“I remember that Stendhal liked spinach.” Stendhal, Olof Johan Södermark, 1839, oil on canvas.
I remember reading Joe Brainard’s accumulated aphoristic memories for the first time. I remember the way each entry built on the one that preceded it, even when they had little to do with each another, and I remember the texture of the entire enterprise: a pointillist portrait of a man by way of his internal dialogue; his observations, at one time absorbed as impressions, sent back out into the world, now shaped by a unique river of associations.
I can only imagine the extent to which Brainard’s I Remember has influenced writers since he penned his flowing juxtapositions forty-four years ago. I had long thought Édouard Levé’s Autoportrait the most obvious example—a seemingly endless sequence of declarative sentences that coolly relate both trivialities and intimacies. But I’ve now discovered that Georges Perec got there first.
In 1970, Perec met Harry Mathews; Mathews introduced Perec to ideas then circulating in the New York art scene, including Brainard’s “serial autobiography,” which was then on the cusp of publication. The French writer likely never saw Brainard’s book, but tale of its concept—each sentence beginning with the phrase “I remember”—was enough to inspire him. Next month, the fruits of Perec’s efforts, also titled I Remember, will be published in English for the first time, by David R. Godine.
Perec first began the exercise as a parlor game at a writers’ retreat and added a twist to the formula, insisting, David Bellos explains in his introduction to the book, that players “had to remember something that other people could remember too; and the thing remembered had to have ceased to exist.” On his own, Perec stuck to this conceit and produced 480 “I remembers” (some of which were published in 1976, in the journal Cahiers du Chemin). They were written between January 1973 and June 1977 but are pulled from the time when Perec was between ten and twenty-five years old. His aim was to unearth memories that were “almost forgotten, inessential, banal, common, if not to everyone, at least to many.” At the same time, he could not always guarantee veracity in his statements: “When I evoke memories from before the war, they refer for me to a period belonging to the realm of myth: this explains how a memory can be ‘objectively’ false.” (Put another way, memory’s a funny thing.)
Perec’s version of “I remember” has a very different feel from Brainard’s and Levé’s (though Autoportrait does contain the line “When I was young, I thought Life: A User’s Manual would teach me how to live”): where Brainard and Levé meander the alleyways of memory, Perec stands in the boulevard; he evokes a communality of memory, but of course one whose perception has its origin in a single individual—himself.
It’s a wonder that this book is only now making its way into English. Philip Terry took on the task of translating Perec’s word games, puns, and jokes. “If it looks easy,” Terry writes, “I should be especially wary.” But even if the reader misses cultural references or overlooks one of Perec’s jokes, the effect of cascading “I remembers” is unavoidably mesmerizing. Which, in the end, seems to be one of Perec’s aims. Memory 480 simply reads “I remember… (to be continued…)”—after which appear a dozen or so blank pages that have been inserted at Perec’s request, so that the reader can record his or her own “I remembers.”
I remember that Stendhal liked spinach.
I remember the Lépine Contest.
I remember that Citroën used the Eiffel Tower for a gigantic illuminated advertisement.
I remember that de Gaulle had a brother called Pierre who ran the Foire de Paris.
I remember the Finaly affair.
I remember the young actor Robert Lynen, who appeared in Poil de Carotte and in Carnet de bal (in which he had a very small part) and who died at the beginning of the war.
I remember the assassination attempt at Petit-Clamart.
I remember the cinema Le Studio Universel in Avenue de l’Opera, which specialized in animation festivals.
I remember that Lester Young was nicknamed “The Prez” and Paul Quinichette “The Vice-Prez.”
I remember that SHAPE stood for the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe.
I remember Bouvard and Ratinet log tables.
I remember the murder of Sharon Tate.
I remember that the principal victims of McCarthyism in the world of cinema were the filmmakers Cyril Entfield, John Berry, Jules Dassin, and Joseph Losey, as well as the script-writer Dalton Trumbo. All of them went into exile, except Dalton Trumbo, who was obliged to work under assumed names for several years.
I remember that Audie Murphy was the most decorated American soldier of the Second World War and that he became an actor after having played himself in a (mediocre) film recounting his heroic exploits.
I remember that James Stewart played the part of Glenn Miller in the biopic of this jazz musician whose most famous piece is “Moonlight Serenade.”
I remember that one of the first decisions that de Gaulle took on coming to power was to abolish the belt worn with jackets in the military.
I remember that the four sentences written on the pediments of the Palais de Chaillot were composed specially by Paul Valéry.
I remember that once the counter and the kitchen area of the restaurant La Petite Source in Boulevard Saint-Germain were situated on the right of the entrance and not, as now, on the left in the back.
I remember that Julien Gracq was a history teacher at Lycée Claude-Bernard.
I remember President Rosko.
I remember a dance called the raspa.
I remember Lee Harvey Oswald.
I remember beard tennis: you counted the number of beards you spotted in the street: 15 for the first, 30 for the second, 40 for the third, and “game” for the fourth.
I remember the song: “Ramadjah my Queen Ramadjah my clot Dip your arse in the soup tureen And tell me if it’s hot.”
I remember that during his trial Eichmann was enclosed in a glass cage.
I remember the boxer Ray Famechon, as well as Stock and Charron, and quite a few wrestlers (The White Angel, The Béthune Butcher, The Little Prince, Doctor Adolf Kaiser, etc.).
I remember the Markowitch Affair.
I remember the strips of mica or celluloid that people used to fix on the front of their hoods (near the radiator cap) and which stopped mosquitoes and aphids from hitting the windscreen.
I remember that the three star dancers of the Paris Ballet were Roland Petit, Jean Guélais, and Jean Babilée.
I remember that Saint Crispin and Saint Crispinian are the patron saints of shoe-makers.
From I Remember by Georges Perec, Translated from the French by Philip Terry. Copyright © Georges Perec 2014, Translated from the French by Philip Terry.
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