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A Man Asleep – Georges Perec (1967, Tr. 1990)

Days made of verbs and nouns. You have turned into Verbman, a Noun monster. No qualities – just doing, listing, discerning without acknowledging.

a man asleep - A Man Asleep - Georges Perec (1967, Tr. 1990)


Disasters do not exist, they are elsewhere.

Georges Perec


There exists a jarring paradox: silence is at daggers drawn with language, yet it breeds – in a gemmating fashion, thus with hardly any fuss or gidding – a demand to justify itself WITHIN boundaries of the latter. Therefore, it concocts a cumbersome cocktail of common courtesy, whipped with a whiff of whimsical whining: “Mr. Language, why are you being so strict? Are you trying to puzzle my well-being, sending me mixed signals? Why wouldn’t you let me have my own mode of expression, a means to communicate without your enforced necessities? Oh, Mr. Language, would it be too much to ask if you keep an eye on my previous duties, while I am going to try and be beside myself?”…

Beside oneself” – taken as literally as possible here – is perhaps the key phrase which you may attribute to Georges Perec’s novel A Man Asleep. It has lodged on the same plane of mis-ontologized referentiality, sprouted up in the same kingdom of metaphysical stiff-upper-lipness, just as Wittgenstein’s Mistress and I’m Thinking of Ending Things had, the latter two simply occupying different hmm… “marches” of monstrous calamities, presiding over other “fiefdoms” of fiendish dread. Ensnared while crossing the impossible space between two sides of the looking glass (bizarre-wise, I suppose I don’t have to remind you which looking glass is it, do I…), the book neither pays heed to your reading comfort, nor makes any excuses for itself. It isn’t illegible, unapproachable, yet is inexorable, ineluctable to those who are just as beside themselves as protagonist of Perec’s second novel is.

A nameless 25-year-old sociology student – you – for the Frenchman uses 2nd person narrative throughout the whole odyssey of how to make oneself scarce – not figuratively, but metaphysically speaking – realizes he is unable to cope with blatantly pointless mechanisms of life itself anymore. How does he feel? Disillusioned? With what? Rejected? By whom? Dejected? Why? Extricated? From what? Forget about questions. They are the most loyal lackeys of language anyway. You, on the other hand, are more, or less…or…well, “beside”. You have slipped through the crack in reality, into the crevasse of self-revelation so brutal, yet so numbing it cannot make anything more nor anything less than etherize and cut you off from this paradoxical notion, reduce you to shards of silence, turn you into mechanical wretch of a human shadow, becoming flatter and flatter on the ever less insignificant surface of reality.

For, in contrast to Kate – maltreated by no-other-wayness in Wittgenstein’s Mistress – and Jake – the Arctic wolf of ultimate loneliness in I’m Thinking of Ending Things – you accommodated yourself on the thin line of retaining your sanity (you wish you had lost it; would make life easier, wouldn’t it?…) while not being necessitated to perform a counterstroke against the vapid void of ever the same days and nights of walking and looking. Days made of verbs and nouns. You have turned into Verbman, a Noun monster. No qualities – just doing, listing, discerning without acknowledging. Lacking flair, bland, squalid seconds of sore scrapes, splinters of previous habits, now meaningless and, thus, at the verge of being nonexistent. Dis-endowed deeds of derring-do without any dare. You have become so homogeneously tautological you are no longer able to belong in general. Full stop. You are the end of a sentence nobody wishes to utter, yet, out of linguistic spite, vile bile or other despicable phenomenon, has been phrased. You still retain your consciousness, your sense of reasoning. You are an invisible slime at the threshold of proper, self-inflicted basket case conditioning you would love to fall for irrevocably, irreversibly, which, nevertheless, flees from your incapacitated mentality, existential inconsistency. You possess neither will to live nor will to death. You cannot continue and cannot cease to carry on. You are a nightmare of every classical logician. You are so beside yourself you are turning into a dream of becoming something else than a human being. What would you like to become? I bet my bottom dollar you would reject your human form in favor of the whole new reality, with an alternative set of pristine premises. Or, perhaps, you would not. All in all, keep dreaming, sleepless boy, keep dreaming…

What is so riveting in A Man Asleep? Is it the language, curt and mundane, full of enumerations, with verbs as main building blocks of narration (nouns coming a close second)? Does reality of a man who has been slashed with the “neither/nor” exclusion genuinely succumbs to verbal abuse (here, again, in a literal meaning) that badly? Is it the assertion you are prone to bestow: of all senses, sight is spatially the most passive one? Hearing almost always entails some sort of movement (finger drumming, leg bouncing, full-blown dancing routine, etc.), smell and taste – the underrated duo comprising hedonistic holism, with touch as their sidekick or, rather, the power behind the throne of sensuality – are, too, in complete cooperation with the body and its fidgeting around. But sight is different. You may just sit and keep your eyes open, perfectly motionless, be still and still be able to observe as many things as your pupils would allow you to. There is nothing that should convince your sight to give way for anything but its own self-centered continuation. Thank god you have eyelids. You would have been unbearable without them. But I digress, as usual.

Getting back on track with unquenchable charms of A Man Asleep, should the external nightmare of senseless activities, futile deeds, lackadaisical actions – bread and butter of Perec’s protagonist – be treated as a sign of general bankruptcy of the idea of personal identity? More than once, you are being exposed as someone whose life is something which cannot be equated with yourself. A perfect specimen of homo sapiens with stumps for qualities, a man curtailed. Not a single bad word may be said about you, the same goes for their opposites. You are Aristotelian golden mean incarnate. You are a perfectly balanced nothingness which evoke a sole connotation only – a drab individual with self-regurgitated life, having no strings attached to it whatsoever. You remain here and your existence went away. Better deal with it. Or, perhaps, don’t…

Perec’s novel – not yet subjugated to the literary rigor of OuLiPo – is another evidence of how unpredictable a flirt with skepticism (no matter whether inflicted by sheer chance or accosted deliberately) could be. In spite of not being in full bloom, and without ontological horror vacui, whose dire consequences might be witnessed in Wittgenstein’s Mistress and I’m Thinking of Ending Things, A Man Asleep remains their next of kin. It may be loaded with less conceptual “cargo”, with far less “ideas behind ideas”, nevertheless you are more than eager to forgive its literary faux pas. All thanks to the memorable, one-of-a-kind narration (the only other book I know of, which implements second-person point of view, is Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney and – partially – Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler) and for the underlying sense of inexpressibility – a blaring notion that behind being exempt from will to live and will to death, beside being beside oneself, there is simply something more, simmering underneath the rampant muzzle of words and many other oxymoronic expressions which are doomed to de-scribe you. What exactly is it? Why don’t you fall asleep and tell me. I am willing to prepare a glass of warm milk for you…

Amonne Purity


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