Books: Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere by Georges Perec

Posted on April 27, 2015


“On Jewish and artistic authenticity wrt Georges Perec’s first novel”
What does fiction about art forgery have to do with Jewish identity?
In my New York Journal of Books review I praise Perec’s first novel as “a fully realized and mature work of fiction.” Read that review first. Additional remarks that appeared in a different and now defunct publication begin with the next paragraph.
On Jewish and artistic authenticity wrt Georges Perec’s first novel

Shortly after Germany’s surrender in 1945 Dutch painter Han van Meegeren was arrested for collaboration, specifically for selling one of Holland’s national art treasures, a Vermeer painting, to Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. Van Meegeren’s defense was that he had not sold Göring a genuine Vermeer but a fake, and as proof he painted another copy of the same painting in his jail cell.

This incident inspired at least two works of literary fiction about art forgers. The first was American writer William Gaddis’ 1955 experimental 958 page long novel The Recognitions, which enjoyed a status in the 1950s comparable to that achieved by David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest in the 1980s.

The second was French writer Georges Perec’s 1960 initially unpublished 144 page first novel Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere whose original manuscript was lost and whose text was posthumously reconstructed from carbon copies by Perec’s translator and biographer David Bellos, whose English translation of the book was published by University of Chicago Press earlier this month. In my New York Journal of Books review I write that this first novel “will provide Perec’s fans a fuller view of his oeuvre, can serve as an accessible entry point for readers who are new to its author, and is recommended to readers of literary fiction who enjoy dense prose presented in multipage paragraphs.”

In his introduction to the novel Bellos points to another of Perec’s possible sources of inspiration, Jean Paul Sartre’s discussion of authenticity and inauthenticity in his 1944 book Réflexions sur la question juive (in English Anti-Semite and Jew, 1946). To Sartre an authentic Jew is one who acquires some degree of literacy in Jewish languages and literature, performs Jewish rituals, and affiliates with the Jewish community and its institutions, while an inauthentic Jew is one whose Jewish identity is merely a defensive reaction to anti-Semitism.

Perec inferred a similar artistic authenticity and inauthenticity exemplified on the one hand by real artists who create original works of art and on the other hand by art forgers. Portrait of a Man’s protagonist is an art forger who attempts to create a work of art that is both a convincing fake and at the same time an original work of art. When he fails to achieve the impossible he blames and murders his boss. In our own time we have seen personal failure precede murder in the cases of Timothy McVeigh whose application to an army Special Forces course was rejected several years before the Oklahoma City bombing, Tamerlan Tsarnaev whose lack of U.S. citizenship prevented him from qualifying for the U.S. Olympic boxing team and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev who flunked out of college shortly before the Boston Marathon bombing.

Ironically although Perec grew up in a Yiddish speaking home as the child of Eastern European immigrants, and though, according to Bellos, Perec’s correspondence when he was writing Portrait of a Man was full of Yiddish influenced witticisms, there is no Jewish content in Perec’s fiction, not in this first novel nor in his subsequent books (Perec, a life long smoker, died of lung cancer at age 46 in 1982).

In an article in the anthology The Yiddish Presence in European Literature Bellos points out that in the 1950s Eli Weisel and André Schwarz-Bart were ghettoized within French publishing as “Jewish writers” and how contemporary aspiring Jewish French writers including Perec decided to avoid being similarly marginalized. Bellos explains: “The secular and universalist ideals that brought Perec’s relatives from Poland to Paris in the first place had forged the young man’s conception of what it meant to be a writer, and that conception allotted no role to linguistic or ethnic or religious particularity.” It also indicates the nature and extent of cultural diversity in post-war France and its literature.

All this suggests the following questions: can an inauthentic Jew be an authentic literary artist, or are those two forms of authenticity in fact not analogous, and is authenticity an objective and definable quality, or is it subjective and visceral? In my New York Journal of Books review I praise Perec’s first novel as “a fully realized and mature work of fiction.” For a fuller discussion of Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere read my NYJB review.

Portrait of a Man (The Condottiero) by Antonello da Messina (1475,Venice, Italy), Musée du Louvre, Paris, France