If literary non-fiction is actually a genre distinct from history or reportage, not just a sales category, then Georges Perec’s W. Or The Memory of Childhood, first published in the author’s native French in 1975, translated by David Bellos in 1988, must be one of its foundational texts. Perec, one of the first members of the workshop for potential literature (OULIPO), harnesses the group’s dedication to artificial language constraints to tell the story of his early childhood in Nazi-occupied France. Perec’s father was drafted and killed in the Nazi offensive in 1940, his mother was deported with most of Paris’s Jews, probably in 1943, after she’d packed him off to stay with his father’s relatives in the relative safety of an alpine village where he attended a Catholic seminary school until the Liberation. The tale focuses less on the facts of such tragically damaged and destroyed lives as how Perec himself became aware of them. It’s a narrative of astonishing indirection, false memories cluttered with the movies the child saw, the books he read, and yet it gains its force through this very indirectness as we feel the author straining after an impossible restoration.
The title refers to a story that Perec claims to have written as a teenager, a utopian fable about a desert-island society organized around a continual olympics. These games become gradually more and more violent, the rules more arbitrary, until the outline of a concentration camp emerges. This emerging allegory alternates with the adult author’s accounts of his often less-than-successful efforts to remember everything the good child needed to forget for his own survival. The letter W (double v, in French) turns out not only to be the double of the teenager’s imagined “vaterland,” but also the key figure of “a fantasmatic geometry” whose transformations through reflections, further doublings, 90 degree rotations, foldings and unfoldings, resolves the letter into swastikas, SS symbols, Jewish stars, and the forbidding X that marks the spot of something never knowable inside the self.