‘Portrait of a Man’ has the feel of some uncovered treasure

IN A BASEMENT studio just outside Paris, Gaspard Winckler, a master forger, has just murdered Anatole Madera, the crooked head of a group of international art dealers, and his patron. 

Portrait of a Man

Georges Perec (translated by David Bellos)

MacLehose Press, £12.99;

ebook, €10.57

Having already been discovered in a bloodstained state, he locks himself away, but there is a possibility of escape via a patched-up tunnel to freedom just beneath one window. And Yugoslavia beckons, and the chance to recount the story to an old friend.

Typically of Perec, the plot is presented in unconventional fashion. In fact, it’s told twice: initially, in first, second and third person stream-of-consciousness that is actually far more readable than it might sound; and then again, as a questions-and-answers type interrogation. And in this way, Gaspard becomes real to us.

We learn of his life as the son of wealthy parents, and how he was taken under the wing of a painter named Jerome, who cultivated his gifts and taught him the art of forgery.

For more than a decade he made a decent if subversive living reproducing high-quality copies of the Great Masters, but his breakdown occurs when Madera, his art pimp, pushes him into create a lost masterpiece.

Gaspard opts for Antonello da Messina’s ‘Portrait of a Man’ series, but his own ambition, to produce a work of true and original art that can succeed on its own merit as well as being accepted as an attributable Renaissance piece, is a challenge too great to bear, and one that can only lead to disaster.

When he died from cancer in 1982 at the tragically early age of 45, Georges Perec’s considerable body of work had already established him as one of the 20th century’s most important and ambitious writers and thinkers, a wordplay virtuoso and a standard-bearing figure in France’s famed Oulipo (’Workshop of Potential Literature’) movement.

His early books earned impressive critical and popular acclaim, and major industry awards like the Prix Renaudot, but his lasting greatness was established beyond doubt with the 1978 publication of his experimental masterpiece, Life: A User’s Manual, a bravura performance that won the Prix Médicis and is now widely regarded as one of the greatest novels of the past hundred years in any language.

Though it has only recently been discovered, after decades of myth-making rumours, Portrait of a Man is in fact Perec’s first attempt at a novel. Written in the three years or so leading up to 1960, it was originally accepted by the prestigious French publishing house, Gallimard, who even went as far as paying an advance, but requested a further rewrite.

However, by the time the final draft was done they’d changed their minds. Devastated, Perec locked the manuscript away, and set himself to other challenges.

Often, the posthumous offerings of great writers amount to little more than unfinished scribblings and juvenalia, but that is not so here. Portrait of a Man has the feel of uncovered treasure, but it is a finished and finely crafted work, full of invention. It also adds significantly to our picture of Perec himself.

Inevitably with a debút work, we are glimpsing a writer not yet in full control of his many towering gifts, but the signs are clear, the stylistic ambition already evident, as is the fascination with art and the notion and consequences of authenticity, themes that will concern him throughout his career.

Details and even characters found here — as explained in the comprehensive introduction, penned by the book’s translator and renowned Perec expert, David Bellos — tie in with several of the author’s later works, suggesting that all of Perec’s novels can be viewed as a single large canvas.


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