Life : a User’s Manual (Georges Perec)
I felt interested in expanding on the quick review I made of this book in July, even though I’ve not finished it yet (it’s a hefty novel) but since Derek is interested in reading it, it might be interesting to give him a few keys that might add to his enjoyment.
The author :
Georges Perec (1936-1982) was the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland who came to France in the 1920s. His father died in combat in 1940, his mother was sent to deportation and never came back. In 1967 Perec joined the Oulipo, a group of young writers interested in experimental projects, especially mathematical games and writing under constraints. Perec embraced this approach, writing La Disparition (A Void), a 300-page novel entirely written without the letter E, and in 1972 a novella titled Les Revenentes where the only vowel is the letter E. He also created famously difficult crossword puzzles for a magazine and participated in writing screenplays (Série Noire, directed by Alain Corneau, adapted from Jim Thompson’s A Hell of a Woman). La Vie Mode d’Emploi (Life : a User’s Manual), published in 1978, was his masterpiece
The novel :
La Vie : Mode d’Emploi combines Perec’s various interests in the literary form : sociological, through an change of perspective on daily life ; autobiographical (memories, childhood traumas, trivial anecdotes) ; the omnipresent games in the composition as well as in the content of his work ; finally, the pleasure of storytelling, imagination and adventure.
The project of this book originated years before it was fully formed. One of sources was a drawing by Saul Steinberg published in The Art of Living (1952) that inspired him to « exhaust » a full apartment building in every detail.
Perec chose to set his novel in an instant, the 23th june 1975 around 8pm, in a fictional place (11, rue Simon-Crubellier, Paris).
The whole book is based on an incredibly elaborate structure of constraints :
The apartment building is made of a 10x10 grid, each square representing a room or a staircase landing, and described in a chapter each.
The circulation from chapter to chapter is not linear but follows the knight’s tour (as the movement of a knight on a chessboard), never stopping twice on the same square. However, move 66 (supposed to represent a cave in a corner) is not described, which explains that the book only has 99 chapters.
Perec also created a complex system that would create, for every chapter, an original list of items to be included.
First of all he made 42 lists of 10 objects each, gathered into 10 groups of 4 with the last two lists a special "Couples" list. Some examples:
* number of people involved (list 2A)
* length of the chapter in pages (list 4B)
* an activity (list 1a)
* a position of the body (list 1A)
* emotions (list 9A)
* an animal (list 5a)
* reading material (7A)
* countries (list 3b)
* 2 lists of novelists, from whom a literary quotation is required (lists 1B and 1b)
* "Couples", e.g. Pride and Prejudice, Laurel and Hardy. (lists 1C and 1c)
The way in which these apply to each chapter is governed by an array called a Graeco-Latin square. The lists are considered in pairs, and each pair is governed by one cell of the array, which guarantees that every combination of elements is encountered. For instance, the items in the couples list are seen once with their natural partner (in which case Perec gives an explicit reference), and once with every other element (where he is free to be cryptic).
To further complicate matters, the 38th and 39th list are named "Missing" and "False" and each list comprises the numbers 1 to 10. The number these lists give for each chapter indicates one of the 10 groups of 4 lists, and folds the system back on itself: one of the elements must be omitted, and one must be false in some way (an opposite, for example). Things become tricky when the Missing and False numbers refer to group 10, which includes the Missing and False lists.
[Props to Wikipedia, from which I shamelessly stole the explanation above]
There are actually even more constraints (the obligation to evoke an anecdote that happened during the writing of each chapter, the obligation to include, in hidden form the names of Perec’s friends of the Oulipo, etc.)
The purpose of this architecture is to provoke the author’s imagination, to guide it through all its possible stages without allowing it to lose itself at the expense of a general cohesiveness. As in a jazz piece, the musicians are free to create together because they are aware of the rules of rythm and melody they mutually respect.
The novels :
Here, the main theme is the story of a millionaire’s project : Percival Bartlebooth sets out to spend ten years learning to paint with Serge Valene, twenty running over the world, painting and sending his paintings to jigsaw puzzle creator Gaspard Winckler, twenty more completing the puzzles Winckler made of his paintings, and the final ten years returning to the original places of their creation and dissolving the paint from the paper, leaving nothing.
This ambitious contained plan is one of the numerous stories taking place in the book, opening space, time and imagination in all directions, justifying the plural to Life : a User’s Manual’s subtitle. As he explains in the introduction, a puzzle is a game between its author and the person completing it, and Perec is a master of double meanings, changes of tone, humour, all wrapped up in an empathy for his characters that expresses itself with irony or tenderness. In my mind it made no doubt that the narrator was André Dussolier, who played that exact same part in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film Amélie.
Life : a User’s Manual is not a difficult read , and can be enjoyed without full knowledge of the constraint architecture. But in my opinion knowing what lead to this unique creation gives even more importance to this novel and could perhaps be an inspiration for writers.
More on the Oulipo :
Paul Auster's review :