Writing Out of Boundsby Becca Rothfeld
Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere
(University of Chicago Press, 2015)
In 1457, Renaissance painter Antonello da Messina completed the iconic Portrait of a Man (Il Condottiere). The canvas is dark and unadorned, save for the central, imposing visage of the condottiere in question. The figure’s expression, haughty and unassailable, is background enough, implying power and authority so undeniable that no supplementary scenery is necessary. The forceful but enigmatic face of the condottiere, presented without context or ornamentation, is the provocation at the heart of Georges Perec’s recently rediscovered first novel, Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere.
Originally slated for publication in 1960 by the French imprint Gallimard, Perec’s early effort was ultimately rejected when a round of grueling edits failed to improve the text to the publisher’s satisfaction. (“YOU’LL HAVE TO PAY ME LOADS IF YOU WANT ME TO START IT OVER AGAIN,” Perec wrote in frustration on the revised typescript.) “I’ll go back to it in ten years when it’ll turn into a masterpiece, or else I’ll wait in my grave until one of my faithful exegetes comes across it in an old trunk,” he added, somewhat presciently, in a letter to a friend. And this is exactly what happened: the manuscript, lost when Perec accidentally disposed of the wrong suitcase during a move from one Paris residence to another, was recently rediscovered by his translator, biographer, and exegete, the Princeton professor David Bellos.
The novel, which made its American debut this April, follows the successful but troubled art forger Gaspard Winckler. (Perec connoisseurs may recognize the name, which reappears in W, or the Memory of Childhood and Life: A User’s Manual.) Tired of imitating without innovating, Winckler becomes fixated on Antonello’s singular Portrait of a Man. He sets out not only to emulate Antonello’s style but also to channel the Italian’s genius—to create a condottiere, a true masterpiece,of his own. When his efforts fail, yielding only an anemic portrait of Winckler himself, the forger-turned-aspiring-artist murders the head of his forgery ring in an act of confused desperation. The novel opens turbulently in medias res, with Winckler struggling to tunnel his way out of the cellar in which he’s locked himself with the corpse. For the rest of the book, we’re treated to tortured passage after tortured passage of retrospective soul-searching: “I’d wanted to be everybody so as to end up as nobody,” Winckler proffers indulgently, sounding for all the world like an overwrought caricature of an already-overwrought Godard screenplay.
Although Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere is a fairly conventional novel, straightforward if fussily written, Perec is famous for his elaborate literary experiments: in A Void, he adhered to a rigorous lipogrammatic regimen, omitting to use a single letter “E” in the book’s more than 200 pages; and in the ambitious Life: a User’s Manual, the ordering of the chapters follows the movements of a knight across a chessboard. These exercises are motivated by more than idle playfulness: in 1967, Perec became the youngest member of the French literary movement Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (“workshop of potential literature”), better known as OuLiPo. Founded in 1960 by writer Raymond Queneau and chemical engineer François le Lionnais, OuLiPo aimed to enhance literary creativity via the imposition of constraints onto the process of composition. At a time when the rigid, formal rules that had traditionally governed literature finally gave way, yielding in the place of sonnets and realist prose the non-linear chaos of early postmodernism, OuLiPo called for a return to what could seem like a regressive regulative paradigm.
Perhaps the explanation is to be found in Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere, Perec’s first work and by far his least adventurous. Like OuLiPo, Winckler’s foray into portraiture attempts to strike the impossible balance between fixity and fluidity. To paint a portrait is to impose a static image onto an evolving identity. As Winckler observes, “The Condottiere never moves, will never move”—and for precisely this reason the figure “is not human. He knows neither struggle nor action.” The core challenge of portraiture is to capture what is most alive—what is most animate—about its sitter, but the rigidity of the means contradicts the malleability of the ends. If Winckler’s masterwork is “never-endingly unfinished,” it is because his project attempts to impose an artificial finality onto the fluctuating substance of a person. The laborious work of digging himself out of the cellar serves to redeem him: difficult and unglamorous, it initiates the process of self-formation that Winckler previously avoided through forgery, a profession that afforded him the cheap thrill of adopting a ready-made identity.
Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere ends up mounting a thematic, if not a formal, defense of Perec’s seemingly conservative Oulipian tendencies. As Winckler strives to wrest an organized self from the chaos of the artistic identities he’s imitated, Perec strives to wrest a set of clear rules from the tumult of unfettered literary creation. “Was that what art was? To summon forth rigor, order and necessity?” Winckler asks. But that is not all art is: Perec—and his troubled protagonist—are charged with balancing the ease of rule-following with the toil of invention. Winckler’s painting fails because it is “too facile. Too instantaneous”—too much an exercise in adhering to the rules already set by Antonello, and too little an exercise in devising rules of his own.
OuLiPo is in some sense an antidote to forgery, literal and figurative: it promotes authenticity, conceived as radical originality, but it also acknowledges the importance of crafting works that engage their audiences. In order to create something intelligible, an artist must trade in a recognizable currency; but in order to create something worthwhile, he must do more than reiterate an established story. OuLiPo is an attempt to mediate these often-conflicting concerns—the imperative for order or fixity on the one hand, and originality or fluidity on the other.
The games that Perec plays in his later works order disorder without neutralizing or negating it. At his best, Perec specializes in intricate entanglements, ingenious constructions as skillfully and marvelously arranged as sets of nested dolls, surprising yet structured. Here, at his worst, he lacks his usual virtuosic control of all the moving parts: Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere feels reeling, disorienting. Queneau famously wrote that OuLiPo’s practitioners are “rats who build the labyrinth from which they will try to escape”—creatures whose moves are intimately tethered to their sense of confinement. In this particular iteration of the give-and-take dance of literary creation, Perec is missing the pushback, the structure that will drive him towards ever more nuanced motions and ever more inspired escape routes—and, ultimately, towards a curious sort of contorted freedom.
BECCA ROTHFELD is a freelance critic based in Brooklyn. Next year, she will pursue a Master's degree in the history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge.