Riding out the last days of the year, I looked back. I turned, specifically, to a set of lists (records, you could say) I’ve been keeping in one form or another since 2008. Initially the lists were limited to the books I had read that year—“books” meaning novels and short story collections, because that’s all I wanted to read in and just after college. But before long, as I fell in love with film, discovered the world of music criticism, and met the poet of my dreams, I felt that the lists needed to expand if they were to reflect my expanding consumption of film, nonfiction, and poetry.
Not that the lists are perfect, largely thanks to my position as recordkeeper and the arbitrary, questionable restrictions I impose as far as what’s eligible for recording. Why not list books I didn’t finish? For the sake of growing a list I have seen out my investment in books that had stopped providing returns hundreds of pages before; at the same time I’ve finished 2014 without finishing a few of the best books I “read” (the verb itself doesn’t bother about completion!) last year—Kafka’s short stories and Errol Morris’s Believing Is Seeing, to name only two. Why not list TV shows, if only whole series, when, like Six Feet Under, they’re better than most of the 100+ movies—some of which I cringed to record—I watched in 2014? Lately I haven’t been able to get enough of graphic narrative. Why no Black Hole, no Understanding Comics, on my list, then?
Why protect only certain works against the treacherous infidelities of memory while passively but deliberately erasing others by means of that great deceiver, omission?
I don’t know, or don’t want to. I have my hunches, but I’ll see to the competing priorities of my ego later. For now, what’s clear is that a record is a record is a record. Whether I’m looking back at the books I chose to read and the films I chose to watch, or the books I read and films I watched that I chose to record, I’m inescapably confronted by myself. Perhaps the better question is why keep the lists at all? Perhaps this year I won’t.
French Oulipian Georges Perec’s I Remember (Godine 2014) is the first book I’ve read in 2015, and an interesting companion to my end-of-year musings. The slim book, published late in Perec’s life (in 1978, after his well known Life A User’s Manual) and the last of his major works awaiting English translation (by Philip Terry), is neither a novel nor a memoir exactly. I Remember, which in his introduction Perec biographer and translator David Bellos calls “one of the oddest works of literature ever written,” consists of 479 numbered (but arbitrarily ordered) entries, each beginning with the words, well, “I remember” (Je me souviens in French) (8). Unlike Joe Brainard’s earlier (1970) I Remember, an influence on Perec, the memories Perec remembers—and records—here are decidedly not personal. At least on the surface.
As per standard Oulipo procedure, this text has a handful of basic restrictions that would seem to limit the writer’s freedom of personal expression. Not only must each entry begin with the words “I remember,” but in Perec’s version, each memory must be “something that other people could remember too; and the thing remembered had to have ceased to exist” (Bellos 9). These rules, like the accessibility and approachability of the formal conceit itself, in a way make the project potentially universal, rather than particular. There are even blank pages left at the end of the book, with a note urging readers to use them for their own “I remember”s; in fact in the basement of my college library I remember filling whole legal pads with illegible memories after reading about such a writing prompt.
But I know from experience that Perec is a master of the oblique approach to the heart of things. As Bellos keenly observes, over the course of the 479 entries:
In this way I Remember creates waves of partly overlapping sets of readers who share or do not share this or that memory, pushing each reader now closer to the center and now further away from it, but leaving one and only one inhabitant of the intersection of all 479 memories…. [I]t locates the autobiographer in a 479-dimensional space in which his specific identity is made unique in a way that no amount of personal confession could achieve. (11)
A glance at the index—“excessive, manic, incomplete, and practically useless,” according to Bellos (14)—provides some cursory access to Perec’s unique mnemonic tendencies, concentrating for emphasis recurring topics like jazz, film, cycling, language, World War II, “childhood folklore,” and “everyday life.”
In the end, perhaps because I know so little of 1950s France (and despite Bellos’s generous end-notes), it was Perec’s most personal memories, which seem at least in part to defy his stated constraints, that propelled me through the 479 entries. Or are these just the ones that remind me the most, in one way or another, of myself? I project a familiar anxiety onto number 51: “I remember the buses with a platform at the back: when you wanted to get off at the next stop, you had to press a buzzer, but neither too close to the preceding stop, nor too close to the stop in question.” Number 64 echoes one of my own favorite grade school memories: “I remember how enjoyable it was, at boarding school, to be ill and to go to the sickroom.” 150: “I remember I was astonished to learn that my first name meant ‘worker of the soil.’” (I used to enjoy knowing my first name, not common enough to be cool, meant “king.”) 330: “I remember that I tried several times to use a slide-rule, and also repeatedly started on manuals of modern math, telling myself that if I took it slowly, if I read all the lessons in order, did the exercises and everything, then there was no reason for me to lose the thread.” Ah, the impossible logic of numbers! What about 322? “I remember that I dreamed of one day having all 57 varieties of Heinz.”
Perec’s record keeping and mine are, obviously, quite different, but I suppose I imagine mine as a kind of collecting. A collection to be proud of, a collection to admire, a collection whose value resides in its ability to reflect the value of its collector, me. A good friend of mine recently finished reading (and, of course, recording) his 100th book of 2014, to me an impressive achievement. (Incidentally one of the recommendations he took me up on was Perec’s W, or the Memory of Childhood.) Looking ahead, though, he told me he wouldn’t do it again. Still I can’t help starting a new list for 2015: 1. I Remember, by Georges Perec.
I do wonder whether he ever collected all 57 Heinz varieties. The language of the entry suggests no. But how many ever he ended up with before giving up the “dream,” it wouldn’t be the collection itself that would reveal anything about Perec, but the impulse to do it in the first place, and, in the second, to record it for us here and now in writing.