Gaspard Winckler

Georges Perec, trans. David Bellos, Portrait of a Man

MacLehose Press, 176pp, £12.99, ISBN 9780857052384

reviewed by David Anderson

No matter how fulsomely Scarlett Johansson gave fleshy form to Griet, the serving-girl at Johannes Vermeer's house in Delft, the Girl with a Pearl Earring was never a real girl. As the little text-box hanging next to Vermeer's canvas, in the Mauritshuis, explains:

It is not a real portrait, but a ‘tronie’: a fantasy-head. Tronies picture a certain type of character – in this case, a girl in exotic clothing, with an oriental turban and an improbably large pearl in the ear.

‘A fantasy-head.’ With this bombshell of Dutch bathos, the soft rug of narrative is brutally withdrawn, along with all of Scarlett/Griet's milky reality. A whole tapestry of pregnant moments, socially transgressive frissons and, most worryingly of all, the very existence of Cillian Murphy as the blue-eyed local butcher’s boy, goes up in a puff of celluloid-blue smoke. ‘Griet’ reverts to a faceless extra in art history; the Girl depicted stops even having a ‘herself’ to speak of – she’s a fake, an impostor, merely a ‘certain type of character’.

Dutch painting has a curious tradition of fakery. During the Second World War, the art dealer Hugo van Meegeren raised a scandal by flogging a clutch of masterpieces – Vermeers among them – to highbrow Nazis during the German occupation of his country. Promptly arrested and brought to trial after the war, van Meegeren threw his prosecutors an outlandish curve-ball by claiming that he had systematically forged each one of his blackmarket frames. To prove it, he painted a new ‘Vermeer’ while being scrutinised through the half-moon glasses of assembled art-experts, and finally escaped without charge.

David Bellos mentions this incident in his foreword to Portrait of a Man, the first complete novel written by Georges Perec, newly published in Bellos’s own translation. The book is known under the title Le Condottière in French, after Antonello da Messina's renaissance masterpiece, which emblazons the dust jacket. It was discovered by Bellos during research for his magnificent 1993 biography of Perec, A Life in Words. Having been written in 1960, the original manuscript disappeared in a manner worthy of Perec's own fictional mischievousness, when two identical suitcases (the one containing scrap paper, the other stacked with important documents) were mixed up while the author was moving house. Long thought lost, a copy finally turned up in the hands of his friend Alain Guérin, who handed it to Bellos in 1983 – a year after the chain-smoking author’s own death of lung cancer.

With this type of provenance, it's hard not to be reminded of a particular a short story included in Perec's collection Species of Spaces and other Pieces, in which an obscure volume called ‘The Winter Journey’ (also the name of the story) is discovered by the narrator as the secret sourcebook of all the great French symbolist poets. In Verlaine and Rimbaud, Mallarmé and Lautréamont, myriad opaque phrases are suddenly rendered legible as clear references to its author, Hugo Vernier. Yet, on the cusp of sensation, the Second World War brings about a hiatus in Degraël’s scholarly work; the library containing the sole copy of ‘The Winter Journey’ is destroyed by bombing; the key is lost forever. The tale is a wonderful synecdoche of Perec’s preoccupations – disaster, intricate mises en abymes, and a verve for literary tomfoolery (to my mind A Void is far from his greatest work, but has anybody else even attempted a full-length novel without a single ‘e’?).

Is the rediscovery of Portrait of a Man quite as game-changing as a real-life ‘Winter Journey’ might have been? In as far as its protagonist is Gaspard Winckler, who appears in Perec’s stunning Life A User’s Manual as well as his memoir W or the Memory of Childhood, this new release is a tantalising prospect. Itself composed from the ruins of Gaspard, an even earlier work that really was lost, it dangles the keys to an unplundered alcove of Perec’s extraordinary imagination.

The Gaspard of Portrait of a Man – here's the forgery connection – is a masterfully talented craftsman who falls in with a bad crowd, making a career (and plenty of cash) through his embroilment with an international counterfeit art racket. After years of successful fakery, he falls into a depressive rut, before finally being offered a job that might turn things around: to produce a painting that will pass as being by the Italian master Antonello da Messina (whose Condottière hangs in the Louvre). The offer lights a spark in Gaspard's mind, and he sees in it a chance to ‘carry off what no forger before him had dared attempt’, resolving to produce a work that will not only pass for a bona-fide Messina, but will also be a profound expression of Gaspard's own embattled consciousness, a salve for the essential paradox that ‘I was the perfect forger because no-one knew I was a forger.’

Yet when we meet him – by way of the cataclysmic, agonised stream-of-consciousness sequence that makes up the book's first half – the job has ground to a dead halt. Gaspard has just murdered his paymaster Anatole Madera in a fit of impotent rage, and been put under house-arrest in his studio by one of Madera's henchmen. The tale that unfolds in a dizzying staccato of first, second and third person, is just how things got to such a sorry state, while this Bartleby-meets-Raskolnikov figure digs a tunnel out of his studio and toward some sort of freedom. Things are clarified slightly in part two, set a short time later, and which runs over the same events in a more readily comprehensible duologue form.

The connection with a Sartrean anxiety about originality and authenticity is not difficult to make, nor is the link with Perec's own A Man Asleep, the document (written entirely in the second person) of a depressive slump that followed his first attempt at another lost novel, The Wanderers, written between 1955 and 1956. In fact, the problem with Portrait of a Man is partly explained by this backward glance, for it was in response to The Wanderers that Perec's mentor Jean Duvignaud advised him that ‘when you talk about a thing, you have to describe it so that the reader can see it or at least imagine what it looks like.’ Perec's later work radiates an almost preternatural sense that he himself ‘can see’ the things that he describes – 1965's Things, the book that won him the Prix Renaudot and made his name, radiates with this, as does Life A User's Manual and the extraordinary short story ‘A Gallery Portrait’.

By contrast, and despite its obsession with a painted subject, it's tough to ‘see’ what's going on in Portrait of a Man. If the book sounds chaotic and confused, that's because it is – regardless of the extent to which this is supposed to play out Gaspard's own psychological breakdown. The diptych structure doesn't really add anything, and doesn't hit the mark of the intricacies that fuelled his later work; the prismatic pyrotechnics of Raymond Queneau and Oulipo, the ‘workshop for potential literature’, are a long way off. Perhaps the problem, in fact, is that it's too close to the real deal – bad poetry springs from genuine feeling, as the dictum goes. Yet to judge by these terms is to set the bar outrageously high. Portrait of a Man might not be a masterpiece, but it's a provocative addition to Perec's oeuvre, a long lost thread in a dazzling fabric. Anyone who has been moved by Things, W, or Life A User's Manual – which is to say, surely, anyone who has read them at all – will gulp it down with relish.