The Hugo Vernier Affair: About the Winter Journey & Its Aftermath, by Georges Perec & Oulipo | the daily

If we assume that in the vast universe of literary creation, stories, plot twists, situations themselves, revolve around a small handful of motifs told and retold since time immemorial, dismantled, scraped, pressed, returned and reintegrated into their original condition, true creative freedom, the contourless magma in which those who write acquire, or at least try to acquire, their own particularity, is given by the form of the story, by the structure , by the innumerable variations or restrictions applied to the construction of a narrative.

The vast majority of writers devote themselves to filling wineskins inherited from unequal fortune, but there are others, less numerous, who crack the walls of the container and manage to distill the same common matter in a different way. For those who read stories and novels for the mere pleasure of the anecdote, these writers are usually boring, tedious, sacred-button complex or even lighthearted, since they expend their efforts and exhaust their creativity in simple formal skills, verbal watermarks, puns. , thrift stores What these readers of stories for the sake of history do not take into account is that without experimentation and research, without risk-taking in art, and even without the more playful side of creation, literature limit itself to reproducing to the climax the same stagnant repertoire. .

Let me include here a quote from Professor Vladimir Nabokov, taken from the article “Art and Common Sense”, included in the European literature course, in a translation by Francisco Torres Oliver, which condenses previous babble on the subject: “The humble prophet, the magician in his cave, the indignant artist, the nonconformist little schoolboy, they all share the same sacred danger. And since it is so, let us bless him, let us bless the monster; because in the natural evolution of beings, the monkey would not have become a man if a monster had not appeared in the family”.

Created in Paris, in November 1960, by the writer Raymond Queneau (1903-1976) and the mathematician François Le Lionnais (1901-1984), the Oulipo (acronym for Ouvroir de literature potential, or, in Spanish, Literature workshop potential) has largely transcended the finality of literary experimentation with which it was founded, reaching this aquatic present with renewed vigour, assimilating the new mechanisms of writing that the digital universe has imposed not only on our daily life but on the circulation of literary texts.

A key aspect of the Oulipo universe is the concept of “constraints”, which establishes the formal method of writing and which can be determined by a linguistic element such as a letter or a phoneme, or a mathematical construction such than an algorithm or an equation. One of the first works to come out of the Oulipo, and one of the most canonical of the group, is the book A hundred billion poems (1961), by Queneau, in which each reader constructs his own poem from a series of alternatives on ten sonnets.

Several years before the creation of the group, Queneau himself had already prefigured this creative path in his book styling exercises (1947), in which he recounts ninety-nine ways of approaching the same anecdotal anecdote.

Seven years after the founding of the Potential Writing Workshop, the one who would become its most eminent representative entered the Oulipo: Georges Perec (1936-1982), prolific and experimental writer who condensed in 45 years of life an excessive desire of research and who has become a kind of beacon which continues to shine, although he has been dead for forty years, a reverberating editorial light (just look at the permanent editions and re-editions of his work in our language, a series to which the book in question belongs).

Winner of the Renaudot Prize for his first novel, Things (1965), Perec not only wrote a series of outstanding works, among which stands out user manual life (1978), but it laid the foundations for various formal constructions that other authors would later exploit. Within these is I remember (1978), which presents four hundred and eighty brief memories of his own life preceded by the expression “I remember…”, inspired by the book I remember (1970), by the American Joe Brainard (1942-1994), and which has given rise, over the years, to too many uneven and allegedly unpublished versions by other authors.

Of course, one cannot fail to mention in this very limited gloss of Perec’s work his novel disappearance (1969), written in complete disregard of the letter “e”, the most common in French, and whose translation into Spanish by Disappearance (1997), undertaken by Marisol Arbués, Mercè Burrel, Marc Parayre, Hermes Salceda and Regina Vega, omitting the letter “a” throughout the book, the most used in Spanish, won the Stendhal prize for translation in 1998.

In 1979, Georges Perec published a short story entitled “Le Voyage d’hiver”, in which he told the story of the young literature professor Vincent Degrael, who at the end of August 1939, when rumors of war were invading Paris, was invited to spend a few days on a farm in Le Havre, belonging to the parents of his colleague Denis Borrade. In the library of this house, Degrael finds a small book entitled the winter journey, written in the previous century by a certain Hugo Vernier, whose name means nothing to him. As he reads, Degrael feels more and more uncomfortable, a feeling that maintains a certain familiarity that he finds in the small volume published in 1864, which he cannot specify at first.

Scholarly as he is of the French poets of the second half of the 19th century, Degrael finds the key to the strangeness of the little book, since he begins to find in its pages verses by Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, Lautréamont, Arthur Rimbaud , Tristan Corbière and a few others in a volume that appeared several years before they wrote them, in a troubling case of “anticipatory plagiarism”. Knowing who the unknown poet Hugo Vernier was will henceforth become Professor Degrael’s main concern, and he will devote several decades of his life to it.

In 1992, thirteen years after the publication of the story “Le Voyage d’hiver” and a decade after the death of Georges Perec, the writer Jacques Roubaud (1932), member of Oulipo since 1966, published the story “Le Voyage of yesterday”. », a kind of variation or continuation of the Perequian text, featuring Dennis Borrade Jr., son of the colleague who lodged Professor Degrael in his property in Le Havre and, therefore, grandson of the owner of the copy of the winter journey which sparked the original story. In Roubaud’s story, Perec becomes a fictional character: the author of “The Winter Journey” who, questioned by Dennis Borrade Jr. on the veracity of the events he recounts in his story, denies any possible trace of veracity. in the characters and the situations evoked, referring everything to the field of fiction. However, Dennis Borrade Jr. knows not only that his father knew Professor Vincent Degrael but also that in 1973 he visited him at the psychiatric hospital of Verrières, where he was interned, without having been able to unravel the mystery of Hugo Vernier.

After the edition of Jacques Roubaud’s story, another Oulipiano, Hervé Le Tellier (1957), publishes a new sequel, “Le Voyage d’Hitler”, which places a copy of the winter journey in the Führer’s bunker in Berlin. As ocurría con la primera continuation, el texto de Le Tellier incorporated a Georges Perec como personaje de la trama al tiempo qu’introduc en el misterio del poeta Hugo Vernier la referencia al “Hugo Gruppe”, un oscuro movimiento subterráneo et intercontinental que tiene en el center the winter journey.

The book The Winter Journey & Its Aftermathrecently published by Eterna Cadencia, in translation by the Argentinian writer Eduardo Berti (member of Oulipo since 2014 and whose Reading Club has been opportunely commented on in these pages), presents the sequence of variations of Perec’s story written by various members of the Potential Literature Workshop. Thus, to the aforementioned texts by Roubaud and Le Tellier are added, among others, sequels by Ian Monk (“Hoover’s Journey”), Jacques Bens (“Arvers’ Journey”), Michelle Grangaud (“A Divergent Journey”), François Caradec (“The journey of the worm”), Harry Mathews (“The journey of the vessels”), Mijaíl Gorliuk (“If one night a winter journey”), Hugo Vernier (“The infernal journey”), Paul Fournel (“ Hébert’s Journey”) and Jacques Toy (“The Journey of the Large Glass”).

The sum of the variations displayed over almost five hundred pages makes the book a powerful interactive novel, which keeps adding traces, details and smokescreens in its conformation, forcing the reader to carefully follow the clues scattered throughout each story, the sum of which intends to unveil the mystery that surrounds Hugo Vernier’s book. Sometimes the authors indulge in cross-sections from one story to another, denying what one of them has asserted with solvency and even going so far as to question the very mechanics of the story to discredit it. ; in other cases, they pick up isolated details from a previous text to develop their own sequel. Sometimes the well-worn resource of the found manuscript is abused (several times a character finds a lost text among papers, receives a suitcase with out-of-print writings, or, coincidentally, during his foray into a basement, he finds a telltale print ), but the recurrence of the stratagem tends to be forgotten in the face of the detective solvency shown by each author and which, in the sum of the variations, composes a very solid book, very pleasant to read.

Within the Oulipo, there is a kind of traditional phrase, something like a creed or a mantra that its members constantly keep in mind:Georges and I thought(“Georges had already thought about it”), often used to indicate that such and such an idea is not new because Perec had already thought of it before. It is therefore not surprising that the very idea of ​​this book was already projected by Perec when he had the obscure poet Hugo Vernier work on paper, making him write a book entitled the winter journey, source of plagiarism for many poets more famous than him and center of later concerns for a handful of colleagues. Because that is, ultimately, literature: a permanent artifice that becomes a true prodigy in itself.

The Winter Journey & Its Aftermath. By Georges Perec & Oulipo. Buenos Aires, Eternal Cadence, 2021, 472 pages. Translation by Eduardo Berti.

Leave a Comment