GEORGES PEREC

THOUGHTS ON THE ART AND TECHNIQUE OF CROSSING WORDS

THE LEGENDARY EXPERIMENTAL FRENCH AUTHOR’S FOREWORD TO HIS TWO BOOKS ON CROSSWORDS, TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH FOR THE FIRST TIME.

DISCUSSED: Mimosas, Metadefinitions, Heavy Crowds at Church, Robert Scipion, Spelling Backward, The National Puzzlers’ League, Baby Talk, The Insides of Fedoras, Dead Communists, Heifers, La Chartreuse de Parme, A Priori Deductions, Opals, Zeus, Egg Salad, Vestibules, Circumferences, The Number Ten

This article is Perec’s foreword to both his books of crosswords. (Les Mots Croisés and Les Mots Croisés II © P.O.L 2003, 1986. It is published here with the permission of the copyright holder.) In this translation we attempt to mirror Perec’s spirit and his puzzle constructor’s ethos by using examples in English whenever possible. Perec is well known as a major literary figure, but it should not be forgotten that he was a serious cruciverbalist. Most writings about him (even in French) do little more than mention this interest of his. This is perhaps because most of the literati who have written about Perec are not themselves interested in puzzles or knowledgeable about them. But Perec himself did not separate literature from puzzling. Puzzles, after all, provide the backbone of the main story in Life A User’s Manual. His selection of the passage on jigsaw puzzles to provide the opening to the novel is evidence enough of the importance Perec gave to this. That the piece can be read both as a perceptive comment on puzzle construction and as a manifesto as to what he was up to in writing his magnum opus only gives us more evidence of the intimate relationship between those two sides of Georges Perec the creator.

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The construction of a crossword consists of two operations that are quite different and in the end perfectly independent of each other: the first is the filling of the diagram; the second is the search for definitions.

The filling of the diagram is a tedious, meticulous, maniacal task, a sort of letter-based arithmetic where all that matters is that words have this or that length, and that their juxtapositions reveal groupings that are compatible with the perpendicular construction of other words; it is a system of primary constraints where the letter is omnipresent but language is absent.[1] Contrariwise, the search for definitions is fluid, intangible work, a stroll in the land of words, intended to uncover, in the imprecise neighborhood that constitutes the definition of a word, the fragile and unique location where it will be simultaneously revealed and hidden. The two operations imply mental faculties that could almost seem contradictory: in the first, one proceeds by trial and error, starting over twenty or thirty times a grid that one always deems less than perfect; in the second, one favors intuition, fortuitous finds, sudden illumination; the first is done at one’s table, with obstinacy and tenacity, groping, counting, erasing; the other is rather done at any hour of day or night, without thinking about it, strolling, letting one’s attention float freely in the wake of the thousand and one associations evoked by this or that word. One can very well imagine—and one sees this sometimes—a crossword composed by two cruciverbalists, one of whom would supply the diagram, and the other the definitions.[2] In any case, the two operations are almost always separate: one starts by constructing the diagram (generally starting from the first word across or down—which constitute what is called the gallows—chosen in advance because of a definition deemed felicitous), and it is once the diagram is completed that one starts to seek definitions of the other words it contains. Not only words, alas, but also groups of two, three, four letters, or even sometimes more, which, in spite of the author’s efforts, persist in not spontaneously offering any known meaning.

  1. Upon rereading this sentence, I said to myself that it would perhaps be clearer if I gave an example. Starting with this randomly chosen word:

    	M I M O S A
    
    there are obviously six possibilities for words, say of six letters, which start respectively with M, I, M, O, S, and A. But if under the word MIMOSA I write, say, the word REFUSE:
    	M I M O S A
    	R E F U S E
    
    I instantly suppress four of those six possibilities, because there are no words (or so few) starting with MR, IE, MF, and SS, and I would only be able to construct down words starting with OU (OUTAGE, OUSTER, etc.) and AE (AEGEAN, AENEAS, etc.).

    In contrast, if I choose a word like ABACUS:

    	M I M O S A
    	A B A C U S
    
    the six groups thus formed remain capable of yielding down words, for example MArine, IBeria, MAting, OCular, SUperb, etc.

    If I managed to repeat this operation successfully four more times, I would obtain a 6 x 6 diagram with no black squares. But no sooner do I select the third juxtaposition than the problem becomes much more taxing; a configuration such as:

    	M I M O S A
    	A B A C U S
    	S E X T E T
    
    can yield something like:
    	M I M O S A
    	A B A C U S
    	S E X T E T
    	C R I A
    	O I M N
    	T A S E
    
    But what would I do then with CRIA, OIMN, and TASE?

  2. The translator of this article is a member of just such a team. Many crossword constructors, at least in the English language, now resort to computer software for diagram filling—a high-tech version of the division of labor envisioned by Perec. However, clue writing (at least the writing of the sort of clues he champions) remains the province of human constructors.

Translated by Henri Picciotto with Arthur Schulman

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Georges Perec was born in Paris in 1936. He studied sociology at the Sorbonne and later worked as a public-opinion pollster and a research librarian, until his literary activity allowed him to support himself financially. Notable works include Les choses (Things: A Story of the Sixties, 1965), La disparition (A Void, 1969), Espèces d’espaces (Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, 1974), and La vie mode d’emploi (Life A User’s Manual, 1978). He died in 1982.

Henri Picciotto, a native speaker of French, knows English well enough to be the coeditor of National Puzzlers’ League Cryptic Crosswords (Random House, 2005). As a mathematics educator, he has taught everything from counting to calculus and has written many books and articles. Visit his website, picciotto.org.

Arthur Schulman, a veteran American crossword maker, taught for thirty-three years in the psychology department at the University of Virginia, where he conducted many seminars on the mind of the puzzler. He is the author of “The Art of the Puzzler,” in Cognitive Ecology, edited by M. P. Friedman & E. C. Carterette (Academic Press 1996).

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