Back when the Life A User’s Manual Big Read first started,1 I referenced this huge chart of constraints that served as Perec’s guide in constructing this novel.2 At the time, the only constraint I mentioned was the “Knight’s Move,” which determines the chapter order of the novel. But as you can see in that chart, there’s a lot more at work behind this novel . . .
If memory serves, the Oulipo Compendium has the best explanation of the constraints at work in this book, but since I’m moving tomorrow and Wednesday (perfect time to be reading a book on an apartment building, no?) my copy is currently buried within one of about 28 boxes of books. So, turning to the second most expert info source on the Internets, here’s how Wikipedia explains it all:
[Perec] created a complex system which would generate for each chapter a list of items, references or objects which that chapter should then contain or allude to. He described this system as a “machine for inspiring stories”.
There are 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
length of the chapter in pages
a position of the body
2 lists of novelists, from whom a literary quotation is required
“Couples”, e.g. Pride and Prejudice, Laurel and Hardy.
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). In the 1780s, the great mathematician Leonhard Euler had conjectured that a 10×10 Graeco-Latin square could not exist and it was not until 1959 that one was actually constructed, refuting Euler.
Aside from these overarching combinatorial restraints, there are various moments of Oulipian fun and games to be found in Life, such as pages 259-265, which, as Scott pointed out features diagonal e’s, g’s, and o’s. (If you can’t see this, start at the far right side of line 1, which ends with “Pelage.” Drop to line 2, which ends “exiles.” Then 3, with “eye.” Slowly but surely, the e’s travel from far right all the way across to line 60—there are 60 characters in each line—which begins with “Embattled.”)
As someone mentioned in Scott’s question thread, in French, the crossing letters spell out “ame” (soul), for which, “ego” seems a satisfactory English equivalent.
But even better than simply finding a three-letter replacement for “ame” is translating all 179 lines3 into 60-character English statements that fit the pattern exactly. David Bellos deserves a MacArthur Genius Grant for this alone.
(It’s also fun that many of these 179 statements reference Life itself, such as “The puzzlemaker’s backgammon game giving him his bad tempers” or “The technician trying a new experiment, and losing 3 fingers.”)
In relation to these intricate—and near overwhelming—constraints, Christopher Beha included a bit of a warning about this in his 2006 article about an Oulipo conference that ran in The Believer:
On Saturday morning, the weekend’s final panel, “La Contrainte et après?: A debate on the achievements, ambitions, and future of writing without ease,” got off to a kind of false start before Frischer arrived with coffee for the panelists. Then there was much talk about whether a constrained work should announce itself as such. Mathews expressed the opinion that Perec’s work is too often reduced to its formulae, rather than read for its true pleasures. It’s an obvious temptation to think that learning the elaborate conceits of La Vie mode d’emploi might stand in for actually reading the book. And yet this is a bad mistake, for when one actually experiences the novel, the constraints that gave rise to it become rather beside the point—in that same way that Joyce’s Homeric parallels mean a bit less with each rereading of Ulysses; in the same way that neither the Big Bang nor the expulsion from Eden is foremost in our minds when we step outside on a beautiful morning.
Warren Motte commented on this tangentially in a “discussion with Martin Riker”: that appeared in Words Without Borders:
Whereas while that’s going on in the New Novel, there seems to be, in the last 20 years or so, a return to certain kinds of storytelling that had not been massively apparent in progressive writing in France for a long time. And I think Perec had a lot to do with that. You know he said about Life, a User’s Manual that you could read it in a number of ways, but one of the ways he wanted you to be able to read it was flat on your back on your sofa.
And it’s absolutely true . . . One can dig into the various constraints and other games, but in the end, Perec’s book is a masterwork because it’s so much more than these constraints—it’s a long series of moments that are best read “flat on your back.” And speaking of flat and backs, here’s the last two paragraphs of “Servants’ Quarters, 10”:
Today the room is occupied by a man of about thirty: he is on his bed, stark naked, prone, amidst five inflatable dolls, lying full length on top of one of them and cuddling two others in his arms, apparently experiencing an unparalleled orgasm on these precarious simulacra.
The rest of the room is more bare: blank walls, a sea-green lino on the floor, strewn with odd pieces of clothing. A chair, a table with an oilcloth covering, the signs of a meal—a can, shrimps in a saucer—and an evening newspaper lying open at a monster crossword puzzle.
To me, that’s what Life really is: an “unparalleled orgasm” and a “monster crossword puzzle.”
Also from this section, I highly recommend “Cinoc, 1,” which includes a long bit about how no one—including Cinoc himself—knows how to properly pronounce his name, and a bit about how over ten years he has gathered more than 8,000 rare words that he’s decided to save. Words like:
PISTEUR (masc. nn.) Hotel employee with the task of attracting customers.
So behind the math and the lists, there’s a great deal of fun in Life . . . (Sorry—it’s hard to resist creating non sequiturs with the title of this book. “Life is filled with sex and puzzles.” Yep, here all week.)
Read more: http://wordswithoutborders.org/dispatches/article/work-and-play-a-conversation-with-warren-motte/#ixzz1JuOTRyAM
2 I assume most everyone reading this blog knows about the Oulipo, but in case you don’t, Wikipedia has a nice overview page. In short, Oulipians use constraints in writing. The most obvious—and in some ways relevant—example is the “Lipogram,” which requires the writer to avoid using particular letter(s). Perec’s A Void was written entirely without the letter ‘E’.
A few weeks back, I posted about the first section of Life A User’s Manual (TRANSLATED BY DAVID BELLOS), which is the Spring Big Read over at Scott Esposito’s Conversational Reading blog. As mentioned, I love Life, haven’t read it in years, and had every intention of keeping up with this reading group and posting weekly comments.
Well, of course that didn’t happen.
I’m almost back on track though. Almost. But rather than abiding by Scott’s reading schedule I’m going to catch up by writing short(ish) posts about each “Part” of the novel. My last post covered Part I, so here goes with the second section of what is arguably Perec’s masterwork . . .
First off, I want to direct you to Scott’s first post about this section of the book. He does a great job of providing an entryway to this section, beginning with the wonderful con (or is it a double-con?) of Sherwood:
We’ve already been talking a great deal about things and descriptions, so now it’s time to talk about surfaces. I’m thinking specifically in terms of Sherwood’s Tale, in which our overly credulous Sherwood purchases what he believes to be the Holy Grail, but is in fact scammed by crooks [pp. 96 – 109].
It is one of those elaborate confidence scams where a person is shown one small piece of evidence after another to slowly build up trust in what is ultimately a big, unbelievable falsehood. As such, it is very much a story about surfaces, about essentially taking evidence at face value in a naive sort of way, which of course we all do as a simple part of life every day. If there is any one thing that has distinguished itself so far in Life A User’s Manual, it is that Perec is challenging us again and again to look beyond surface descriptions.
This particular version of that exhortation adds a special twist. In the lead-up to Sherwood’s Tale, Perec goes into the idea of collecting unica–objects like the Holy Grail for which only one example exists in the world. In his discussion of unica, Perec notes examples like “the octobass, a monstrous double-bass for two musicians,” or “animal species of which only one member is known to exist,” before finally giving us a small warning: “any object whatsoever can always be identified uniquely, and . . . in Japan there is a factory mass-producing Napoleon’s hat.” 
There are innumerable things about this book that draw me in—the self-referential bits, the descriptions of objects upon objects, the brilliant lists, the ambitious construction, the jigsaw puzzles and other games, etc.—but one of the strongest has to be the little mini-stories littered throughout the novel.
In Part Two, there are a number of really fascinating ones, which tend to revolve around quests for things, or for revenge . . .
There’s the aforementioned story of James Sherwood—collector of unica—and his attempt to buy the Holy Vase containing Christ’s blood. There’s Appenzzell’s pursuit of the Orang-Kubus, a Sumatra tribe living in the forest, moving and setting up new villages any time the outside world found them. There’s Ericsson’s quest to find the nanny responsible for the death of his son and suicide of his wife. There’s the conclusion of Bartlebooth’s life-quest to paint 500 seascapes, have them made into puzzles, complete the puzzles, then remove the watercolor and dip in into the sea.
Scott makes an interesting point about these quests in his second post related to Part Two of the novel:
At this point in our read, I would think that if the title “Life A User’s Manual” is to be taken as an unironic title we have to think it has something to do with these futile, ultimately life-constraining quests that have already proliferated so much in the book. We might consider what causes people to enter into these quests, what roles the quests serve in the lives of their owners, how and when they become traps, how they ultimately end, and whether and how they give a life meaning.
When I was reading this section, I was struck by how many of these quests or pursuits were either futile or self-destructive.
For example, when students decipher Appenzzell’s notebook about the Kubus, they find this “cruel and obvious truth” about why the Kubus kept moving everytime Appenzzell started getting involved with their tribe:
However irksome are the discomfitures which a man who has given himself body and soul to the profession of ethnography may encounter in his attempt to grasp the deeper nature of Man in concrete terms—or, in other words, to apprehend the minimal sociality defining the human condition by conquering the heteroclite evidence of diverse cultures—and although an ethnographer may not aspire to more than the discovery of relative truths (since it is vain to hope to reach any final truth), the worst difficulty I have had to encounter was not at all of that kind: I wanted to go to the absolute limit of the primitive; had I not got all I wanted in these graceful Natives whom no one had seen before me, who would perhaps no be seen again after me? At the end of an exhilarating search, I had my savages, I asked for nothing more than to be one of them, to share their days, their pains, their rituals. Alas! they didn’t want to have me, they were not prepared to teach me their customs and beliefs! They had no use whatever for the gifts I laid beside them, no use at all for the help I thought I could give! It was because of me that they abandoned their villages and it was only to discourage me, to convince me there was no point in my persevering, that they chose increasingly inhospitable sites, imposting ever more terrible living conditions on themselves to show me they would rather face tigers and volcanos, swamps, suffocating fog, elephants, poisonous spiders, than men. I think I know a good deal about physical suffering. But this is worst of all, to feel your soul dying . . .
And Bartlebooth’s 50-year plan is a perfect example of going from nothing to something to nothing, as he learns to paint, paints 500 ports, solves 500 puzzles, and then dips the 500 paintings in water, washing away the image and leaving only the experience . . . This is perfectly stated in the third reason for his lifelong plan:
The third was aesthetic: the plan would be useless, since gratuitousness was the sole guarantor of its rigour, and would destroy itself as it proceeded; its perfection would be circular: a series of events which when concatenated nullify each other: starting from nothing, passing through precise operations on finished objects, Bartlebooth would end up with nothing.
Perec’s relationship to “things” is a very fruitful line of inquiry, starting from his early work Things: A Story of the Sixties. More on that in a different post.
The other thing I wanted to mention was the thread of violence that runs through this Part. Not only is there the sordid story of Ericsson’s revenge, which results in a heap of dead bodies and a couple of suicides, but there’s this curious bit from “On the Stairs, 3” about the life of a flat and the building as a whole:
one day the young Marquiseaux girl will run off with the Reol boy, one day Madame Orlowska will leave again for no apparent reason, for no real reason either; one day Madame Altamont will fire a revolver at Monsieru Altamont and the blood will spurt onto the glazed hexagonal tiles of their octagonal dining room [. . .]
So, yes. If anyone has an comments/thoughts/opinions, post them below, or over at Conversational Reading.
Part III on Monday, Part IV next Friday, and then I’ll basically be caught up . . .
As mentioned a couple of times already, Conversational Reading is currently hosting a Group Read of Life A User’s Manual. This project officially kicked off yesterday with the first Part (up to page 89), and since I’m actually on schedule with this (although with nothing else), I thought I’d participate by writing up my own notes on this as we go. If asked (or even if not), I frequently refer to this as one of my all-time favorite books, but to be honest, I haven’t read it in more than a decade, when I was much younger and less well-read. So, I think it will be interesting going through this section by section, both here, and on Conversational Reading.
When talking about Life, it’s almost impossible to avoid talking about the contraints behind it. Perec was a member of the Oulipo, a French writing circle that applies certain restrictions when writing texts. (Most famous example: Perec’s A Void, a novel that doesn’t contain a single instance of the letter “e.”) The Oulipo has generated a number of great books and interesting experiments, with Life being probably the grandest and most ambitious. If you don’t believe me, check out this chart which lays it all out in all of its overwhelming complexity.
Personally, I mostly want to avoid talking about these constraints. If a novel is great, it’s great not just because of its underpinnings, but because of how it works as a whole.
The one contraint worth mentioning is the Knight’s Tour. For those not familiar with this book, it all takes place in an apartment building (11, rue Simon-Crubellier) that can be basically divided into a 10×10 grid. This is reprinted in the new edition on page 569, laying out all the apartments and who lives in them. This is helpful when reading, since each chapter focuses on one resident, and one of the 100 sections of this building. This sounds more complicated than it reads, but basically, characters who own large apartments (like Bartlebooth) have as many chapters as “squares” they own (in the case of Bartlebooth, he has 5 squares, so 5 sections).
With me so far? Now, in determining the order in which the chapters would be written, Perec employed the Knight’s Move to his 10×10 graph. The Knight’s Tour is a chess term, in which the Knight can move all over the board, landing on each square once and only once. If you want to see what this looks like when applied to Life then click here.
OK, now that the intimidating, crazy shit is out of the way, I want to try and convince you (if, that is, you need convincing) that the first part of this book is incredibly interesting, and fun to read even if you’re not a mathematician or an Oulipian junky. And I’ll try and do so by tying this into two of my favorite art works: Lost and Gravity’s Rainbow.
The Preamble and Part One lay out three main motifs that provide entrance ways to this work. First off, there’s the motif of “puzzle-making and puzzle-solving,” which is articulated in the Preamble. This section details the art of jigsaw puzzling—not those shoddy cardboard mechanically-created things, but real puzzles, the type made of wood, expertly designed, using various means of trickery to make things difficult for the puzzler. (For instance, cutting pieces that could fit in two places, using the same element in various places, etc.) But what’s most interesting is the interaction between the maker and the solver:
From this, one can make a deduction which is quite certainly the ultimate truth of jigsaw puzzles: despite appearances, puzzling is not a solitary game: every move the puzzler makes, the puzzle-maker has made before; every piece the puzzler picks up, and picks up again, and studies and strokes, every combination he tries, and tries a second time, every blunder and every insight, each hope and each discouragement have all been designed, calculated, and decided by the other.
As can be seen on this earlier cover jigsaw puzzles play an important role in this book. In fact, the central story is really all about puzzles . . . The outline of Bartlebooth’s story is given in Rorschach’s second chapter and in Smautf’s chapter. Smautf is Bartlebooth’s long-time manservant who helped orchestrate the millionaire’s life-long project. From his chapter:
Bartlebooth’s, and therefore Smautf’s, travels lasted twenty years, from 1935 to 1954, and took them in a sometimes fanciful way all around the world. [. . .] Bartlebooth’s idea was to go and paint five hundred seascapes in five hundred different ports. The ports were chosen more or less at random by Bartlebooth, who thumbed through atlases, geography books, traveller’s tales, and tourist brochures and ticked off the places that appealed to him.
Bartlebooth allowed two weeks for each port, inclusive of travelling time, which usually gave him five or six days on site. [. . .] On the penultimate day he would paint his watercolour, usually towards the end of the morning [. . .] He painted extremely fast, and never corrected himself. Scarcely was the watercolour dry than he tore the sheet of Whatman paper from the pad and gave it to Smautf. [. . .] Smautf wrapped the seascape in tissue paper, slipped it into a stiffened envelope, and packed the parcel in kraft paper with string and sealing wax. That same evening, or at the latest next day, if there were no post office nearby, the parcel was dispatched to: Monsieur Gaspard Winckler.
Crazy project, but it gets more interesting . . . When the watercolour arrived at Winckler’s (he also lives in 11, rue Simon-Crubellier, sixth floor right) he created a jigsaw puzzle out of the watercolour. Then, as sort of explained in “Rorschach, 2” and “Morellet,” Bartlebooth returned from his travels and started putting all these puzzles together, one-by-one. After he was finished, they went up to Morellet (floor eight, servant’s quarters) who used a special chemical process to reattach all of the pieces of the watercolour, allowing it to be removed from the wooden puzzle backing. (We’ll get to the final part of Bartlebooth’s project later.)
This brings up the second motif, which reminds me of Lost: the web of connections that bind these characters. As you read the first part, you start to notice all the overlaps among the residents of this building. And a good deal of them center around Bartlebooth, especially the aforementioned Smauft, Morellet, Winckler, and Rorschach. From there, the lines branch out, with Smauft connecting to the strange “cult of The Three Free Men,” who are holding an initiation ritual involving dice in the apartment at third floor right. Morellet is connected to the Plassaerts, etc., etc. (I believe these connections grow as the book progresses.)
Like Lost, one can get lost in the dizzying connections between the characters and their life histories—histories which intersect, nearly intersect, or parallel each other—and in trying to figure this all out. Which brings us back to the puzzling motif. In reading Part One, I felt like jigsaw puzzles were a sort of synecdoche for the book as a whole. That to “get” the novel, the reader has to puzzle out the connections, building a big mosaic of sorts represented by the apartment and the lives of the residents therein. And, as explained in the Preamble, the puzzle-maker is setting up traps, games, clues, etc. Again, feels a bit like Lost in that way . . .
In Winckler’s chapter, he points to the endlessness of connections when talking about organizing the postcards Smautf sent him from all over the world:
He wanted, so he said, to sort the labels into order, but it was very difficult: of course, there was chronological order, but he found it poor, even poorer than alphabetical order. He had tried by continents, then by country, but that didn’t satisfy him. What he would have liked would be to link each label to the next, but each time in respect of something else: for example, they could have some detail in common, a mountain or volcano, an illuminated bay, some particular flower, the same red and gold edging, the beaming face of a groom, or the same dimensions, or the same typeface, or similar slogans (“Pearl of the Ocean,” “Diamond of the Coast”), or a relationship based not on similarity but on opposition or a fragile, almost arbitrary association: a minute village by an Italian lake followed by the skyscrapter of Manhattan, skiers followed by swimmers, fireworks by candlelit dinner, railway by aeroplane, baccarat table by chemin de fer, etc. It’s not just hard, Winckler added, above all it’s useless: if you leave the labels unsorted and take two at random, you can be sure they’ll have at least three things in common.
One of the tricky things about reading a book like this—and here comes the Pynchon—is that it’s difficult to separate signal from noise. We know there are clues, but there’s also a surfeit of information, so picking out what to pay attention to is a bit tricky, a la Pynchon. Especially if you start seeing conspiracies everywhere . . .
For instance, let’s look at “Rorschach, 2.” In this chapter, the sort of unlucky fool introduced earlier is transformed into Bartlebooth’s nemesis. Rorschach (a Pynchonian name for sure, especially when you think about Rorschach tests, patterns, and puzzles) is connected to the TV and movie industry and wants to make a show based on Bartlebooth and his watercolour and puzzle project. Bartlebooth wants no part of this. Here’s the semi-sinister (re: Pynchon) ending of that chapter:
Without wishing to anticipate events, it might be useful to point out that Rorschach’s initiative had serious consequences for Bartlebooth. It was by hearing of these televisual misadventures that Beyssandre got wind, last year, of Bartlebooth’s story. And, oddly enough, it was to Rorschach that Bartlebooth came for the name of a director to film the final stage of his enterprise. However, that got him nowhere, except a step deeper into the web of contradictions which he’d known for many years would tie him inexorably tighter.
OK, fine. But what’s also interesting is that in describing what’s in Rorschach’s apartment, there’s a
silver statuette about ten inches high. It represents a naked, helmeted man on the back of an ox, holding a pyx in his left hand. [. . .] The statuette, a classical caricatural representation of the minor arcanum called the Knight of Cups, is supposed to have been unearthed during work on that “drama” entitled The Sixteenth Edge of This Cube which we have already had occasion to mention, and which does indeed deal with a murky tale of seeing into the future;
So, flip to the index to remind yourself of where The Sixteenth Edge of This Cube first appeared and in addition to finding a typo (this should refer to pages “15, 71, 72” not “15, 71, 42,” but we all make mistakes), you’ll be directed back to the chapter about “The Three Free Men” cult, which is having its initiation ceremony (which involves dice, remember?) in a vacant apartment:
Nobody lives on the third floor right. The owner is a certain Monsieur Foureau, who is said to live on an estate at Chavignolles, between Caen and Falaise, in a farm of thirty-eight hectares, a with a sort of manor house. Some years ago, a television drama was filmed there, under the title The Sixteenth Edge of This Cube; Remi Rorschach took part in the shooting but never met the owner.
Nobody ever seems to have seen him. There is no name on the door on the landing, nor on the list fixed on the glass pane of the concierge’s office door. The blinds are always drawn.
Does this mean anything? Is it a clue to something? And if so, what does it mean that this “drama” is only referenced in Part One? And speaking of dice, they are also alluded to in the story of Helene Gratiolet, who sells her inherited painting (foreshadowing next motif) to move to America with her husband to become professional gamblers participating in organized dice games. (Sort of seems odd to have dice—a symbol of chance—in a book so meticulously planned out.)
There’s also the thread maybe connecting Paul Winther’s The Mousetrap about a “dangerous psychopath wreaking murder in a Baltic port,” to Bartlebooth’s port obsession, to a clipping from a newspaper referring to The Worried Hulk by John Whitmer (awful similar to Paul Winther in cadence and number of letters.)
This kind of detail picking gets more complicated in relation to all the paintings described in this Part. Actually, painting is the third motif I wanted to point out. Not only are there are a proliferation of paintings described in Part One, but there are two painters who receive chapters (Hutting and Valene), and the whole Part (book?) is almost like a painting. A painting depicting everything that’s going on in the building (and in the inhabitants pasts) on a particular day in 1975, just before the Altamonts’ annual party.
This is already way too long, so I won’t get into the painting thing. But I hopefully will be back next Monday with notes on pages (93-173). And in the meantime, check out Scott’s post on Part One and please share your own reactions and comments below.
Susan Bernofsky’s very interesting post about David Bellos’s very interesting comments about this very interesting sounding book is yet one more reason to rush out and start reading (and rereading) Perec:
David Bellos spoke at NYU’s Maison Française last night, presenting his new translation of Georges Perec’s The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise. This book is a variation of what Bellos explains is now generally called matrix literature, stories based on allowing readers to select certain plot strands and ignore others à la choose your own adventure books. But in this case, rather than excluding the rejected possibilities, Perec includes all of them, detailing the various choices the book’s protagonist (addressed in the second person passim) might make and then describing what will happen in each case. Where Raymond Queneau’s approach to the matrix story in “Conte a votre façon” (A Story As You Like It) might be described as “intellectual” (says Bellos, and I agree), Perec’s is “obsessive” and “exhaustive.”
[. . .]
Bellos also passed on an interesting bit of insider gossip for readers of Perec’s masterpiece La vie: mode d’emploi, which appears in his translation as Life: A User’s Manual: the answers to many of the mysteries in this book are contained only in the index, and the index of the English-language book contains several more answers than the French original. Bellos felt that certain of the clues Perec included elsewhere in the book became so much more obscure in English translation that the reader deserved a second chance to find them.
And just a reminder (and another reason to get on this Perec thing): The Conversational Reading Spring 2011 Group Read of Life: A User’s Manual kicks off on Sunday. Click here for the schedule and other details
One of my all-time favorite books is Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, and for
months years, I’ve been meaning to reread it.
Well, starting sometime soon, Conversational Reading will be hosting a Big Read of Perec’s classic novel.
No real info up there yet, but as soon as the schedule is announced, I’ll post it here. It’s been ages since I participated in an online book club, and I’m a bit psyched . . . Mostly just to reread Life, but also because Scott does such a great job of getting interesting content about the title under discussion. (I’m not-so-secretly hoping to contribute something myself.)
If you’re interested in joining in, be sure and get a copy of Godine’s revised edition of the book. This version contains some corrections, etc.
For more info about the new edition, and Perec in general, be sure to check out this interview Scott conducted with Godine editor Susan Barba.
Following up on last week’s post about the various summer/fall 2010 previews that came out from The Millions and elsewhere, I thought that over the next few days, we’d highlight some forthcoming titles that sound pretty interesting to me. Sure I’m missing things and whatnot, so feel free to overload the comments section with recommendations. And click here to see all translation preview posts.
Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Germany, New Directions)
I’m just finishing up a new Jenny Erpenbeck novel for New Directions, Visitation, a book whose main character is a house. It’s a fascinating story, a sort of concise chronicle or saga that takes us through all the various upheavals of twentieth-century German history—but rather than being different generations of a single family, the characters in the book come from various families that overlap with and replace one another—sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. It’s a compelling, mysterious book, and I’m stunned by how skillfully Erpenbeck weaves the strands of the various stories together. There’s one passage in which she writes about children playing in a garden, and after a certain point you realize that some of these children are literally in the garden of the house while others are many thousands of miles away, in exile after their families were forced to flee—in the storytelling she turns the narration of a historical moment into a sort of outward explosion in space.
Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec, translated from the French by Marc Lowenthal (France, Wakefield Press)
Wakefield Press doesn’t receive nearly as much play as it deserves. Marc Lowenthal (translator, publisher, etc.) is producing some fascinatingly strange books in absolutely gorgeous editions. (I highly recommend The Young Girl’s Handbook of Good Manners which is one of the raunchiest, funniest books I’ve ever read. And by raunchy I mean there’s some really sick shit in there.) And Perec! One of the all time bests. And this small book is perfectly Perec-ian: for three days he records everything he sees as part of a “quest of the ‘infraordinary’: the humdrum, the nonevent, the everyday—‘what happens,’ as he put it, ‘when nothing happens.’”
Sleepwalker by Margarita Karapanou, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Greece, Clockroot)
No matter what, I’d include this book on the list simply because I think Karen Emmerich is amazing and Clockroot extremely daring and interesting. But check this quote:
“God was tired . . . He looked down at his earth and what it had become . . . His people had betrayed him . . . Thus it was that he decided to send a new god to earth, a god people would recognize and worship from the start—a god made in their image, a god they deserved . . . He clutched his stomach, leaned over the earth, and vomited.”
The Woman with the Bouquet by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (France, Europa Editions)
This is the second Schmitt book to come out from Europa — the other being The Most Beautiful Book in the World — and both story collections sound pretty intriguing. But the real reason I wanted to mention this book is because it is fourth translation of Alison Anderson’s coming out this year. She’s like the C.C. Sebathia of literary translation!
The Clash of Images by Abdelfattah Kilito, translated from the French by Robyn Creswell (Morocco, New Directions)
This sounds very cool. It’s described as a “sweet, Borgesian mix of bildungsroman memoir, family history, short-story collection, fable, and literary criticism.” It also has a great cover, a brilliant quote from Elias Khoury (“We normally speak of writing as an adventure, but Kilito dares his reader to travel with him, on a quest to override the boundaries between reality and fiction, between literary criticism and storytelling”), and Creswell won a PEN Translation Award for this.
The Elephant’s Journey by Jose Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Portugal, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
With Saramago passing away just a few weeks ago, it’s a good time to look over his career. I haven’t read many of the recent titles, but back in the day, I really liked Blindness, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, The Stone Raft, Blindness, and Balthasar and Blimunda, which is the book The Elephant’s Journey most calls to mind.
In 1551, King Joao III of Portugal gave Archduke Maximilian an unusual wedding present: an elephant named Solomon. The elephant’s journey from Lisbon to Vienna was witnessed and remarked upon by scholars, historians, and ordinary people. Out of this material, José Saramago has spun a novel already heralded as “a triumph of language, imagination, and humor” (El País).
The Wrong Blood by Manuel de Lope, translated from the Spanish by John Cullen (Spain, Other Press)
A couple months back, I met with some of the editors at Other Press, and they all raved about this book. Manuel de Lope has a solid reputation in Spain, and this is his first book to be published in English. All I’ve been able to read so far is the opening sentence, but this (along with the jacket copy and Katie’s recommendation) has me pretty intrigued:
It was the month of May, or the month of June, in any case summer was near, and within only a few weeks the war would break out, although nobody knew this at the time, and those who had premonitions couldn’t go so far as to believe them, because fear rejects what the intuition accepts, and they wouldn’t have been able to convince anybody anyway.
A couple weeks ago, J. Peder Zane asked me to contribute to his Top Ten Books project featuring top ten lists from a bunch of famous writers. I was going to do an all translations list, but ended up just listing ten of my favorite books since 1950. (And I’ll admit right now that this list is unstable. Within five minutes of sending it, I thought of 2-3 books I wished I would’ve included.)
I’m very honored to have been included in this, but what’s really cool are the brief summaries that Peder’s been posting about some of the books I mentioned.
First off, here’s one on Antonio Lobo Antunes’s Act of the Damned that includes a nice summary of the book:
Winner of the Portuguese Writers’ Association Grand Prize for Fiction, Act of the Damned is set during the tumultuous year of 1975. As the socialist revolution closes in, a once-wealthy Portuguese family is accused of “economic sabotage.” They must escape across the border to Spain, then on to Brazil – but the family is bankrupt, financially and spiritually. The patriarch, Diogo, lies dying, while his rapacious offspring rifle through his belongings, searching for his will. He remembers with bitterness and resignation his foolish marriage to his brother’s beautiful mistress, who left him with a mongoloid daughter and a simpleminded son, who at sixty is running toy trains past his father’s deathbed with the solemn self-importance of a five-year-old.
And then there’s this one on Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual which includes a brilliant appreciation by Arthur Phillips:
The first miracle: A novel built from a strictly limited construction – the description of one single moment in a Paris apartment building – blossoms into an encyclopedia of stories and life spanning centuries, the globe, the history of literature. The second miracle: A moving, humane novel composed of implausible, even impossible parts. Perec’s brainy puzzle-book somehow produces the exhilarating, alternating certainties that life is beautiful, cruel, sweet, meaningful.
“Life’s” hundred and some tales about the residents of 11 rue Simon-Crubellier sometimes slow to Proustian crawls, and a reader’s joy is in lounging, savoring every turn of phrase. A page later, though, Perec (almost audibly laughing) gallops us into insane plots of revenge, kleptomaniacal magistrates, intricate con games, a billionaire’s entire life spent on a single project, and the heiress’s egg collection, the destruction of which prompted the inaccurate painting, which later hung in . . .
Pictures within pictures, memories within memories, letters within letters, reflections of reflections, the novel represents the unachievable ambitions of the painter Valène, burning to accomplish on canvas what Perec actually did in text: a portrait of life in all its possibility, speed, variety, shimmer, impermanence, blindingly rich and achingly temporary.
Published in 1978, “Life” is infinitely entertaining, but it also can change how you see your surroundings; the wall between novel and world leaks.
(So definitely going to reread this sometime this summer.)
What’s also cool is this contest to win a free copy of Life:
The good people at David R. Godine will send two lucky Top Ten readers copies of “Life: A User’s Manual.” Here how it works. Construct a Top Ten List suggested by Perec’s novel – e.g. Top Ten Books About Paris, Top Ten Books About Painting, Top Ten Books About Apartment Living, Top Ten Books By Modern French Authors, etc. Email your list to jpederzane [at] jpederzane [dot] com by July 22. We will choose two winners (from people we don’t know) – and publish the best lists on the blog.
(Somehow today became a day of list making. But wait! I have something really fun coming in a minute . . . )
Yesterday’s afternoon mail brought with it two Georges Perec books that Godine just brought out: a new edition of Life A User’s Manual and Thoughts of Sorts, a collection of essays published posthumously in France in 1985. And which, according to the jacket copy, “completes the Godine list of Perec’s great works translated into English.”
The other Perec books available from Godine are:
This really is the summer of Perec—in addition to the Godine books, the spring issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction is dedicated to Perec and includes pieces by Harry Mathews, David Bellos, Marcel Benabou, and Jacques Roubaud, along with a few pieces by Perec himself (“Statement of Intent,” “The Machine,” “The Doing of Fiction,” and “Commitment or the Crisis of Language”).
Perec’s a long-time favorite of mine. I came to him via Raymond Queneau and an obsession with the Oulipo. In face, Perec’s A Void, a lipogram novel that excludes the letter E, is probably the most famous example of an Oulipian constraint. Although the constraints governing Life (see this helpful Wikipedia page for some details, although the Oulipo Compendium has a much more detailed analysis involving the “knight’s move” and the clinamen) are much more complex and, in my opinion, resulted in a richer, more fulfilling book.
I’m definitely going to reread Life at some point this fall (I can see myself going on a Perec bender at some point . . . some point after the Best Translated Book stuff is over that is), and hopefully will write a much longer, more in depth post about the novel. In the meantime, we already have one excellent review of Life on the website: Bob Williams wrote this piece for us back some time ago. And equally as interesting as the review itself are these two Flickr pages that Sam Golden Rule Jones posted in the comments section. This one is Perec’s map of the apartment building in the book, and this one is Gabriel Josipovici’s enhanced version.
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
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