Friday, June 27, 2014

Un bonheur inépuisable

Les ChosesLes Choses by Georges Perec
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

George Perec's Les Choses recounts the story of a French couple living in the 60s. Jérôme and Sylvie are pollsters: they live mundane and mediocre lives. Both dream of richesse and luxury, but such a life incessantly eludes them. Even after things look a bit brighter on the financial side, unwise spending throws them into the struggles of frugality once more. Finally, they decide to move to Tunisie (escape, really) - for a change of scene, for the possibility of materialistic promise - but even there they experience but an illusion of satisfaction and remain lost in the ironic depths of an insipid existence.

Indeed, "Ils étaient un petit îlot de pauvreté sur la grande mer d'abondance."

The whole novel brims with Perec's meticulous description of 'things - ' the first chapter offers us a very detailed view of Jérôme and Sylvie's dream home, analyzed down to the very rug. In the first chapter, we also glimpse the most characteristic, and frequently occurring element of the novel: Perec's use of the conditional tense.

Indeed, the whole novel is characterized by the 'unconditional,' the dreamed of and would be - their ideal room 'would' be like this, their lives 'would' turn out a certain way, they 'would' follow this routine... through the conditional tense, Perec captures the very malaise that strikes the novels' protagonists:

"Ceux qui ne veulent que vivre, et qui appellent vie la liberté la plus grande, la seule poursuite du bonheur, l’exclusif assouvissement de leurs désirs ou de leurs instincts, l’usage immédiat des richesses illimitées du monde, ceux-là seront toujours malheureux"

Pushed by their boundless materialistic desires, Jérôme and Sylvie lose themselves on the thread of life; however, their problem cannot be so easily summarized in the words "consumerism" or "materialism," and neither can the novel's main theme. Although it seems that Les Choses is, to a certain degree, an attack on a consumerist society that lusts after only 'things,' Perec's portrayal of the couple seems to extend the novel's scope in a different direction.

There's something about the vapidness of their lives, the emptiness of the consciousness and the fruitlessness of their ambitions that suggests something rather than merely materialism is at work. The novel captures a search for happiness and modernity in a world where both elements seem less and less mutually exclusive. Jérôme and Sylvie seem to embody a 60s (post-war, when job vacancies have plunged again) attitude - drawn to the modern, grasping only a meager essence of it and being lured instead by the 'things' that surround them.

Les Choses is short and direct: Perec spells out their young lives in a matter of chapters. In fact, certain arguments postulated in the Postface of the edition I read raise the question of whether or not Les Choses can even be considered 'un roman.'

Language-wise, this novel gets one used to heavy narration. Perec makes heavy use of synonyms and run on sentences to not only illustrate his descriptions of the many 'things' but also elaborate on Jérôme and Sylvie's condition. Long as such sentences are, they certainly serve to reinforce the characters' mediocre and repetitive lives reeking of sameness.

Les Choses is a great read if you're looking for some concentrated food for thought. Writing about only two characters (of symbolic significance, of course) and a LOT of detailed description to guide you through his thoughts on happiness in a modern world, Perec offers us the chance to unpack this novel, contemplate the characters' fears and desires and ultimately reach our own conclusions concerning the nature of leur bonheur - and the powerful influence of les choses around them.

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