Something on Georges Perec’s La Boutique Obscure


1. Listening to someone’s dreams is usually pretty boring. Reading about someone’s dreams is even worse.

Except when it’s not, of course.

2. Perec, describing his dream journal La Boutique Obscure:

I thought I was recording the dreams
I was having; I have realized that it was
not long before I began having dreams
only in order to write them.

These dreams—overdreamed, overworked,
overwritten—what could I then
expect of them, if not to make them into
texts, a bundle of texts left as an o)ering
at the gates of that “royal road” I still
must travel with my eyes open?

3. La Boutique Obscure is new in English translation by Daniel Levin Becker, published by the good people at Melville House.

4. The dreams in La Boutique Obscure, rendered in fairly concrete prose (Perec avoids analysis), were recorded between 1968-1972.

5. I’ve been slowly reading the essays and riffs and lists collected in Perec’s Species of Spaces and Other Pieces over the past few years. There’s something wonderful about picking the book up at random and finding some little quip or note (or entire essay) that illuminates some fascinating aspect of what we might initially take to be a dull topic.

La Boutique Obscure works the same way.

6. Sample:


7. Many of the elements that we see in Dream No. 24 / “Cats” run throughout the collection: Friends, doors, streets, houses, apartments, disasters, performances, lists, etc. etc. Note also Perec’s refusal to analyze or contextualize or otherwise attempt to make meaning out of the dream.

8. My favorite pieces in the collection are the ones that convey more plot—adventures, chases, fragments of films and plays—but there’s also pleasure in Perec’s shortest pieces, which often resemble imagist poems—like “The stone bridge”:


9. A good review, a responsible review, might try to situate Perec’s dream journal against his role as Oulipo gamesmaster, or set the entries against Perec’s biography, or maybe compare it to other dream journals. Or maybe even try to tackle it as a novel, or a novelish book.

10. But I’m more interested in the aesthetic experience of reading La Boutique Obscure. The book is fun, distracting, and divergent. Perec’s refusal to interpret his dreams leaves plenty of space for the reader to make his own connection—and if need be, interpretations—but to be clear, the same banal anxieties that inform our own dreams are what Perec traces the contours of in La Boutique Obscure. The book’s greatest strength is its imagery, its evocation of place, space, movement. To fault it for lacking depth would be to entirely miss the point.

11. Reading La Boutique Obscure provides another nagging reminder that I have yet to read Life A User’s Manual.

12. Finally: Roman Muradov’s response to the book is better than any review:


“There are in English often long trains of words allied by their meaning and derivation” (Samuel Johnson)

There are in English often long trains of words allied by their meaning and derivation; as, to beata batbatoona battlea beetlea battledoreto batterbatter, a kind of glutinous composition for food, made by beating different bodies into one mass. All these are of similar signification, and perhaps derived from the Latin batuo. Thus taketouchtickletacktackle; all imply a local conjunction from the Latin tangotetigitactum.

From two are formed twaintwicetwentytwelvetwinstwinetwisttwirltwigtwitchtwingebetweenbetwixttwilighttwibil.

The following remarks, extracted from Wallis, are ingenious but of more subtlety than solidity, and such as perhaps might in every language be enlarged without end.

Sn usually imply the nose, and what relates to it. From the Latin nasus are derived the French nez and the English nose; and nesse, a promontory, as projecting like a nose. But as if from the consonants ns taken from nasus, and transposed that they may the better correspond, sn denote nasus; and thence are derived many words that relate to the nose, as snoutsneezesnoresnort,snearsnickersnotsnivelsnitesnuffsnufflesnafflesnarlsnudge.

There is another sn which may perhaps be derived from the Latin sinuo, as snakesneaksnailsnare; so likewise snap and snatchsnibsnubBl imply a blast; as blowblastto blastto blight, and, metaphorically, to blast one’s reputation;bleatbleak, a bleak place, to look bleak, or weather-beaten, blackblaybleachblusterblurtblisterblabbladderblewblabber lip’tblubber-cheek’tblotedblote-herringsblastblazeto blow, that is, blossombloom; and perhapsblood and blush.

In the native words of our tongue is to be found a great agreement between the letters and the thing signified; and therefore the sounds of the letters smaller, sharper, louder, closer, softer, stronger, clearer, more obscure, and more stridulous, do very often intimate the like effects in the things signified.

Thus words that begin with str intimate the force and effect of the thing signified, as if probably derived from στρωννυμι, or strenuous; as strongstrengthstrewstrikestreakstrokestripestrivestrifestrugglestroutstrutstretchstrait,strictstreight, that is, narrow, distrainstressdistressstringstrapstreamstreamerstrandstripstraystrugglestrangestridestradale.

St in like manner imply strength, but in a less degree, so much only as is sufficient to preserve what has been already communicated, rather than acquire any new degree; as if it were derived from the Latin sto; for example, standstay, that is, to remain, or to prop; staffstay, that is, to oppose; stopto stuffstifleto stay, that is, to stop; a stay, that is, an obstacle; stickstutstutterstammerstaggersticklestickstake, a sharp, pale, and any thing deposited at play; stockstem,stingto stingstinkstitchstudstuncheonstubstubble, to stub up, stump, whence stumblestalkto stalkstepto stamp with the feet, whence to stamp, that is, to make an impression and a stamp; stowto stowto bestowsteward, orstowardsteadsteadystedfaststablea stablea stallto stallstoolstallstillstallstallagestagestill, adjective, and still, adverb: stalestoutsturdysteadstoatstallionstiffstark-deadto starve with hunger or cold; stonesteel,sternstanchto stanch blood, to staresteepsteeplestairstandard, a stated measure, stately. In all these, and perhaps some others, st denote something firm and fixed.

Thr imply a more violent degree of motion, as throwthrustthrongthrobthroughthreatthreatenthrallthrows.

Wr imply some sort of obliquity or distortion, as wryto wreathewrestwrestlewringwrongwrinchwrenchwranglewrinklewrathwreakwrackwretchwristwrap.

Sw imply a silent agitation, or a softer kind of lateral motion; as swayswagto swayswaggerswervesweatsweepswillswimswingswiftsweetswitchswinge.

Nor is there much difference of sm in smoothsmugsmilesmirksmite; which signifies the same as to strike, but is a softer word; smallsmellsmacksmothersmart, a smart blow properly signifies such a kind of stroke as with an originally silent motion, implied in sm, proceeds to a quick violence, denoted by ar suddenly ended, as is shown by t.

Cl denote a kind of adhesion or tenacity, as in cleaveclayclingclimbclamberclammyclaspto claspto clipto clinchcloakclogcloseto closea cloda clot, as a clot of blood, clouted cream, a cluttera cluster.

Sp imply a kind of dissipation or expansion, especially a quick one, particularly if there be an r, as if it were from spargo or separo: for example, spreadspringsprigsproutsprinklesplitsplinterspillspitsputterspatter.

Sl denote a kind of silent fall, or a less observable motion; as in slimeslideslipslipperslysleightslitslowslackslightslingslap.

And so likewise ash, in crashrashgashflashclashlashslashplashtrash, indicate something acting more nimbly and sharply. But ush, in crushrushgushflushblushbrushhushpush, imply something as acting more obtusely and dully. Yet in both there is indicated a swift and sudden motion not instantaneous, but gradual, by the continued sound, sh.

Thus in flingslingdingswingclingsingwringsting, the tingling of the termination ng, and the sharpness of the vowel i, imply the continuation of a very slender motion or tremor, at length indeed vanishing, but not suddenly interrupted. [31]But in tinkwinksinkclinkchinkthink, that end in a mute consonant, there is also indicated a sudden ending.

If there be an l, as in jingletingletinkleminglesprinkletwinkle, there is implied a frequency, or iteration of small acts. And the same frequency of acts, but less subtile by reason of the clearer vowel a, is indicated in jangletangle,spanglemanglewranglebrangledangle; as also in mumblegrumblejumble. But at the same time the close u implies something obscure or obtunded; and a congeries of consonants mbl, denotes a confused kind of rolling or tumbling, as in ramblescamblescramblewambleamble; but in these there is something acute.

In nimble, the acuteness of the vowel denotes celerity. In sparklesp denotes dissipation, ar an acute crackling, k a sudden interruption, l a frequent iteration; and in like manner in sprinkle, unless in may imply the subtilty of the dissipated guttules. Thick and thin differ in that the former ends with an obtuse consonant, and the latter with an acute.

In like manner, in squeeksqueaksquealsquallbrawlwraulyaulspaulscreekshriekshrillsharpshrivelwrinklecrackcrashclashgnashplashcrushhushhisse,  fisse,  whistsoft,  jar,  hurl,  curl,  whirl,  buz,  bustlespindledwindletwinetwist, and in many more, we may observe the agreement of such sort of sounds with the things signified; and this so frequently happens, that scarce any language which I know can be compared with ours. So that one monosyllable word, of which kind are almost all ours, emphatically expresses what in other languages can scarce be explained but by compounds, or decompounds, or sometimes a tedious circumlocution.

(From Samuel Johnson’s A Grammar of the English Tongue).

Barry Hannah Fragment

From Barry Hannah’s novel Hey Jack!:

I began hollering at my wife for her shortcomings. She left the house, 11 P.M. I’d quit drinking and smoking. She brought me back a bottle of rye and a pack of Luckies, too. I hadn’t smoked for two weeks. I must have been a horrible nuisance.

I took a drink and a smoke.

Then I was normal. My lungs and my liver cried out: At last, again! The old abuse! I am a confessed major organ beater. I should turn myself in on the hotline to normalcy.

Satantango (Book Acquired, 3.15.2012)


Was happy to get a finished copy of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Satantango (new in English translation for the first time from the good people at New Directions). From Jacob Silverman’s review at The New York Times:

As in much of Krasznahorkai’s work, a sense of hallucinatory conspiracy is in the air. People speak ominously, if vaguely, about what lies ahead. They see visions and hear bells they can’t place. “If they read the papers properly,” one character says, “they would know that there is a real crisis out there.”

But there is also a shared belief that things aren’t as they appear. Some mistake must have been made; things can’t be as bad as they seem. And so the residents “are waiting. They’re waiting patiently, like the long-suffering lot they are, in the firm conviction that someone has conned them. They are waiting, belly to the ground, like cats at pig-killing time, hoping for scraps.” (This repetition, with its gradual slathering of metaphoric detail, characterizes Krasznahorkai’s style.)

I started the ARC I got of Satantango (mistitled on the spine; see below), but got sidetracked with epic books by William Gaddis and William Vollmann. (Blame the Bills). I will give the book my full attention in the nearish future.


“My Tone Is Not Meant to Be Obnoxious. I Am in a State of Shock” — Flannery O’Connor Responds to an English Professor

From a 1961 letter by Flannery O’Connor to an English professor, who wrote her asking for an interpretation of her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” In his letter, the professor concludes that the second half of the story is imaginary, an interpretation that seems to give Ms. O’Connor the vapors:

   The interpretation of your ninety students and three teachers is fantastic and about as far from my intentions as it could get to be.  If it were a legitimate interpretation, the story would be little more than a trick and its interest would be simply for abnormal psychology.  I am not interested in abnormal psychology.

There is a change of tension from the first part of the story to the second where the Misfit enters, but this is no lessening of reality.  This story is, of course, not meant to be realistic in the sense that it portrays the everyday doings of people in Georgia.  It is stylized and its conventions are comic even though its meaning is serious.

Bailey’s only importance is as the Grandmother’s boy and the driver of the car.  It is the Grandmother who first recognized the Misfit and who is most concerned with him throughout.  The story is a duel of sorts between the Grandmother and her superficial beliefs and the Misfit’s more profoundly felt involvement with Christ’s action which set the world off balance for him.

The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation.  If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction.  Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.

My tone is not meant to be obnoxious.  I am in a state of shock.

“Shakespeare Humiliates the Prior Body of Language” — Wayne Koestenbaum

A passage from Wayne Koestenbaum’s new book, Humiliation

Shakespeare humiliates the prior body of language—the poor body of English, lackluster before he came along and renovated it. Shakespeare ennobled English, and so it may seem odd to say that he also humiliated it; but in his semantic magnanimity, his aural cornucopia, I detect the presence of lacerations. When Shakespeare commits lexical excess (by coining new words, by larding a simple thought with plump, dense sounds and metaphors, by hyper-enlivening every sentiment with figurative language), English becomes a body punctured by his violent actions. Example: “The murmuring surge / That on th’ unnumb’red idle pebble chafes / Cannot be heard so high.” “Murmuring” and “surge” and “unnumb’red” present the ear with a glut of “u” and “m” and “r” sounds. And “idle” and “pebble,” next to each other, create a pebble effect. With purple ripeness, low-pitched vowels (“murmuring surge”) ascend to high-pitched vowels (“high”). This apex virtuosity—language creaming, ascending, and thickening—this process (I’m straining my point) alerts me to a violence committed, symbolically, against English’s body. Poetic intensity—linguistic bravado, musical compression—hurts the mother tongue. “Good” language is hurt language. Bare, desiccated language—Samuel Beckett’s—is also humiliated: shorn, Samson-like. If you don’t understand what I’m saying, I will feel humiliated. If I fail to communicate my meaning, and if you tell me I’ve failed, then you will have humiliated me.

Ezra Pound Weighs Chaucer and Shakespeare

Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading, hardly short on strong opinions, contains a fantastic chapter on Chaucer, who Pound submits is superior in some ways to Shakespeare. A taste—

Sloth is the root of much bad opinion. It is at times difficult for the author to retain his speech within decorous bounds.

I once heard a man, how has some standing as writer and whom Mr. Yeats was wont to defend, assert that Chaucer’s language wasn’t English, and that one ought not to use it as basis of discussion, ETC. Such was the depth of London in 1910.

Anyone who is too lazy to master the comparatively small glossary necessary to understand Chaucer deserves to be shut out from the reading of good books for ever.

As to the relative merits of Chaucer and Shakespeare, English opinion has been bamboozled for centuries by a love of the stage, the glamour of the theatre, the love of bombastic rhetoric and of sentimentalizing over actors and actresses; these, plus the national laziness and unwillingness to make the least effort, have completely obscured values. People even read translations of Chaucer into a curious compost, which is not modern language but which uses a vocabulary comprehended of sapheads

Wat se the kennath

Chaucer had a deeper knowledge of life than Shakespeare.

Let the reader contradict that after reading both authors, if he chooses to do so.

Lie vs. Lay (with Help from Roy Peter Clark and Mad Men)

Roy Peter Clark, in his excellent guide to practical writing The Glamour of Grammar, offers the following advice on two of the trickiest homophones in the English language, lie and lay

Here’s the simplest way to remember the difference: lie means “to recline”; lay means “to place.” As in “I lay the cushions on the floor so I can recline in comfort.” (You can use the vowel sounds as a memory aid: lie/recline; lay/place.)

Confusion sweeps in when we move from the present tense to the past. Alas, the past tense of lie happens to by lay: “When I heard the news, I lay on the bed in disbelief.” And the past tense of lay is laid, as in “The bank robbers laid their weapons on the ground.”

Clark then gives us the following helpful examples that distinguish the principal parts of these tricky irregular verbs —

Lie: Today I lie on the bed. Yesterday I lay on the bed. I have lain on that bed so many times there are holes in the mattress.

Lay: Today I lay my cards on the table. Yesterday I laid my cards on the table. I have laid my cards on the table so many times that I was bound to win.

Significantly, Clark uses lie and lay as part of a larger discussion about how a writer can master irregular verbs. He suggests that learning the principal parts of these verbs and understanding the distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs will help writers to communicate more clearly. (The Glamour of Grammar is a fantastic book, by the way, and would make a vital addition to the libraries of experience and inexperienced writers alike).

So, ready for a quiz? One of our favorite blogs, Ironic Sans, compiled every use and misuse of lay and lie from the first three seasons of Mad Men. You’ll have a moment after hearing a character use or misuse lay or lie to decide if he or she has done so with grammatic fidelity. After that, a graphic (and sound) will let you know if the word has been used correctly. Good luck!

Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors — Bill Bryson

That Bill Bryson’s Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors (new this week in paperback from Anchor Books) should surpass utility and be loads of fun as well seems almost unfair. Aren’t dictionaries and style manuals meant to be dry? brysonBryson’s title here is pretty honest; he’s made a dictionary of hard-to-remember/easy-to-forget words, including plenty of commonly misspelled words. In the age of spell-check, it’s not so much Bryson’s spellings that are essential as it is the context in which he puts his words. For instance, do you know the difference between “gabardine” and “gaberdine”? (“The first is a type of worsted cloth, the second a long cloak”). Bryson goes further (not farther!) than mere distinctions between words like “creole” and “pidgin” or “bravado” and “bravery”: he actually gets into the fray of how one ought to use words. Consider the entry on “past”:

“Often a space waster, as in this example: ‘Davis said the dry conditions had been a recurrent problem for the past thirty years.’ In this sentence, and in countless others like it, ‘the past’ could be deleted without any loss of sense. Equally tautological and to be avoided are such expressions as past records, past history, past achievements, and past precedents.”

The exasperation is almost palpable! When I first picked up the dictionary, I immediately checked out what Bryson had to say on one of my own pet peeves, “couldn’t of” as the contracted form of “couldn’t have.” Here’s Bryson, in a solution that mixes humor with a bit of common sense:

“As a shortened form of ‘couldn’t have,’ couldn’t of does unquestionably avoid the clumsy double contraction couldn’t’ve, a form not often seen in print since J.D. Salinger stopped writing. However, I would submit that that does not make it satisfactory. Using the preposition of as a surrogate for ‘ve seems to me simply to be swapping an ungainly form for an illiterate one. If couldn’t’ve is too painful to use, I would suggest simply writing couldn’t have and allowing the reader’s imagination to supply the appropriate inflection.

As we see, Bryson’s interest isn’t so much on presenting himself as an absolute authority on the English language as it is in helping writers to be more lucid. We see this again–with the same wittiness–when discussing the differences between “Shakespearean” and “Shakespearian”:

“The first is the usual spelling in America and the second is the usual spelling in Britain, but, interestingly, don’t look to The Oxford English Dictionary for guidance on any spellings concerning England’s greatest poet. Perversely and charmingly, but entirely unhelpfully, the OED insists on spelling the name Shakspere, a decision it based on one of the six spellings Shakespeare himself used. It does, however, acknowledge that Shakespeare is ‘perhaps’ the commonest spelling now used.

While Bryson’s Dictionary is plenty of fun for word nerds, it’s utility and ease-of-use are really what make it a must-have for writers. Bryson devotes 11 pages of his short, useful appendix to punctuation, a section that every young (or not so young) writer should read (the three pages he devotes to comma use are particularly insightful). In sum, Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors is a witty and intuitive aid that many a writer will love having on their desk. I know I do. Highly recommended.