you not sure of being roused from the dead? Let yourself be led. Events will not tolerate deferment. You have no name. Everything is inestimably easy.” Not so for Perec, who is aware of his own anxiety as he dreams, is even aware that he is dreaming. This is an experience common to dreamers I’ve talked with. Breton’s dream-as-wish-fulfilment seems odd: the purposeful fantasy of daydreams.
Perec worried about taking control of his dreams, even through remembering and writing them down. During the years he spent writing La Boutique Obscure, he undertook a more-or-less equally long period of psychiatric treatment which he describes in his essay, ‘Backtracking’:
Each word I set down wasn’t a milestone but a diversion, the stuff of daydreams… I had begun to wake myself up in the night to write notes on my dreams in a black notebook which never left me. Very soon I became so practised that dreams offered themselves to me fully written, including their titles.
Breton fretted about dream recall too, though less about the mind’s overbearing control than its inability to possess a dream strongly enough:
Man, when he ceases to sleep, is above all at the mercy of his memory, and the memory normally delights in feebly retracing the circumstance of the dream for him, depriving it of all actual consequence. 
Does the nature of dreaming change when, like Breton, we want something of it? During the diary period, dreaming became for Perec a kind of work. “I thought I was recording the dreams I was having;” Perec writes in his very short preface, but, “I realised that it was not long before I began having dreams only in order to write them. These dreams, overdreamed, overworked, overwritten – what could I then expect of them, if not to make them into texts, a bundle of texts?”
Perec suggests that the title of La Boutique Obscure is a tribute to an Italian review, and of certain ‘souk-like’ shops in Rome but it makes me think of Montaigne’s ‘arrière-boutique’ – the back shop of the mind – which is how the sixteenth-century writer described his ‘essais’, (literally ‘tryouts’). It’s an association no reader or writer of French could evade.
The idea of work – or of dreaming as a kind of work – is important here. Perec, no trust fund writer relying on money from home, had a day job and an ambivalent attitude to it. Like the British poet, Phillip Larkin he (day)dreams:
Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff
That dreams are made on:
For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too
La Boutique Obscure is not Perec’s only sleep-related work from this period. He also wrote on the novella, A Man Asleep, in which a Bartleby-esque student abandons his studies to pursue banality. Perec’s dreams are in no way suggestive of those of hero of the extraordinarily beautiful film he went on to make from the novella, whose attempts to “dodge the toad work/by being stupid or weak” lead to an ideal, affectless blankness. Perec’s personal dreams are a fruity explosion of incidents and jokes, sex and satire. There’s something about them of the self-conscious technicolour zaniness of a ’60s movie: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World…
Breton writes, “they say that not long ago, just before he went to sleep, Saint-Pol-Roux placed a placard on the door of his manor at Camaret which read: THE POET WORKS.” If Breton’s was anxious to turn his dreams into (a) work, Perec, like Larkin, saw the two as opposites, and agonised: “Why write them down, anyway, knowing you will only sell them out (and no doubt sell yourself out in the process)?” Perhaps the only way to square the circle of the working week – to make work interchangeable with a kind of play, and play with a kind of work – was to join the Oulipo, which, after all, is an acronym for the Ouvroir (or workshop) of potential Literature. “The moral of this faded episode,” writes Perec in dream #1, “…we can save ourselves (sometimes) by playing…”
“Constraint is a principle not a means” said Oulipian Jacques Roubaud in 1981. The paradox at the heart of Oulipo is one of work. To write something down, to use Oulipian means to produce a work that stands alone with, as Matthews insists, “valid literary results” is to shut down some of the avenues of its ‘potential’. The open-ended La Boutique Obscure may be one of Perec’s successfully Oulipian achievements: a work of charming obscurity and flatness that hints at, but refuses to fulfil, its potential.
But dreams are also the hinge at which Perec acknowledges the Surrealist vision of the creative subconscious that the Oulipo is so anxious to avoid. It seems to me there are always two Perecs: the man awake – the Oulipian who builds the labyrinth – and the “man asleep” towards whose condition all his wakeful Oulipian structures tend.
About the Author:
Joanna Walsh’s writings and drawings have been published by Tate, The Guardian, The Times, The Idler, FiveDials, 3:AM and The White Review, amongst others. She has created large-scale artworks for the Tate Modern and The Wellcome Institute. Her website, Badaude, was a Webby Honoree in 2008. She has created and developed situational games in collaboration with agencies Hide & Seek and Coney. Last year she appeared at the Port Eliot Festival, The Wellcome Institute, The Cambridge Festival of Ideas, Hide & Seek’s Southbank Weekender, Shakespeare and Company Paris, Dialogue Books Berlin and the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. She is an associate member of the London Institute of ‘Pataphysics. She is currently writing a semiautobiography.