a man, a plan, a canal…
Velvet Underground & Nico – I’ll Be Your Mirror
I’ve gotten to the end of Georges Perec’s Cantatrix Sopranica L, Scientific Papers, and have reached what I think is the best one so far. It’s called Roussel and Venice: Outline of a Melancholy Geography, and it deals with a lot of subjects that I get all hot and bothered about – maps, codes, mirror images, layers of meaning, and word-play.
The piece, like the others in the book, is written in the style of a scholarly essay directed at an academic audience, and thus is able to take the same liberties that an academic piece can in its ability to assume that a certain base of knowledge is present in its readers. Since these articles are parody, however, they have only limited basis in actual fact, and so we as readers can use little outside knowledge in our attempts to pin down what is significant. Because we are aware that applying fact to the fictional science given here would be ridiculous, we are unable to make few connections other than those that are provided for us, and so we become occupied with mentally cataloguing and fitting together the hints we are thrown as to the significance of words, characters, or places. The world within the book, because it is completely self-contained, becomes completely absorbing, in the same way that a novel does: Perec has succeeded in “using the expressionless terminology of sociology, entomology and linguistics to achieve effects they are distinctly designed to avoid.” If the terminology and style of academic writing is meant to describe a factual world, here they are used to create a world of fiction.
Below are some snippets from the Roussel and Venice piece. They are all instances in which the author tries to locate significance within “five unpublished sheets of paper [written by Raymond Roussel] he was lucky enough to discover and identify in the Fitchwinder University Library” by figuring out how they fit into the context of Roussel’s writing style and life.
Fleisch makes an obvious mistake at the end of his analysis when he suggests that the theme derives from the transformation of “La vérité sort de la bouche des enfants” [Truth comes out of the mouths of the children] into “La vérité sort de la douche des enfants” [The truth comes out of the children’s shower]. The transposition b/d is indeed common in Roussel (le crachat de la bonne à favoris pointus / le crachat de la donne à favoris pointus) [the spit of the maid with fussy suitors / the regalia on the dealt card with pointed sideburns], Dardanelles / Bard à Nesle [Dardanelles, Bard at Nesle], la place du bandit sur les tours du fort / la place du dandy sur les tours du fort [the bandit’s place on the towers of the fort / the dandy’s bet on the strong man’s feats])….
*Singe [monkey] could be a rebus-abbreviation of Saint-Jean Baptiste (singe en batiste [monkey made of cambric])
In this sense, Roussel’s voyage to Venice was his only journey (Venice becomes “Voyage,” “Voyage” becomes “Venice,” and V comes to stand for both Venice and “Voyage”).
There are then two superimposed topographies in Roussel. One corresponds to the world of his books and generally respects geoographical reality…; the other is the secret world of his Venetian life. The centre of the first is Paris, the centre of the second is the Hollenberg Hotel, where Roussel and his mother stayed. It is immediately obvious that [the topographies of Paris and Roussel’s Venice] are mirror images of each other.
The essay goes on to pose any number of possibilities to fill the gaps in our knowledge of Roussel’s plot and writing process, based on pun, rebus, and not least what we know about his life and history. The tools used to map out this possible story behind the story create for us a world in miniature and we find ourselves absorbed in piecing together the puzzle of a question that for us is as free of contextual import as the few pages of the “found” manuscript are free from binding. The Scientific Papers and the essay Roussel and Venice both manage to absorb us completely using no tool but their own decontextualization: they both contain only the amount of significance that we care to look for, and exist only to make us curious enough to inspect them.
“One cannot expect the exegesis of a few lines, however assiduously one may have dissected them from every possible angle, to cast much light on a body of work that was so well described in the words of Bachter as ‘a literary adventure having no source but itself, no end except its own existence, and no other meaning than the trail it leaves.'”