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.
“I preferred the war to the plague,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his 1949 novel, The Skin. He speaks of World War II and the destruction it has wrought on Italy, the city of Naples in particular. But the plague he. . .
With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving”. . .
In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a. . .
You are not ashamed of what you do, but of what they see you do. Without realizing it, life can be an accumulation of secrets that permeates every last minute of our routine . . .
The narrative history of. . .
Literature in translation often comes with a certain pedigree. In this little corner of the world, with so few books making it into this comforting nook, it is often those of the highest quality that cross through, and attention is. . .
Alessandro Baricco’s Mr. Gwyn is a set of two loosely interlinked novellas that play with narrative and the construction of character. Ably translated by Ann Goldstein, Mr. Gwyn plays some subtle metafictional games as Baricco delves into what it means. . .
I must admit upfront that I went into reading Saadat Hasan Manto’s Bombay Stories almost entirely blind. I have not read Salman Rushdie. I have read, perhaps, two short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. I might shamefully add that I really. . .
Throughout his work The Gray Notebook, Josep Pla mentions many different authors, some of whom have inspired him to pick up a pen. One of them is Marcel Proust. Even though Pla normally prefers nonfiction, he lauds the French novelist. . .
On that September 11th I had a conversation with a professor friend who was teaching a creative writing class that evening. He questioned, “What can I possibly teach when all of this has happened?” While the dismay and grief were. . .
In a story of two emotionally distant people, Japanese author Takashi Hiraide expertly evokes powerful feelings of love, loss, and friendship in his novel The Guest Cat. The life of the unnamed narrator and his wife, both writers, is calm. . .