Voyages Divers — Ben Libman


In 1979, Georges Perec published “Le Voyage d’hiver” in an off-trade brochure. It was published again in 1983, a year after his death, in Le Magazine Littéraire, no. 193. During those four short years, Perec’s Voyage grew famous among his peers in the Oulipo as sketching an example of “plagiarism by anticipation.” Chief among those who saw in the very-short story “a sort of mission statement for Oulipo,” as Daniel Levin-Becker has put it, was Jacques Roubaud. In 1992, Roubaud published his reverent and complex riff on the tale, “Le Voyage d’hier.” This set off a long train of punning sequels to Perec’s original, written by the members of Oulipo but sometimes attributed to false and pseudonumous pens. The variegated voyages were compiled and published by Seuil in 2013. What follows is a tribute.

For Georges Perec.

Zypherus Cardanus watched the ink dry on the closing question mark of the manuscript before him. Satisfied, he gently folded the calfskin and placed it on the side of his desk. He sighed, staring out the East-facing window of his study at the vast plain that stretched out for miles. Beige grasslands, a few old stones in rough piles. To the left, out of view, the terrain sprinted upward into two hillocks. Paris, he thought to himself. He didn’t really know how to pronounce it, though he knew the French alphabet and language better than just about anyone in the city. Some pretended to know. But no—it was a dead language. He tipped the little top-hatted head of the plastic bird before him into his glass of potato wine. He yawned. 

Reaching over to the shelf beside him, which supported a handful of cracked and unidentifiable objects, as well as a shiny little bell and an ash-obscured portrait of Hivernée Goru, some of her beautiful blonde hair still visible, Cardanus grabbed the bell and gave it a jingle. An apprentice appeared, carrying a rusty tray upon which lay a few rigid, yellowed pages bound together with string. Cardanus was taken aback. He had been expecting more calfskin and maybe another pot of ink. That was standard procedure for the city’s Master Scribe, who had spent the last fifteen years hand-copying the printed volumes of Hivernée Goru’s famous library. That is to say that through fifteen years of the local engineer’s assurances that the technology known as printing was about to be rediscovered, Cardanus had remained hunched in the corner of the dusty studio apartment once belonging to Hivernée Goru—the only apartment which, thanks to its height and lack of window exposure (it was what was once called a chambre de bonne), remained intact, like a time capsule from that ancient civilization of which Cardanus was the most studious devotee, in the only residential building that, despite being so completely gutted that the wind howled right through it, remained standing in the city once called Paris in the land once France, maybe the only one standing in the world, wherever that ended (there were rumours and textual clues that it stretched out a long way indeed)—deforming the muscles in his right hand to grotesque proportions in order to painstakingly produce perfect manuscript copies of the only printed texts, all of them once owned by Goru—whose past as what was indecipherably called a “sales clerk” was known to Cardanus only because a small rectangular piece of paper bearing her name and professional title had survived flattened beneath her presumed portrait on the shelf—that he and his fellow scholars knew of: De la belle cuisine et des saveurs du Maroc, by Baba Baaqa Bachar; Thomas More by William Shakespeare (trans. Henri Voguer); 232 pages from the middle of a textbook on La chimie minérale; and 17 complete issues of Le Figaro from November 2016. 

The papers bound upon the tray retained some of their original gloss. The apprentice informed Cardanus that they had been found by his younger daughter deep in the rubble of Hivernée Goru’s toilet room, the only part of the apartment not to have been completely preserved, a little field of porcelain rubble. Cardanus could hardly believe his ears. The import of such a discovery alone—the first in half a century—would vault him and his apprentice into the highest echelons of the realm. He grabbed his assistant’s hands and danced him excitedly around the room, whooping and laughing. After a while, they stopped. Flustered and embarrassed, the apprentice straightened his robe and left the room with a bow. 

Cardanus spent months studying Le Voyage d’hiver before ever putting quill to ink. It was a tale of some kind, a probably factual account of a professor of literature’s thwarted attempts at research. The narrative was complete and intact, though the pages had clearly been torn out of some larger volume, the title of which Cardanus could not discern. All he could tell was that it was a sort of periodical publication, like Le Figaro, and that this story had been printed in the 193rd issue and was published in 1983. The author’s name, over whose brilliant black lettering Cardanus passed his thumb each morning as if admiring a talisman, was Georges Perec. 

In a brief, highly suggestive style, Perec sketched the tragic story of one Vincent Degraël, a young professor of literature living and working in Paris in 1939, just as “war” is about to break out (Cardanus’s colleague, Hervé Grunoi, had been compiling a history of the world’s wars, and this new data would no doubt elate him). During a short stay at the country villa of his colleague, Denis Borrade, Degraël stumbles upon an eerie volume by one Hugo Vernier, entitled Le Voyage d’hiver, which Perec, in his own volume of the same title, described as a récit, which is a word Carandus could not quite put his finger on, but which suggested, simply, a tale, set in a “semi-imaginary” land. Semi-imaginary? Cardanus could not comprehend what it would mean to tell of something not real, but imagined, and concluded that this must signify that the author of Le Voyage d’hiver (the text inside the book, not the text), was not quite familiar with the terrain in which his otherwise factual story would take place, and so had to guess at it, possibly in error. Through his reading Degraël makes two discoveries in sequence: first, that the book he is studying—that is, Vernier’s book—is actually composed of lines stolen from other, more illustrious authors; and second that, shockingly and in direct contradiction to the foregoing, the book appears to have been published prior to the publication of any of the lines which it has apparently appropriated. This last discovery leads necessarily to one conclusion: all of those other, illustrious authors were themselves thieves; and, remarkably, they all stole their lines from the same author and the same book, neither of which Degraël has heard of before: Hugo Vernier’s Le Voyage d’hiver. He takes copious notes, tracking every instance in which a more consecrated author (Banville, Huysmans, Mallarmé, Verlaine, Baudelaire—Cardanus had never seen these names before, but he was learning a good deal about the past’s great scribes) has pinched a line from Vernier. Degraël, stunned and elated, believes that his discovery will vault him into the firmament of his profession and, leaving Le Voyage d’hiver where he found it (it is the property of his friend, Borrade, after all), he returns to Paris prepared to find another copy at the library and complete his research. But disaster strikes: he is conscripted to fight, and after several hard years of warfare, he returns to Paris (his notes thankfully preserved) ready, at last, to complete his project, only to discover that it is impossible to get his hands on a copy of Vernier’s book. The one he read at Borrade’s was destroyed along with the villa during the war. And the only reference to the book at the French National Library turns up empty: Le Voyage d’hiver was last seen in 1926 on its way to a bookbinder, who complained that it never arrived. No other copies are extant. Degraël can only conclude that whatever copies of the book were owned by the thieving authors who understood its enduring value must have been burned in an attempt to mask their act of plagiarism (which act, Cardanus was discovering, was apparently a crime or at the very least a source of shame). Degraël eventually dies at a psychiatric hospital in Verrières, leaving behind him a vast archive, including his notes on Vernier and an incomplete account of his own attempt to solve the mystery of Le Voyage d’hiver, entitled Le Voyage d’hiver

He felt a curse had been passed on to him, a disease last belonging to Georges Perec and originating who knew where.

Cardanus awoke every day with the desire to re-read Le Voyage d’hiver. But when he would lay out his calfskin, smooth and white and warmed by the feeble light that came through the window from the East, he found himself unable to begin his copy. He was paralyzed, haunted by Perec, by the word Perec itself, five letters like Paris, both beginning with a P, both anchored by an R, both, perhaps, sounding quite similar. He felt a curse had been passed on to him, a disease last belonging to Georges Perec and originating who knew where. Using the principles of nomenclature derived from his own Master’s intensive study of La Chimie minérale, Cardanus named this particular affliction biblialgia—book pain. Perec could only have cared so much about Degraël’s story for two reasons: one, he was Degraël’s friend and colleague; two, he was infected by Degraël’s obsessive hunt and ached to find the lost volume of Vernier’s Le Voyage d’hiver. Or, as Cardanus deemed most likely, both. Indeed, Cardanus felt that, ending as it did on a description of Degraël’s unfinished account of his journey to find Vernier, Perec’s own Le Voyage d’hiver must be in some sense unfinished; that is, it must have been cut off short. There was a note of tension that hung suspended in the air whenever Cardanus reached the end of his feeble book of bound glossy pages, a lack of resolution. He felt increasingly crazed, in fact, and became convinced that Perec, via the medium of print, had passed the obsession along to him, Zephyrus Cardanus, from across the centuries. 

Fearing the void that he would leave open, indeed reopen, were he to copy out Perec’s unfinished text chronicling Degraël’s unfinished voyage, Cardanus could not in good conscience produce a manuscript. So he hid it among the tangled bits and bobs on Hivernée Goru’s bookshelves and tried to forget about it. He forbade his apprentice from ever asking after the pages of Le Voyage d’hiver, whose significance the apprentice of course understood the moment he had presented them to his Master on a rusty tray. Cardanus told him that the pages were nonsense, completely without value; and yet he also told him never to speak a word of their existence, which fact seemed to contradict the first and to point at some greater mystery whose contours the poor apprentice could not comprehend.

After five years, Le Voyage d’hiver was practically out of mind, and Cardanus had managed to produce six full, illuminated manuscripts of De la belle cuisine et des saveurs du Maroc by Baba Baaqa Bachar, to be sent to the capital for distribution elsewhere and for the production of further, lower-grade copies of his original copy. Each copy is weaker than the last, he would say to his apprentice. It was what his own Master had said to him many decades ago, while explaining the auratic value of primary copies. 


As for the apprentice, Cardanus obeyed his vows and performed his duty with great care. There were 32 years between them—Cardanus had taken the boy on at the customary age of 18—and now, at the age of 40, the apprentice was ready to learn the meaning of the signs he had been training to write with artisanal perfection his entire adult life. It took many years and a great amount of effort to teach the significance of signs, beyond their obvious merit as beautiful images. Most scribes never grew advanced enough to earn such an investment, and remained instead among the capable if sometimes dunderheaded stable of amateur copyists, who were summarily sent to the capital and neighbouring towns and made to produce copies of copies or copies of copies of copies (or, in exceptional cases, fifth- or even sixth-tier copies). But Cardanus did not take such unpromising young men into his scriptorium. His own apprentice would be raised into the highest condition of the trade. And now it was time to put aside quill and calfskin to ensure the perpetuation of his city’s great legacy of scripture into the unknowable future. The period of teaching one’s apprentice the meaning of the signs, of passing the volatile production of language from the voice to the hand, and therefore publicly announcing a pause on all manuscript production, was known as wintering. Thus, Cardanus and his apprentice wintered for eight years. 


In Cardanus’s eightieth year, war broke out within the realm. Enemy forces had seized the capital and were pillaging the countryside. One morning, he was awoken by his apprentice, who held out to the Master a small letter tied with a ribbon. Cardanus unfurled the scroll but could hardly read it, for his eyesight had gone almost completely. He asked what it said, and the apprentice informed him that his old friend, the Master Scribe at the scriptorium of Verrières, which produced secondary copies of the first-rate, had been killed. Hanged for treason in the town square. 

Cardanus wept. He asked to be alone. But the apprentice lingered, seeming on the verge of tears himself. Finally, he added that the Usurper King had begun to issue decrees that would have far-reaching effects throughout the realm. He urgently needed scribes at every working scriptorium to produce and distribute copies of these decrees to the smaller towns and villages. The apprentice was being ordered to Verrières as the new Master Scribe. You would betray me? Cardanus almost said. But he knew such thinking was itself weak, cowardly. Instead, he steeled himself and said: I must tell you something


Throughout the day and into the small hours of the night, Cardanus told his apprentice the story of Perec’s story of Degraël’s search for Vernier’s volume. He showed him the yellowed pages, the initial sight of which the apprentice had never forgotten (indeed he had dreamed cryptically about them), and confessed that they were not at all without value, rather the opposite. They were the key to an entire world of authorship unknown to the scribes of their present moment. They attested, in other words, to the very heritage from which the narrow splendour of their most precious craft descended. By morning, when the apprentice’s cart, packed with his meagre belongings, awaited him outside, the transfer of knowledge had been thoroughly completed. Cardanus kissed the man on his forehead and, before seeing him out, handed him the only known copy of Georges Perec’s Le Voyage d’hiver. Cardanus smiled. I am cursing you, he said, half joking. 


Years later, on death’s door, Cardanus stared at the ceiling of Hivernée Goru’s studio and expounded to his apprentice, a boy of 19 years of age, on the virtues of the letter E. After listening dutifully, the apprentice rose and left the room to relieve himself. The room was silent; Cardanus sighed. Moments later, he heard a knock on the door. Thinking it was the apprentice again, he shouted with a fair bit of irritation that he should come in and not be such a timid dormouse. 

But the figure who entered was not the apprentice. It was a young girl, as far as Cardanus could make out through the frosted cataracts in his eyes. She held out to him a thick volume bound, as his thumbs could tell, in cloth. He squinted at the book, but he could see no more than that its cover was white. It looked and felt as if it had recently been cleaned. He asked the girl who she was, and then, what this book was, exactly. 

She told him the following: the Master Scribe of Verrières, Cardanus’s former apprentice, who was also the girl’s own grandfather, had died. In the years since his accession to the degree of Master, he had triumphed over the region whose capital was Verrières, seeding his Grace’s decrees and declarations with hidden notes of sedition, secret messages to the people who read them, ensuring them of a day to come when the old order would be returned to. He grew wise, content. He enjoyed his family. But a mysterious illness gripped him the day that he made a most remarkable discovery. 

One evening, while relieving himself in a lavatory that only he, his daughter, and his granddaughter knew about, located deep among the blasted forms of the old basement of the scriptorium in Varrières, which some said must once have been either a hospital or a school, the Master Scribe found, lodged between chunks of ancient porcelain, the very volume which Cardanus now held. The book was a notebook, once belonging—and here the girl focused all of her attention on getting the pronunciation right—to one Vincent Degraël, containing thousands of lines of writing, each of them associated with a name which, because the girl was training to become a scribe’s apprentice, and because her grandfather had so informed her, she could say confidently was a French name. The Master Scribe, just before succumbing to his illness, had asked that the book be conveyed to Cardanus in person.

Cardanus could not believe his ears. He sat there stunned, at the edge of his bed, and did not even notice when the girl departed. Could it be that Degraël’s life’s work, the thousands of stolen quotations that, stitched together, might stand as a feeble simulacrum of Vernier’s ur-text, was right there, in his very hands? He wept at the fate of his friend, who was a son to him. He wept at the fate of his country. He gripped the clothbound book and wept even more, knowing that he could never read it. He grew weak. Just when Cardanus’s tears had ceased to flow and his head had begun to throb, his apprentice returned from the lavatory, wiping his hands on his robe. He asked his Master to continue his lesson on the letter V, or E was it, but Cardanus, feeling weak and empty yet certain of his final duty, informed the apprentice that he would be starting on another task entirely, one of momentous importance. He handed the boy Degraël’s notebook and asked him to copy it line by line, being certain not to leave a single name, word, or letter out, and to read each one aloud as he marked it upon the page. 

The boy retrieved a fresh sheet of calfskin, opened the notebook to the first page, and sat down at the desk by the window in the studio once belonging to Hivernée Goru. Quill in hand, he hesitated before the blank sheet. He turned around to face Cardanus, who was now lying upon his cot, eyes staring blankly toward the ceiling.

What is it? the apprentice asked. 

All the literature of our forefathers, Cardanus said, his heart beginning to race, his breathing growing shallow.

Oh, the apprentice said. He turned back around and raised his pen-hand once more. But once more, he hesitated. He looked back at his Master. What shall I title it? he asked.

Cardanus, staring at the ceiling that had protected his pate his entire adult life, not seeing the intricate cracks and spots he knew were there, thinking that, in the amber of her portrait on the shelf, Mme Goru had in a sense never aged, and never would, struggled to summon the words, to save them from the oblivion into which he was about to slip. Voy… he said. Voy…age…d’hiv…er.

The apprentice, so excited by the gravity of the task that was now being entrusted to him, did not notice that, at that very moment, his Master Cardanus had expired. For he had already turned back toward the calfskin by the window and, straining to match sign to sound, had begun his imperfect calligraphy of the weighty title, sitting high and bold above a perfectly blank sheet: V o y a g e s  D i v e r s

Ben Libman has written fiction, essays, and reviews for several publications, including Firmament, Oxonian Review, Yale Review, New Left Review, and The New York Times. He is on Twitter at @benlibman.