Harold Bloom once called Holocaust fiction an "all-but-impossible genre." Georges Perec, who lived much closer to the violence of Nazism (his father died fighting the Germans; his mother died in a concentration camp), seems to have experienced this impossibility as a fracture at the core of his being. For Perec, history was a very personal trauma, and the writing of history could only be an X-ray of his shattered self.
Or perhaps we should call it a W-ray.
The French pronunciation of the letter 'W' (double-ve) puns with double-vie, 'double life,' and the shape of the letter diagrams the doubled structure of Perec's book, separated into two parts that internally alternate between Perec's fragmented autobiography and the description of a imaginary land called W. (The W narrative itself also bifurcates, the first part written in a thriller or adventure novel mode and the second part in the rhetoric of ethnographic description.) At the same time, W signifies the two Vs/vies, two truncated parental lives, that conjoined to produce the writer who can barely remember them. They exist only in memory traces and faded photographs, their reality concealed behind the very signs that evoke them.
Those last words take us to Derrida-land, an appropriate place from which to read this book. For Perec's Shoah fiction arises not from the intellectual milieu of his parents' generation, the era of Occupation, Collaboration, Deportation, Sartre, Camus, Resistance and Liberation. No, Perec was a boy then, and he can gaze into the darkest of backwards only through the intellectual spectacles of his own generation, the writings of Levi-Strauss, Derrida, Lacan, Foucault. W or The Memory of Childhood is thus a kind of book I have heretofore considered impossible, a great, readable, tragic French novel fundamentally informed by poststructuralist thought. The influence of Levi-Strauss is most obvious in the second part of the W narrative, where Perec pastiches structuralist anthropology to describe, in chillingly deadpan language, a tyrannical state organized according to the ideology of the Olympics. (This is also, of course, an implicit Popperian critique of the Greek/Platonic roots of authoritarian government.) Likewise, Derrida is paradoxically 'present' whenever Perec writes of the slipperiness of the signifier, as in his memory of misreading a Hebrew letter or the passage in which he plays, somewhat hysterically, with the shapes of letters. (This latter passage, on page 77 in the hardcover, at first seems to be a great example of the jouissance of the liberated signifier, the shape of the letter X metamorphosing over an abyss of meaning. But meaning simultaneously insists. The slippery signifier slips into signs of Nazism, and the passage becomes more Dali-esque 'paranoid critique' than Derridean play.) Jacques Lacan's thought impinges upon the overall structure of Perec's text, in that Perec writes around an almost unspeakable loss, a loss that tragically defines the consciousness that constructs both the factual and fantastic narratives. Finally, Foucault comes to the fore when the land of W is revealed as a society controlled through the careful deployment of ultraviolent public spectacles, a terrifying realization of the Great Gallic Cueball's Discipline and Punish.
Perec's slow, steady unveiling of the horrors of the land of W brings the two narrative lines to a final conjunction that can be described in Lacanian terms. We realize by book's end that the land of W is the univers concentrationnaire of Nazism transferred out of the unimageable Real and into the Imaginary register. The horror that killed Perec's parents resists representation in the Symbolic register of language and memory, but it can be approached by the liberated play of the imagination. And this play is, paradoxically, always and inevitably a construction of language, a tragic game of words. We can represent the Real only through a medium that also protectively conceals it, just as the W of Perec's title both represents and conceals the two crucial V's, the two parents, the two lives, the two deaths.
An Amazon search shows that this novel is currently out of print in the United States. This is unfortunate. Perec's W or The Memory of Childhood deserves to sit on the short shelf of truly great Holocaust literature, alongside such titles as Elie Wiesel's Night, Primo Levi's The Drowned and the Saved and his Auschwitz trilogy, Jean Amery's At The Mind's Limits, Paul Celan's poetry, David Grossman's See Under: Love, W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz, Isaac Bashevis Singer's Enemies: A Love Story. Here's hoping Perec's novel becomes available again soon.