Perec was born the only son of Icek Judko and Cyrla (Schulewicz) Peretz – Polish Jews who had emigrated to France in the 1920s – in a working-class district of Paris. He was a distant relative of the Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz. Perec's father, who enlisted in the French Army during World War II, died in 1940 from unattended gunfire or shrapnel wounds, and Perec's mother perished in the Nazi Holocaust, probably in Auschwitz. Perec was taken into the care of his paternal aunt and uncle in 1942, and in 1945 he was formally adopted by them.
He started writing reviews and essays for La Nouvelle Revue Française and Les Lettres Nouvelles, prominent literary publications, while studying history and sociology at the Sorbonne. In 1958–59 Perec served in the army, and married Paulette Petras after being discharged. They spent one year (1960–1961) in Sfax (Tunisia), where Paulette worked as a teacher.
In 1961, Perec began working at the Neurophysiological Research Laboratory attached to the Hôpital Saint-Antoine as an archivist, a low-paid position which he retained until 1978. A few reviewers have noted that the daily handling of records and varied data may have had an influence on his literary style. Perec's other major influence was the Oulipo, which he joined in 1967, meeting Raymond Queneau, among others. Perec dedicated his masterpiece, La Vie mode d'emploi (A User's Manual) to Queneau, who died before it was published.
Perec began working on a series of radio plays with his translator Eugen Helmle and the musician Philippe Drogoz in the late 60s; less than a decade later, he was making films. His first work, based on his novel Un Homme qui dort, was co-directed by Bernard Queysanne, and won him the Prix Jean Vigo in 1974. Perec also created crossword puzzles for Le Point from 1976 on.
La Vie mode d'emploi (1978) brought Perec some financial and critical success...it won the Prix Médicis...and allowed him to turn to writing full-time. He was a writer in residence at the University of Queensland, Australia in 1981, during which time he worked on the unfinished 53 Jours ("53 Days"). Shortly after his return from Australia, his health deteriorated. A heavy smoker, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died the following year, only forty-five years old.
Many of his novels and essays abound with experimental word play, lists and attempts at classification, and they are usually tinged with melancholy.
Perec's first novel, Les Choses (A Story of the Sixties) was awarded the Prix Renaudot in 1965.
In 1978, Perec won the prix Médicis for A User's Manual (French title, La Vie mode d'emploi), possibly his best-known work. The 99 chapters of this 600 page piece move like a knight's tour of a chessboard around the room plan of a Paris apartment building, describing the rooms and stairwell and telling the stories of the inhabitants.
Cantatrix Sopranica L. is a spoof scientific paper detailing experiments on the "yelling reaction" provoked in sopranos by pelting them with rotten tomatoes. All the references in the paper are multi-lingual puns and jokes, e.g. "(Karybb et Scyla, 1973)".
Perec is also noted for his constrained writing: his 300-page novel La disparition (1969) is a lipogram, written without ever using the letter "e". It has been translated into English by Gilbert Adair under the title A Void (1994). The silent disappearance of the letter might be considered a metaphor for the Jewish experience during the Second World War. Since the name 'Georges Perec' is full of 'e's, the disappearance of the letter also ensures the author's own 'disappearance'.
His novella Les revenentes (1972) is a complementary univocalic piece in which the letter "e" is the only vowel used. This constraint affects even the title, which would conventionally be spelt Reven'antes. An English translation by Ian Monk was published in 1996 as The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex in the collection Three.
It has been remarked by Jacques Roubaud that these two novels draw words from two disjoint sets of the French language, and that a third novel would be possible, made from the words not used so far (those containing both "e" and a vowel other than "e").
W ou le souvenir d'enfance, (W, or, the Memory of Childhood, 1975) is a semi-autobiographical work which is hard to classify. Two alternating narratives make up the volume: one, a fictional outline of a totalitarian island country called "W", patterned partly on life in a concentration camp; and the second, descriptions of childhood. Both merge towards the end when the common theme of the Holocaust is explained.
David Bellos wrote an extensive biography of Perec: A Life in Words, which won the Académie Goncourt's bourse for biography in 1994.