Friday, November 20, 2015

Georges Perec, Life A User's Manual (1978)

1978? Well, not really. It's true that a French novel called La Vie mode d'emploi was published in that year, but David Belloc's English translation wasn't released until 1987. On the one hand, collapsing the original book and its translation into one seems sloppy, but on the other hand, it seems kind of insufferably pedantic for me to provide all the publication details. I mean, I would if this were a scholarly publication, obviously, but on a blog entry that will be read by maybe a half dozen people? Hmm.

Perec was a writer, jokester, and prominent member of the Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) movement. He wrote a novel with no e's, and then, to make up for it, one where e is the only vowel. He was also ridiculously adorable-looking, like a genial saint:

By general consent, this oceanic novel is considered his masterpiece. It's set in an apartment complex in Paris's XVIIth arrondissement on June 23, 1975, just shy of eight o'clock pm. Each of ninety-nine chapters is focused on one particular room, presented like a photograph. Most of them feature minute physical descriptions of the items to be found therein, and often from there, we segue into the stories of the people who inhabit or formerly inhabited these rooms. These stories vary wildly, from slices of life to revenge tragedies to mysteries to romances to satires, but they're pretty much uniformly snappy and engaging, and Perec's massive erudition is impressive—the more so, as is always the case, given that this was written in a pre-internet age. Naturally, they often intersect or overlap one another, and altogether, all of this may in some sense make up a painting or series of paintings by an artist living in the building named Serge Valène (in almost exactly the middle of the book, there's a list of plots or premises, most or all of which appear in greater detail before or after).

The organizing metaphor for the novel is that of a jigsaw puzzle, as laid out in the preamble: all these disparate pieces that have to be fit together—and note the emphasis on space rather than time implied by the rooms-as-pictures and by the relentless focus on physical objects. The central thread that goes through the novel is the story of an eccentric English millionaire named Percival Bartlebooth. While a young man, Bartlebooth devises this insane, nihilistic plan to occupy the next fifty years (“an arbitrarily constrained programme with no purpose outside its own completion”): first, in spite of having no inate ability, he is going to spend ten years learning to paint (under the tutelage of Valène). Then, he is going to spend twenty years traveling to five hundred different seasides all over the world to paint a landscape at each one. He will send these paintings back home, where a puzzle-maker living in the building will transform each of them into a seven-hundred-fifty piece jigsaw puzzle. When he gets back, he will spend the next twenty years completing them one by one. After each is completed, a chemical process will be applied to eliminate the jigsaw cuts and render the paintings whole again, and finally, each one will be sent to the place it was painted, where a solvent will be applied removing the paint and returning the canvas to perfect whiteness. A project that completely annihilates itself.

You can guess whether everything goes according to plan. This whole thing is obscure, yet weighted with all kinds of possible semiotic significance. Naturally, Bartlebooth isn't able to complete this conception, but he comes closer than one might imagine—and the same could be said, perhaps, for the book as a whole. What does it all mean? Well, it's life, definitely, though anyone going in with expectations of finding actual instruction is likely to be baffled. It's also one of the most awe-inspiring books I've ever read.

As this blog will attest, I like a wide variety of books, but lately I'm thinking that above all else, I value books that give me new kinds of aesthetic experiences (this doesn't necessarily mean willfully experimental or avant-garde things, but those categories are a natural fit for what I'm looking for), and Life A User's Manual fills the shit out of the bill. It's also, more than almost anything I've read, a book that seems to demand rereading—to fit all the pieces, glean more of the codes and themes. I know for a fact that there are all kinds of word games and things in here that I completely missed. Also, in the back, there's a long list of writers from whom there are, allegedly, quotations woven throughout the novel, and as well-read as I try to pretend to be, I caught...almost none of these. I mean, I recognized a reference to Tristram Shandy, but I'm not sure it counts as a “quote,” per se. The only one I did get without a doubt was a snippet of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. Given the context, that one was pretty obvious. But for the rest, WOOSH.

Let's note here that Perec would be seventy-nine years old right now, and delighting us with who KNOWS that kind of japery, but instead, he died of lung cancer at the age of forty-six, four years after this book's publication, after a lifetime of heavy...oh, take a guess. Dammit, kids, I know this message has become such a part of the cultural wallpaper that no one really thinks about it on its own merits, but you really shouldn't smoke.


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