Life A User’s Manual
The life of the Perec family (the family name was originally Peretz) was one of removals. The Perecs moved from one city to another in Poland before leaving Poland for France. Georges was born in France in 1936 and against the background of troubled times the exact details of his early life are lost. His father was one of the few French soldiers to die in the course of the German invasion. His mother was taken up by the authorities and sent to Auschwitz where she was one of the multitude that was to die in the death camps. The remainder of the family successfully eluded the round up of the Jews and Georges’s Aunt Esther and her husband Paul took Georges into their protection. The death of his parents and the necessity of concealing his Jewish background created psychological problems that were reflected in his work as a writer.
He completed his formal education without his achieving the academic cushion that traditionally supported French writers. As early as his eighteenth year he had chosen writing as his vocation, but his will was not equal to his determination and he drifted for a long period during which his pursuits were trivial and his sufferings from bouts of depression were frequent. During this trying time he was called up to serve in the military. He was a parachutist and this, curiously, had a liberating effect. He began at twenty-three to write his third “first” novel. Like its predecessors it had, despite its merits, insuperable faults and was never published. Perec reused pieces of it in his later works.
In 1960 the German government paid reparation money to victims of the Nazis. He and his lover Paulette Petras used the money to buy an apartment. Although they had no financial resources after this purchase, they were able to live in relative security and comfort. He was the center of a wide circle of friends and his reputation as a writer – even though an unpublished one – was secure.
He worked for a time as a consumer researcher, a quasi-discipline imported from the United States. The research involved the definition of men and women through their actual or desired possessions and employed impersonal interviewing techniques. Both the concept and the method contributed to many elements in Life: A User’s Manual.
A further workplace influence was his job as information retrieval specialist with medical research institution. He held this position from 1960 to 1979. The ability to find unexpectedly pertinent relations became an important element in his writing. The computer displaced him from this job and he had to his credit ingenious systems that the computer also rendered useless.
Although Jewish he had no interest in a Jewish heritage. Aunt Esther and Uncle Paul were assimilationists. He had never digested his grief over the senseless deaths of his parents, especially the death of his mother. In a way he worked through these problems in a series of articles that he wrote for Partisans in 1962. In this year he began the creation of his first published work. This was Things: A Story of the Sixties. It was a short book but he labored over it for three years. His publisher printed a small number of Things as a favor to Perec, but the book succeeded by word-of-mouth and won the Renaudot Prize, a prize that traditionally recognized outstanding new writers. Perec was twenty-nine. He had only fifteen years left to live.
His next book, A Man Asleep, was less well received. Despite public apathy this was a gritty study of abulia and the death of the spirit. The protagonist of A Man Asleep will reappear as the student Grégoire Simpson in Life.
Perec received an invitationin 1967 to join OuLiPo (Ouvrior de literature potentielle, or, Workshop for Potential Literature), an organization of men interested in literature and mathematics. This group had developed the theory that all literature should be subject to some restraint. The group shunned publicity and invited few to join it. It would include eventually the new members Jacques Roubaud, Harry Matthews, and Italo Calvino. The most prestigious of the founding members was Raymond Queneau. It would be to the memory of Queneau, who died in 1976, that Life would be dedicated.
Contact with OuLiPo and its aims acted as a powerful influence and Perec’s first oulipian book was the book known in English as A Void. The constraint that he used was to avoid the letter ‘e.’ A Void is modeled on the murder mysteries of which he was a fan and the cause of the deaths one by one of Anton Vowl and his friends is the result of some lack in the universe, that lack being the want of the letter ‘e.’ Thus the restraint is not simply mechanical but an intrinsic part of the narrative.
W, or The Memories of Childhood was an attempt to reconstruct an emotional equivalent of Perec’s own early experience and to restore to life the fantasies with which as a child he consoled himself. It’s a powerful book. In it Perec revives Gaspard Winckler, a name that occurs in his early unpublished work as well as in his first published book, Things. The Gaspard Winckler of Life will be already dead before the story begins, but his influence – that of a figure not unlike Perec capable of trickery, a master puzzle maker – pervades the book.
Perec, always ready to succumb to a hostile world, had great difficulty writing W, especially since in 1970 his long time companion Paulette left him. He felt suicidal and submitted to analysis. By 1972 he was ready to begin the book that proved to be his masterpiece, Life: A User’s Manual and one of the acknowledged great books of the twentieth century. This work used several constraints instead of just one. Ready to begin, but typically deflected from the book by other commitments, he did not begin Life until 1976.
Besides the books already mentioned, Perec around 1980 wrote ‘The Winter Journey,’ a perfect story, a mysterious and tantalizing puzzle. It is difficult to find and its publishing history is almost as much an enigma as the story itself. There was also a posthumously published novel, 53 Days, edited by his OuLiPo friends Harry Matthews and Jacques Roubaud.
Perec died in 1982 of cancer. He was forty-six years old.
There is a famous photo of Perec by Anne de Brunhoff. In it, a man with bushy hair leans forward to engage directly with the spectator. He has a satyr’s wispy beard, but the eyes are haunting. They are the eyes of Hermes the Thief, Baron Samedi, Raven, Coyote, the eyes of an ingenious trickster.
A cartoon by Saul Steinberg was one of Perec’s inspirations for Life. The cartoon showed at the left the façade of an apartment. The rest of the cartoon showed the forward wall stripped away and this permits us to observe the men and women as they move about the clutter of their possessions.
Perec elaborated on this. Instead of the half dozen or so apartments shown by Steinberg, he composed a square grid of 100 squares. The result ranged from a top floor of servant rooms or former servant rooms to the boiler and storage rooms in the basement. From left to right were apartments, the elevator shaft and the steps with more apartments to the right of the steps. Perec concerned himself with the past as well as with the present occupants. Many of the new occupants have enlarged their living space so that when Perec visits a square – and he only visits each square once – he will relate the events of the current or the past occupant or he will describe the furnishings of the room. Some of the paintings involve short narratives to explain their content.
The apartment dwellers are not necessarily involved with each other and this prevents a unification of many of the stories that sit by themselves with their own intrinsic fascinations. Life is thus a collection of tales – and especially of tales within tales. Despite the persistently urban setting, Life is in the oldest of literary traditions, that of the storyteller.
But an involved triangular relationship unites some of the characters: Percival Bartlebooth, Serge Valène, and Gaspard Winckler.
Percival Bartlebooth provides the widest number of connections. A wealthy eccentric, he has created an occupation for his otherwise idle life. He became a resident of 11, Rue Simon-Crubellier to be near Serge Valène, a painter. Bartlebooth, without any special talent as an artist, has set himself the goal of learning to paint in watercolors. He studies with Valène for ten years and emerges form this instruction as a competent painter. He and Smautf, his servant, travel over the world from port to port. He will paint 500 paintings. As each painting is completed he returns it to Gaspard Winkler, another occupant of the apartment building. Winckler turns each painting into a jigsaw puzzle of 750 pieces. After Bartlebooth assembles the puzzle, the pieces are so meticulously rejoined that it is indistinguishable from the original painting. Bartlebooth (or his agent when he becomes to old to travel) returns with it to the scene where it was painted. He then washes the paper clean so that nothing is left except a blank sheet of watercolor paper.
Bartlebooth is the complete oulipian. He only differs in that he has followed the path of his creative constraints to their logical conclusion.
A character named Gaspard Winckler appeared in early books by Perec. Although he was never the same person, he had always something about him that made everyone uneasy. He was a person of either simple mystery or downright villainy. In Life he is more complex but at last he has his revenge. (He has died, by the way, before the story opens.) Bartlebooth dies while he is completing a puzzle. He dies with the last puzzle piece in his hand. It is shaped like the letter ‘w,’ but the space to be filled has the shape of the letter ‘x.’
Although the activities of Bartlebooth bring major coherence to Life, Serge Valène is its presiding spirit. (Whenever Perec uses “he” without explanation, Valène is meant.) He plans a great painting that will depict the major – and many minor – events, past and present, of 11, Rue Simon-Crubellier. There is a list of the selected scenes, 179 of them. (Perec describes all of them with the same number of letters so some of the events are described very cryptically.) But we learn at the last that the most that Valène has done on this grandiose project is a few charcoal marks on his canvas. He dies one week after Bartlebooth.
In general the other occupants are scarcely less eccentric than Bartlebooth. Some of them are frauds, such as the faddish painter Hutting or the conniving wheeler-dealer Rorschach. Some of them are monsters of miserliness and others are criminals. They all make ridiculous or dramatic entrances. They all prove to be good copy, and the apparently haphazard presentations of them by Perec do not in the least detract from the fascinations that they have to offer. Perec lavishes special care on the parts of the apartment that are more impersonal such as the stairs or the boiler room.
The shape of the book may a little puzzle, but so far all that I have described is transparent, accessible without special effort. The constraint in A Void was obvious, but in Life Perec used several constraints and they function discreetly with the minimum of surface disturbance. The movement from square to square uses the knight’s move from chess. This move is one square forward and one square to the diagonal. With it Perec was able to move through the entire grid of 100 squares without repetition. When he arrives at a different room of Rorschach’s apartment, for example, he can select which type of narrative he will use. He can revisit the same apartment as many as six times.
Perec also uses the constraint of quotations. It is safe to assert that he had a formula for this and that quotations from the same kind of authors are distributed by pattern. But the degree to which the book consists of quotations has not been determined and some have held without any real proof that Life consists greatly of quotations. Perec’s quotations from Joyce and Borges are obvious enough, but he also quotes Agatha Christie whose essentially bland style make quotations from her difficult to spot. David Bellos, translator of Life and author of the major book on Perec, has written an article on the mechanism of Perec’s system of quotation. It is fearsome to contemplate.
Life allows readers to detect puzzles – Perec for years created difficult crossword puzzles for a Paris paper – and to spend time and effort on the examination of all the machinery that makes the book run. This is a gratifying activity, but the book is as it appears on the surface, a masterful assembly of lunatic scholars and assorted eccentrics as they pursue slightly or very demented goals. There is humor and humanity in all this and every detail is richly rewarding, the kind of book rewarding enough to forever leave the reader breathless and gratified.
Life A User’s Manual
By Georges Perec
Translated by David Bellos
Reviewed by Bob Williams