“Leonardo is dead, Antonello is dead, and I’m not feeling too well myself.” Thus we read in French experimentalist Perec’s long-forgotten, rejected debut, now rescued from the dustbin of literary history.
One sympathizes with the Gallimard editor who turned the book down nearly 60 years ago for its “excessive clumsiness and chatter.” Though there’s no real sign of the Oulipo extravagance that would follow, there’s plenty of busy wordplay, a plot that’s not always coherent, and a curiously doubled narrative that turns from internal monologue, complete with bursts of furious paddling down the stream of consciousness (“A single movement and then curtains....One thrust would be enough....His arm raised, the glint of the blade...a single movement”), to more or less ordinary expository prose, though always with a twist. (Or a thrust, for that matter.) The plot, as it is, is fairly slender: A well-born young man with mad skills and loose ethics meets up with an art forger and goes to work revising the history of the Renaissance, churning out an occasional impressionist masterpiece in the bargain, while keeping his cover working the legit side of the art world. Naturally, young Gaspard soon aspires to outdo himself, creating a supposedly unknown work by an Italian master that will be the glory of his career—and accepted at once as the real goods. Blood figures into the plot, as does then Communist Yugoslavia. Not surprisingly, given the time of composition, there are some Camus-ian moments (“Nothing is easy. Nothing is quick. Everything is wrong.”). There are also plenty of loose threads, befitting a work that recounts “the double, triple, quadruple game of a fake artist pastiching his own pastiche.”
The translation is pleasingly idiomatic, the translator’s introduction illuminating. Perec’s yarn, though, will largely be of interest to students of postwar French literature and social history, who will find that it makes a nice if not especially memorable puzzle.