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Word Play

What the French novelist Georges Perec owed to the kabbalistic tradition

Joshua Cohen
October 29, 2009

When a person is sick, Jews pray for him by reciting the verses of Psalms that begin with the letters of his name; Psalm 119 is often used for this purpose, as it is made of 22 sets of eight verses that begin with the same Hebrew letter, and the sets are arranged alphabetically—or, perhaps, aleph-betically. Accordingly, my Hebrew name, Yosef, is symbolized by Psalm 138:8, which in Hebrew begins with a yod, the first letter of Yosef, and ends with a fey, the last letter of Yosef; the entirety of the sentence that should save my life reads, in English: “The Lord will perfect that which concerneth me: thy mercy, O Lord, endureth for ever: forsake not the works of thine own hands.”

Indeed, it seems like the majority of Jewish liturgy not taken directly from the Torah is made of devotions arranged by permutations of letters, and interpolations of sums: for centuries, rabbis have composed acrostic prayers that spell their own names; and any visit to any synagogue on any day of the week at any of the three daily services will tell you that the number of times a text is repeated is just as important as what that repeated text actually means.

The occasion for these thoughts is no religious epiphany, but rather a rereading of French writer Georges Perec, whose 1978 masterpiece Life: A User’s Manual was just republished in a definitive translation by David Bellos. Perec was a member of Oulipo (an acronym for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, “the workshop for potential literature”), a French organization founded in 1960 dedicated to the practice, and publicizing, of new writing techniques. Oulipans, whose ranks included Italo Calvino and movement cofounders Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, turned research itself into a literary art as they sought to identify novel constraints by which novels and stories could be produced.

Those constraints include, but are not limited to: Anagram; Palindrome; Word Limits; Vowel Limits; Word Replacement (in which every occurrence of a noun is replaced by another noun; for example, if noun = umbrella, then that fragment should read “in which every occurrence of an umbrella is replaced by another umbrella”); Vowel Replacement (in which the word ‘noun’ might be turned to ‘noon,’ the hour, or ‘naan,’ the Middle Asian flatbread, or to ‘neon,’); the Snowball (a poem’s verse or sentence in which each word is exactly one letter longer than the preceding word); and the Lipogram, from the Greek lipagrammatos (“missing symbol”), in which a text is generated that excludes one or more letters. Perhaps literature’s most famous Lipogram is La disparition, a detective story of sorts written by Perec in 1969, translated into English by Gilbert Adair as A Void; its 300 pages omit the letter ‘e,’ as if that vowel—and the book’s antihero, Anton Vowl—was representative of European Jewry, forever disappeared. Further, as the very name George Perec contains more than its share of the letter ‘e,’ the author has effectually self-effaced, having written himself out of his own book. Adair’s translation (which also is without the letter ‘e’) is a virtuosic reenactment of virtuosity: “With a loud and languorous sigh Vowl sits up, stuffs a pillow at his back, draws his quilt up around his chin, picks up his whodunit and idly scans a paragraph or two; but, judging its plot impossibly difficult to follow in his condition, its vocabulary too whimsically multisyllabic for comfort, throws it away in disgust.”

Perec was born in Paris in 1936, the son of Polish Jews recently emigrated west; he was related, albeit distantly, to I.L. Peretz, the preeminent Yiddish writer of the 19th century. Perec’s father was killed fighting for his adopted country in World War II; Perec’s mother was murdered, most probably at Auschwitz; Perec himself survived by hiding with relatives and then died too young of cancer in 1982. I invoke Perec’s Judaism only in the way that he did—by scorning religious ritual, and investigating the esoteric aspects, especially the parallels between Oulipian restrictions and the disciplines of kabbalah. It is kabbalah that is responsible for assigning mystical meaning, and numerical worth, to elements of language, and the majority of Jewish prayers utilizing word and letter permutation were composed coevally with the emergence of kabbalah.

Life: A User’s Manual (originally entitled La Vie mode d’emploi) is Creationdom in microcosm, a depiction of the inhabitants of a Paris apartment block at 8 p.m. on June 23, 1975. A curious Jewish character is Cinoc, whose name was originally Kleinhof, then Khinoss or Kheinhoss, changed to Kinoch, Chinoc, Tsinoc, and finally Cinoc. A cynic? Maybe, but also a Jew with a mezuzah affixed to his doorjamb. Perec’s characters from Cinoc to Rorschach to Madame Moreau to the Altamonts are creations entirely of words, and though the author’s prose manipulations might seem to be the most kabbalistic of his accomplishments, they are not. Forget that each chapter’s length is predetermined, that each chapter’s people are predetermined; forget each list of activities, of physical positions, and reading material; what’s most kabbalistic about Perec, and about the best of Oulipo, is not this technical aspect but the transmutation: the magical turning of one thing, a dead word, into another, a living person.

Kabbalistic practice—which, our sages hold, created angels and golems, animals for food and labor in the fields and even, once, in an experiment the Talmud attributes to Rabba, a walking talking human being—became, by the time fiction and poetry came to be written, a cultural act in which letters and words didn’t create life, but merely simulated it. Perec understood this virtuality, and exploited it to present the Oulipian writer—a writer of orders and systems, of cosmogonies and laws given only to be miraculously broken—as a sort of fallen god. Though in his time the new religion was art, or a religion of art, the mysticism underlying all making remained.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. His first essay collection, Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction, will be released in August. In 2017 he was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. He lives in New York City.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. He is the recipient of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, for The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. He lives in New York City.