Gentle and Fierce is a new book of illustrated memoir essays by Vanessa Berry. 

Perec’s Cat/ Life a User’s Manual

My favourite-ever author photograph is Georges Perec with a black cat on his shoulder. Perhaps this is unsurprising, given that I am a fan of both Perec and cats. Even so, it is the kind of photograph that gives me the suspicion there is something more in it, something I might unlock. It is the textures, perhaps: the cat's glossy black fur, Perec's wiry hair, the stitches of his cable-knit cardigan with its wooden buttons. Or it is the way the cat is turned to face the photographer, giving her momentary attention, but with the sense that she will in the next second turn away.

I went to the Perec Bible - the 800-page biography of Georges Perec by David Bellos - to find out that the photograph had been taken in June 1978 by Anne de Brunhof, daughter of Perec's friends Marie-Claude and Laurent (whose father was the inventor of Babar). The black cat's name was Duchat, the name that all of Perec's successive cats had been called. At the time Perec lived on Rue Linne, which was then "the Savile Row of self-service photocopying boutiques", in the 5th arrondissement.  

This last fact pushed me towards the idea that had been slowly forming as I imagined the Duchat photograph being taken. I uprooted myself and my life story and transposed it into Rue Linne in 1978, imagining an alternative version of my life now, there and then. Thinking of the diagram at the end of Life A User's Manual, and moved into an attic apartment. I converted my museum guide job in Sydney to one at the Museum of Natural History in the Jardin des Plantes. I took my wardrobe full of polyester dresses, my desk objects, and my journal (coincidentally, or perhaps auspiciously, a French-made 'Lutece' brand exercise book) with me, and acquired my own cat, a white cat named Pangur Ban, after the poem.

In Life a User's Manual Perec's meticulous attention to the momentary and the ordinary already gave me the sense I was close inside the apartment building with the characters. I thought I would try moving in a little closer and move into Perec's street, in the hope that maybe he and I might cross paths.

Back to Album︎︎︎