Australian Marginalia: Encounters with Australia in Raymond Roussel, John Ashbery and Georges Perec

1 November 2019


To return to Roussel’s Melbourne postcard, the mechanics of this poetics of estrangement can be viewed in action. In his letter to Dufrène, Roussel describes a daytrip he took between two ‘stations de bains (beach resorts)’: ‘It’s really worthwhile to come so far so as to be able to make an excursion from Brighton to Menton (sic), which I have done!’ Roussel was delighted to discover these familiar place names in such close proximity, where travelling between their European namesakes would require a trek over half of France and across the English Channel. These echoes and semblances, the result of empire and settler mimicry of European placenames, fascinated Roussel: his fiction erects a statue of Immanuel Kant – the great Enlightenment cosmopolitan – in the heart of Africa and, conversely, shrinks an Egyptian pyramid to fit the lens of a pair of opera glasses (Roussel Impressions 11). Yet as Australian readers, we might also note that Roussel misspells ‘Menton(e)’ (a correction missed by Leiris, who annotates ‘handsomes cabs’ with a ‘(sic)’). The fugitive ‘e’ puts askew the symmetry Roussel is noting between Northern and Southern hemispheres, as though the Australia he is describing were already passing through his procédé, transforming into the otherworldly stuff of his fiction.

This fugitive ‘e’ ‘may be a minor detail,’ writes Wills in Prosthesis, ‘a letter neither here nor there, but given Roussel’s procédé there is no knowing where it might take us’ (267). For Wills, the letter’s disappearance calls to mind the French novelist Georges Perec – a champion and disciple of Roussel’s writing techniques – who earned notoriety for his 300-page lipogram, La Disparition (A Void, translated by Gilbert Adair in 1969), a novel written entirely without words containing the letter ‘e’. Sharing Roussel’s belief that ‘literary licence involve(s) faithfully obeying the constraints language had imposed’, Perec’s oeuvre is characterised by increasingly ingenious self-imposed procédés (267). Take, for instance, this untitled prose poem, written by Perec during his visit to Australia in 1981.

A la grave saison accompagne les archers d’Amérique dans leur infâme & détestable pérégrination. Sois le champion de leur exacte solitude. Le calme bloc chu du désastre obscur désormais porteur d’un sens camouflé te montre l’effarement de ton rêve si tranquille. Une nuit déchirante t’écoute. Le silence orageux des Indiens Iroquois a quelque chose de grotesque avec ces étoiles infinitésimales. C’est un désert de pierres cassées en millions de petits éclats meurtriers où nul être ne vivra… (Bellos 691)

The poem above appeared in French on posters advertising a writer’s workshop (or ‘Atelier Oulopien’) which Perec convened at the University of Queensland, under the aegis of the University’s thriving French department, which had also hosted Michel Butor, Jean Ricardou and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Perec’s poem focuses on the letter ‘a’ – for Australia? – which adheres to a triangular number sequence (appearing at positions 1, 3, 6, 10, 15, 21, 28, and so on, of the poem). This complicated rule is made more apparent when the letters are piled on the page (in a tower which Perec printed alongside his text as an exegesis or key).

A (1)
LA (3)
GRA (6)
VESA (10)
ISONA (15)
GNELESA (28 …)


The poem has a tone of mock solemnity, epitomised by ‘Le calme bloc chu du désastre obscur (The calm chill of obscure disaster)’, a line lifted almost verbatim from the final stanza of Stéphane Mallarmé’s ‘Le tombeau d’Edgar Poe’ – Mallarmé’s poem reads, ‘calme bloc ici-bas chu d’un désastre obscur’ (88-9). By plagiarising the French master, Perec proffers proof that even when writing with the handicap of a difficult constraint, he is able to scale the loftiest heights of French literature.

Throughout September 1981, Perec’s Queensland writer’s workshop met for two hours each Friday afternoon. Under the French visitor’s tutelage, faculty members and graduate students were invited to write tautograms (an alliterative mode dating back to the ancient Greeks), univocalics (writing which employs only one vowel, as in Perec’s poem ‘A (What A Man)’) and beau presents (portrait poems composed entirely out of anagrams of a subject’s name) (Bellos 691). Perec also sought collaboration with a word problem which would form the basis of 53 Jours (53 Days), his last novel, published posthumously in 1989. Experimenting with a system markedly similar to Roussel’s own procédé, Perec appropriated Stendhal’s famous description of realist fiction: ‘Un Roman est un miroir qui se promène le long de la route’ (literally, ‘a novel is a mirror paraded along a road’, an aphorism commanding writers faithfully imitate reality: ‘At one moment it reflects (…) the azure skies, at another the mire of the puddles at your feet’ (Stendhal 375)). Ignoring the sentence’s intended meaning, Perec removes all but the first letter of each of the main words: ‘Un R est un m qui se l le de la r’ (53 Days 209-10). Using these letters as a blank acronym or makeshift ‘Mad Lib’, Perec – with the help of his Australian colleagues and students – then came up with word combinations that could be used to re-expand the sentence. In the long list which he brought back with him to Paris, the following examples are included: ‘Un roman est un miracle qui se prophétise le leitmotir de la resonance (A novel is a miracle for foretelling for itself the theme of resonance)’ and ‘Un romancier est un maniaque que se propose le limite de la réalité (A novelist is a maniac who sets for himself the limit of reality)’ (210, my emphases).

It is not clear which of these sentences Perec decrypted alone and which were conceived in collaboration with his writer’s workshop students. But by the time he left Brisbane, Perec had developed an interest in Australian literary culture, and arranged to meet some local writers while visiting Sydney. At the Courthouse in Newtown, Perec invited the poets John Forbes and Mark O’Connor for a drink. They brought their francophone friends Julie Rose and Meaghan Morris. Biographer David Bellos describes the encounter:

Perec talked to Forbes about his poetry, about Magic Sam, and about the work of Ken Bolton. Whenever one of the two women spoke, Perec would direct his answer to Forbes. They formed the view that Perec was the most ungallant Frenchman they had ever met and surmised that he was gay. It did not occur to them that the winner of the 1978 Médicis Prize was just terribly shy. (696)

Concerned about the veracity of Bellos’s account – particularly his unflattering portrayal of Rose and Morris as jilted narcissists – cultural studies scholar Melissa Hardie contacted Morris to ask for her own recollections of the meeting. Morris responded:

every couple of years some Perec-ophile emails me about (this) and sends me (Bellos’) passage. It’s nuts. I met Perec for like 5 minutes in a crowded pub (…) where I was trying to talk to my friend Julie Rose. John Forbes took us there. Pub banter was going on and Perec was really rude, I forget why. So I walked away. Duh. (Hardie 42)

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About Brendan Casey

Brendan Casey is a doctoral candidate in the English and Theatre Studies program, University of Melbourne, researching Australian poetry and fiction through a postnational or ‘unAustralian’ lens. His research focuses on ‘literary visitors’ and their writing about Australia. He has published essays on Australian poetry, art, music and literature in Meanjin, Memo Review, Difficult Fun and elsewhere.

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