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
an activity
a position of the body
emotions
an animal
countries
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.)

1 You can read the post on Part 1 by clicking here, and can find the one on Part 2 right here.

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’.

3 Clinamen?

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.” [95]

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.

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.

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.

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