Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Fear of Falling: The Myth of Icarus in la Vie Mode D'emploi

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Fear of Falling: The Myth of Icarus in la Vie Mode D'emploi

Article excerpt

J'aime: les parcs, les jardins, le papier quadrille [...] les toits d'ardoise, La Chute d'Icare [...] (1)

The presence of "programmed" allusions and quotations in La Vie mode d emploi, which form part of the larger system of constraints used by Georges Perec to write the novel, has received a great deal of critical attention. Critics have also addressed the important role played by paintings and descriptions of paintings in Perec's work. (2) concentrate here on one of the 420 elements of the "cahier des charges" that has so far attracted little comment. In the category "allusions" and under the subheading "tableaux" we find the title "Chute d'Icare": the painting referred to is Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. (3) By examining the allusions to this painting in La Vie mode d'emploi, I address a larger question: what is the significance of the Icarus myth in this novel and in Perec's work as a whole? Finally, taking this particular intertext as a starting point, I draw a few general conclusions regarding Perecquian intertextuality.


The painting concerned is not named explicitly in the novel itself, but there are nine allusions to it. These are woven into the work in such a way as to make them almost invisible; even the most perceptive reader is unlikely to spot them without previous knowledge of their presence. We encounter a problem identical to the one represented by the Perecquian "implicitation": as Bernard Magne has noted, the quotation is hidden within the text yet "certains de ses effets de sens, pour etre percus, exigent qu'on la [...] decrypte." (4) Furthermore, in order for such a decryption to take place, in most cases the reader must already know that the allusion or quotation is there. (5) The reader is therefore obliged to resort to the "cahier des charges," which lists the instances of the Chute d'Icare allusion, as reproduced below:

1 Le navire (papier peint) ch. 4

2 Le Lab et le berger ch 24

3 Le Lab ch 48 (avec << labourage >>)

4 ch 49 (avec << paturage >>): un groupe de moutons paissant au milieu desquels se tve une brebis sombre

5 ch [begin strikethrough]49[end strikethrough]/50 la perdrix et l'arbuste sec.

6 ch 64 Le port (sur le fauteuil)

7 ch 69 << Icarus >>

8 ch 87 l'ile (mysterieuse): p 25

9 ch 92 M prevu (6)

10 ch 97 un paysage avec un coucher de soleil (7)

Note that all of these allusions except for the one in chapter 69 are found in second-degree representations; that is, they occur within descriptions of paintings or of decorative images in the rooms of the building. (8) In each case, Perec incorporates the allusion to an existing painting into a fictional image. Of these, the closest to the original painting is the "toile de Jouy" in chapter 24 (the Marcia's apartment), which depicts a farm worker and a shepherd:

   Plus loin, le long du mur, six chaises en bois peint, couleur vert celadon,
   sur lesquelles sont poses des rouleaux de toiles de Jouy. Celui du dessus
   represente un decor champetre ou alternent un paysan labourant son champ et
   un berger qui, appuye sur sa houlette, le chapeau rejete dans le dos, son
   chien en laisse, ses moutons disperses tout autour de lui, leve les yeux
   vers le ciel. (9)

In chapter 48, the postcard that Madame Albin shows to Jane Sutton also resembles a figure in the Bruegel painting: it represents "un paysan grec avec une espece de grand beret, une chemise rouge et un gilet gris, poussant sa charrue" (263). Interestingly, Mme. Albin's postcards are described in the same sentence as being "sans relation apparente avec sa biographie" (my emphasis). This phrase should perhaps alert us to a hidden relationship between the image and the character, or indeed between the image and the author's own (auto)biography.

These examples are unusual in their fidelity to Bruegel; in general, the image alluded to undergoes various types of fragmentation and transformation. …

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