Book review: The Art And Craft Of Approaching Your Head Of Department To Submit A Request For A Raise

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The Art And Craft Of Approaching Your Head Of Department To Submit A Request For A Raise BY Georges Perec, translated by David Bellos Vintage Classics, 84pp, £9.99

Georges Perec (1936-1982) was one of the most significant and ingenious writers of the postwar period, and his elevation to "classic" rank should be undisputed. He is most notorious as the author of La Disparition, an entire novel written without the letter "e" and, somewhat miraculously translated into English by Gilbert Adair as A Void. He is most celebrated for Life: A User's Manual, a vast novel of interlocking narratives set on 23 June 1975 in a block of apartments at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier in Paris. At the heart of the novel is the dying dilettante Bartlebooth, whose life has been a self-appointed quest to create paintings which are turned into jigsaws which he solves and then destroys. The book however is fiendishly structured as a 10x10 Euler Square across which the narrator moves via the "Knight's Tour" chess-puzzle. Perec said that such devices were scaffolding, taking down once the building was complete, and you certainly don't need to know those facts to appreciate the novel's haunting evocation of loss and impermanence.

Perec was a member of a movement called OuLiPo, the "workshop for potential literature", which brought together writers, mathematicians, artists and scientists. As literary movements go, it had an astonishing strike-rate. As well as Perec - whose other works, hopefully soon to be bedecked in the Classics livery, include a novel only with the vowel "e" (Les Revenentes, translated as The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex), W, or the Memory of Childhood and the scintillating and tantalisingly incomplete 53 - the group included Italo Calvino, Raymond Queneau and the underrated American Harry Mathews: someone should reissue Tlooth and The Sinking of the Odradenk Stadium. The mission of the OuLiPo was in some ways the inverse of Surrealism. Rather than open themselves to free expression, they tried to create increasingly intricate forms. They glorified the "literature of constraint".

This little book, hitherto unavailable in English, is a neat introduction to Perec's work. It is short enough to be knocked back in one, and is probably best imbibed in a single swallow (it has no punctuation). It is a mini-collaboration between Perec and Jacques Perriaud of the Humanities Research Centre Computing Service (Perec at the time was working as an archivist and data retrieval clerk for Neurophysical Laboratory). It begins with a flow-chart, that precursor to computer programming proper, a series of yes/no questions that lead either to the result or loop back into earlier questions. This one features both sensible questions (Is Mr X in his office? Have you recently been involved in a major success?) and weirdly banal, askew ones (Ask if one of his daughters has measles…Was fish on in the cafeteria? Yes. Did he swallow a fish bone?).

Perec then composes the flow-chart as a continuous prose narrative. It is full of his trademark love of puns, non-sequiturs and merging of bureaucratic and demotic language, rendered well here by David Bellos. (Are the eggs ex? is one of them). The refrain "but it's one or t'other" marks both the questions and the futility of asking them; another section, where the narrator wanders round the office, begins as "circumperambulate the various departments which taken together constitute the whole or part of the organisation of which you are an employee" and soon shifts into versions like "the whole or the part of the tentacular organisation that provides your meagre means of subsistence" and "which pays you a pittance while grinding away the best years of your life".

The stroke of Perecian genius is the decision not to have the story as someone following the programme, but someone trapped endlessly in the programme. Subtle hints build up, until we realise the character is about to retire and has spent their entire working life working up the confidence to ask for a raise (Perec's archival job was famously ill-remunerated). It turns the jeu d'esprit into a Kafka-esque parable rather than a joke that could be used in The Office. The only way, in fact, out of the inane machinery is the "wpb", the waste paper bin. Death is the sly hidden face in all of Perec's vast canvases - the missing letter, the lost square on the board. Both his parents died in the Second World War; his father in action, his mother in Auschwitz. Here, the awful ordinariness of the wpb is another memento mori.