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

1 November 2019

Morris – who had completed her PhD in Paris and translated works by Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze and Luce Irigaray – refuses her antipodean positioning by a literary sightseer keen to sample local culture. She emphasises that the meeting was fleeting and inconsequential. On her telling, Perec is cast as a pompous Frenchman, a cultural stereotype which assists in her repression of the encounter (‘I forget why (…) I walked away’). At any rate, this acrimonious exchange also marked Perec’s farewell from Australia: he departed from Sydney airport, having stayed in the country exactly 53 days.

The duration of Perec’s visit to Australia was no accident. In a black-ring file containing notes made over the period of 1981-2, Perec jotted down: ‘53 days (… is) the time Stendhal took to write La Chartreuse de Parme (…). That was actually what gave us the idea for the challenge: to take 53 days to write a novel’ (53 Days 240). He thus conceived a work of fiction, a tribute to Stendhal, that he would write in the exact timeframe of his visit to Australia. Perec had already experimented with time-based writing, publishing his novel W ou le souvenir d’enfance (W, or the Memory of Childhood, 1975) as a fortnightly serial in La Quinzaine littéraire. Explaining to the magazine’s editor that he intended ‘time to play the same role for W that the absence of e had played for La Disparition’ (Bellos 437), he maintained his schedule with exacting diligence, completing one chapter a fortnight, ‘never getting ahead of the flow of time or behind it’ (439). His new project, to write and edit a novel in exactly 53 days, was a far more ambitious undertaking. Ultimately, the experiment was a failure: 53 Jours was left unfinished when Perec was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 1982. But a version of the text has been published, edited by Harry Matthews and Jacques Roubaud, who append the 92-page draft with notes, plot sketches and examples of the author’s gruelling writing schedule.

The novel is narrated by a teacher at a lycée in Grianta, an African ex-colony of France. Invited to a dingy tourist bar, wallpapered with ‘apocryphal mariners’ charts’ marked ‘AFRIQYA ICOGNITA’ – a sly reference, perhaps, to Terra Australis Incognita – the narrator is asked to help locate Robert Serval, a famous crime novelist who has disappeared under suspicious circumstances. Fearing for his safety, Serval also gave to a friend a stack of pages from his latest novel, La Crypte (The Crypt), hinting that should anything happen to him, clues in his fiction would provide an explanation. Unable to recall Serval from his childhood, the narrator turns to the author’s manuscript: ‘(s)omewhere in the book is a name, or a detail, or a petit fait vrai, (…) which refers to a secret in Serval’s possession, a secret for the sake of which he may even have met his death’ (53 Days 43). Perec thus entreats readers of 53 Jours to join in on the detective work, providing the narrator as a paranoid model. We watch over the narrator’s shoulder as he combs La Crypte for clues, and follow the leads he uncovers there to other puzzle-books, like K comme Koala (The Koala Case Mystery), a potboiler set in Paris and New Zealand, narrated by an astrophysicist who dodges espionage attempts by CIA and KGB operatives. In its incomplete form, 53 Jours ends abruptly, Serval’s disappearance left tantalising unresolved. Yet, based on diagrams in the author’s notes, it is clear that all these narratives – these texts-within-texts – were intended to fit together like Russian dolls, each mirroring the larger plot, in Perec’s perverse reprisal of Stendhal’s famous directive: ‘Un Roman est un miroir qui se promène le long de la route.

On the surface, 53 Jours – a novel set in various locations in Grianta, New Zealand and Paris – says nothing about Perec’s time in Australia. Yet, in contrast to Roussel and Ashbery, travel souvenirs can be found everywhere in the margins of Perec’s novel. On notepaper with University of Sydney letterhead, Perec scribbled the names of Sydney train stations: ‘Redfern, Sydenham, Tempe, Rockdale …’ (223). Later, the same names are given to a militia of ‘British commandos’ involved in a siege at a Chartreuse monastery (114). Likewise, the label of a wine Perec drank while in Australia, Hill of Grace, is reversed to read Grace Hillof, the name of a murdered nightclub host (108). Saint Lucia airport on the outskirts of Grianta takes its name from the University of Queensland’s St Lucia campus, where Perec had an office throughout his stay (23).

Moreover, Australia is key to the novel’s eponymous constraint: Perec gave himself 53 days to write his book, matching the 53 days Stendhal had taken to compose La Chartreuse de Parme, and the 53 days of his antipodean visit. In this sense, 53 Jours realises a conceptual exercise which Perec first proposed in his book Espèces d’espaces (Species of Space, 1974):

Play with measurements: reacquaint yourself with feet and leagues (if only to make it easier to read Stendhal (…)); try and get once and for all a clear idea of what a nautical mile is (and by the same token, a knot); remember that a journal is a unit of space, it’s the surface area that a farm labourer can work in a day. (84)

A word can, of course, signify a unit of measurement: a metre, a second, a gallon, a knot. Yet, drawing upon the etymology of ‘journal’ (from the Latin diurnus, ‘of the day’), Perec suggests that a word can also be a unit of measurement: providing a ledger of an author’s labour upon the page. On this account, writing is disentwined from semantic value, and becomes a measure of quantity or volume. 53 Jours may not be about Australia in the traditional sense of having an Australian setting, plot or themes. Yet, the novel nonetheless maps the author’s visit: it is a ‘journal’ recording the ‘surface area (… Perec) was able to work (on each day)’ of his stay.

The schedule required to meet the 53-day deadline is a subject of serious consideration in the notes appended to the published novel. Perec set for himself target ‘wpd’ (words-per-day) and ‘ppd’ (pages-per-day) and drew up plans to factor in time to draft, type and edit his manuscript. But he struggled to keep up with the gruelling schedule: ‘3 ppd = 94 days,’ he admits in one defeated annotation, a deadline recalculated a few entries later: ‘5 days per chapter or 140 days’ (53 Days 190-91) Examined in hindsight, this litany of setbacks – delays which accumulated, snowballing into the inconclusive narrative and fragmentary notes which exist today – provide a cruel index of the author’s declining health: Perec returned from Australia on 19 October exhausted and unwell, and on 9 February 1982, doctors diagnosed lymphoma cells spreading throughout his lungs. ‘If only he had had another month of summer in Brisbane,’ speculates Bellos in his biography of Perec, ‘he would have finished his novel there’ (710). Peter Salmon records a conflicting anecdote, which suggests Australia played a part in the author’s demise: ‘an (exchange) student (from) the University of Queensland bumped into a haggard looking Perec in Paris. ‘C’est l’Australie qui m’a foutu mal!’ he said – Australia fucked me up’ (par. 3). Perec died in his sleep on 3 March 1982.

Postcard with jotted schedule and travel plans written in Georges Perec’s hand (1981). Collection: Fryer Library, University of Queensland.

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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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