on 3 January 2007
Georges Perec's wonderful title perhaps requires an opening warning that this is an experimental novel rather than a New Age self-help guide ... but a novel unlike any that I've ever read before. He takes a Paris apartment block on a single day (23rd June 1975), and moves round individual rooms in the various flats in an order which is apparently determined by a well-known conundrum in chess (how to get round all 64 squares of a chess board using consecutive Knight's Moves) for a total of 99 fairly short chapters. In each room, he gives us a detailed inventory of the contents - including any people who may be present and what they are up to - usually followed by a digression relating some of the occupants' Back Story, but not infrequently leading on to a digression on something much more tangential (the life story of a sixteenth-century explorer, say, whose biography happens to be in the room). By the end of the book, Perec emerges as a sort of unlikely Sheherazade, having given the reader some short but unforgettable tales (which he helpfully lists as an Appendix with page numbers!). He has also, more memorably, given us a remarkably complete picture of the life of the apartment lived all-at-once, and how the various occupants interact with each other, linked via the central tale of English billionaire eccentric Percival Bartlebooth and his jigsaws.
Bartlebooth, cursed with inexhaustable reserves of time and money, effectively decides to turn his own life into a work of art, by touring the world for twenty years painting 500 watercolours of seaports, which are then turned into jigsaws by one of the apartment's other occupants, Gaspard Winckler. Bartlebooth will then attempt to re-assemble the (increasingly difficult) jigsaws over the next twenty years, with the completed puzzles being glued back together and washed clean, leaving a blank sheet of canvas again. Bartlebooth's whole enterprise is pointless other than the considerable challenge of actually carrying out this "self-erasing work of art". But his plans are threatened firstly by an interfering art critic, and secondly by Gaspard Winckler himself, who has his own agenda...
All of this probably makes the book itself sound like a bit of a pointless puzzle, or at least like something dry and cerebral. Nothing could be further from the case: Perec's dazzling patchwork quilt - or jigsaw - of tales ranges from the humorous (Remi Rorschach, who always comes up with a brilliant idea or business plan about a month too late) through the cautionary (the sad case of Dr Dinteville's research project) to the downright tragic (the Altamonts); as well as some that can only be described as wilfully bizarre (domino-playing hamsters??). While Perec makes the whole exercise an entertaining game for the reader, in accordance with the principles of the Oulipo group of writers of which he was the "star striker" in the 70s (I won't attempt the French version of the name lest I embarrass myself, but "Oulipo" is an acronym for something like "Workshop for Potential Literature" - they seek to unite literature with seemingly unconnected disciplines such as mathematics and science), his novel is cumulatively both very moving and tinged with his usual gentle melancholy.
In the end, this is a book of "dead letters" - secrets never told; plans never carried out. Perec puts a short superscription to his final chapter saying that he (or Bartlebooth?) is "simultaneously seeking the ephemeral and the eternal". But although this is often a rather sad book, and although he certainly brings home the fleeting nature of human existence and the transience of all our best-laid plans, this isn't a nihilistic work: Perec has endless sympathy for his characters' human frailties, and I found myself becoming very fond even of characters who initially appeared hard to like once their Back Stories had been revealed more fully. Perhaps this is one of the things he was trying to say: he can't give us any grand "Meaning of Life"; we're stuck with making the most of the small change of random events and human friendships that life throws our way.
on 20 February 2004
A long, complex novel, ostensibly about a Parisian apartment building and the history of the people who've lived there over many generations - and of the complex ties between them. The other metaphor Perec keeps coming back to is that of the jigsaw puzzle. Everyone fits into the complex overall framework of life; all sorts of strange fragmentary shapes - births, deaths, lives, loves, objects lost and found, hopes fulfilled and shattered - figure in the interlocking tales that wander across time and space. Shining through the complex structure of the book is Perec's warmth and humanity - his belief that love and hope and honesty are what bind us together.
A wonderful, memorable read. Treat yourself.
on 19 July 2008
This is a truely marvelous book, a gem, and a joy to read. I was a little perturbed at first as I have struggled in the past with such oddly structured books, this however was a page turner from the outset.
Each chapter contains within its three or four pages, puzzles, enigmas, stories, anecdotes, histories and characters completely aside from the main narrative which runs in detached threads from the first pages to the last, assembled piece by piece like a jigsaw. The conclusion is ultimately moving and sad, but most of all rewarding. This book is about all facets of life, from the truly mundane to the most far fetched and eccentric; simply written, Perec has acheived quite a feat in making this complicated and highly illusive(and allusive) novel so absolutely readable. He is a member of the oulipo workshop as are Calvino and Queneau.
One thing which you may notice from time to time while reading are whole chunks of prose borrowed from, or at the least alluding to, other writers. While reading I noticed a passage by Kafka that had been carefully weaved into a sub-plot within one of the chapters. On the last page on the book all the authors he has borrowed from are cited so you can, if you wish, read the novel like a literary train spotter though I would advise that you don't, you'd perhaps be missing the point.
In summise: marvelous, probably unique, and great fun. A shame much is probably lost in translation but such is the way with many great books.
Four stars for being an amazing read the fifth for originality.
on 9 March 1999
This book needs to be read to be believed. It consists of a series of still lives or minor episodes, all based on a Paris apartment block and its inhabitants. Although it has few coherent conventional narrative streams, it tantalises the reader wonderfully and provides a wide array of characters, major and minor, who float in and out of the stories like flotsam and jetsam on the tide. Perec is a master of invention and the few threads of continuity are brought together in a fabulous conclusion that left me chilled for days. What is it about? Everything: storytelling, art, patterns, jigsaw puzzles, the nature of truth, life, mess, wonder, joy, unhappiness and the general imperfect details of living. It really is a fantastic read and well worth the effort needed to understand the style of one of the wondrous and obscure writers of this century. It is truly one of the most complete books I have ever read.
This astonishing book depicts the lives and ephemera (possessions, obsessions, history, peccadilloes, life stories, psychologies, loves and despairs) of the inhabitants of a large apartment-block in Paris. Ranging over the whole of the 20th century and full of the most amazing detail, including the description of every room, its decoration, furniture and inhabitants, this novel is unlike anything I have read before. One is given such an astounding amount of detail that at times it is difficult to see the intention - unless it is to overwhelm the reader with the pure ephemera and inconsequentiality of life? It is an achievement, there is no doubt, but is it a novel?
But does it matter that it transgresses some of the rules? No, because it has strange and compelling compensations, in the form of the story of the 20th century in a particular place. There are tragedies, love affairs, murders, mysteries, eccentricities galore, and this collage effect is above all sensitive to the art and culture of Paris. Its multifarious characters and life stories are like a strange mosaic that offers unending novelty and drama - but without the overarching themes that a novel usually uses to give cohesion and meaning. Meaning, indeed, is problematic, as it is in life. Perhaps this is the key to this strange achievement? In any case it is a marvellous read, full of curiosity and adventure, but also strangely static. As we look onto our own history, we will no doubt see the same mixture of banality, movement, beauty and morbidity. This is a user's manual after all.
on 28 June 2009
'The perceived object...is not a sum of elements to be distinguished from each other and analysed discretely, but a pattern, that is to say a form, a structure: the element's existence does not precede the existence of the whole, it comes neither before nor after it...'
For me, the most remarkable thing about 'Life: A User's Manual' is its scope, and the impression it leaves once finished. The quotation above is a good introduction to the book: you will find the mundane jostling with the fantastic in seemingly random patterns in the author's attempt to represent life at a single, isolated moment in time.
The exhaustive lists that populate this book can get a bit tedious but boredom is sometimes necessary to make the climactic moments more powerful. Think the final 20 minutes of Takashi Miike's 'Audition (Collector's Edition) [DVD] ' after two hours of soporific non-action. I don't think I would have had as much sympathy for Valene's and Bartlebooth's ambitious yet ultimately pointless projects (or the book for that matter) if the humorous and exaggerated yarns hadn't been weighed down by something a bit more 'down to earth'.
This book is more than just 'worth a read'. To quote Victoria Glendinning, it has the same 'hectically ingenious intelligence' as Jean-Pierre Jeunet's inimitable Amelie (Two Disc Special Edition) [DTS] [DVD]: by turns surreal, whimsical and sinister. A series of still life scenes pass by with a peculiar ebb and flow, drawing the reader in without the need for a steady build-up and release of tension that comes with linear narration.
Whether or not the novel was generated in the manner of a laboratory experiment is beside the point - you don't need to know its methods to marvel at its intricacy and depth.
on 17 September 2001
This a expansive and complex book which offers teasing threads of tales and related imagery through a breadth of history and location, whilst remaining a snap shot of an instant in a single Parisian building. At the close, the sense is that there are many deeper puzzles to be solved within the layers of the work as a whole, which can leave the reader feeling unfulfilled. With the luxury of time, it would be fascinating to see if there were more to discover there than meets the eye initially.
on 2 July 2012
Beware: this is not a self help book or a satiric book about life and its unavoidable nuisances.
This is pure literature. The author describes and dissects life in a block of flats in Paris. The block was built in the late XIX century, and the neighbours have changed with time. That is normal. But the author makes an extraordinary exercise of research, showing how everyone of them is related to one another, how a life is knitted with others by unseen threads. This book is a praise of the art of making puzzles: in fact, it is the puzzle freak and millionaire, Batlebooth that sends the stone rolling when he decides to dedicate his life to the most useless of pursuits, solving puzzles in his residence.
The author jumps from one apartment to another, from one period of time to another before that one, or after. And then describes the room, the decoration, its meaning, its cultural connotations, what the inhabitants are doing, their feelings, their motivations, their past or their future. But then, what fascinates is the degree of detail, the intrincacy of the descriptions, the minute objects and facts that we are told: stairs, cellars, kitchens, drawing rooms, the porter's office, the underground, the basements, the roofs, the rich flats, the small and shabby apartments, love, life, envy, jalousy, madness, valour, gallantry, skills, art....
One wonders how long this research could take (it seems that this book took several years to be written, no wonder), how could such a clockwork of a "novel" could be devised. How can the individual dramas, the boring existences, the unseen sufferings and joys be so precisely and lovingly be told? Painters, aristocrats, children, artists, doctors, porters, antiquarians, public servants, editors, grocers, mechanics, handycapped, and many more surround the bored, fed up millonaire Bartlebooth, his useless richness, his tics and whims. Each is depicted in his home, in the stairs, working or resting, making love or eating, sleeping or reading. Everybody, every moment of the house is written down. The horse in chess just jumps and lands in a different appartment, maybe in a different period. You must be ready for that. Only the final pages will solve the whole puzzle.
So that's life: a net of relations, of collective interactions whith people we know and even with those we don't know.
For me, Perec is a master.
on 23 March 2000
Perec's work is unquestionably the most original and varied of any author, ever. His great palindrome, his angrammatic and heterogrammatic poetry, his lipograms, his novels and his thoughts are all testimony to one of the most peculiar and talented minds of the twentieth century.
To anybody familiar with his oeuvre, the only predictable characteristic of Life A User's Manual will be its stupefying complexities. A structural framework so cunning and so complicated that it surpasses all Perec's preceeding achievements is gradually revealed to the reader, forming the foundations of what is an epic manifestation of nothingness.
The novel takes for its basis the facade of a Parisian tenement, ten squares wide and ten high. The narrative moves, apparently randomly, from square to square, taking in the slices of life contained therein. Slowly, as more squares of more appartments are revealed, individual stories of tenants, separated only by thin walls, unfold.
This movement from square to square is in fact based on a strict mathematical challenge known as the polygraphie du cavalier, whereby all squares must be visited only once moving as the knight moves on a chessboard. The puzzle had long been solved for a traditional 8 x 8 chess board; Perec took on the challenge of re-solving it on a 10 x 10 grid. He succeeded and even managed to incorporate a hidden and quasi psycho-analytical twist, by missing square no.66, in the bottom left hand corner. The resulting shape thereby replicated the hebrew gimmel referred to in W ou le Souvenir d'Enfance, and skillfully avoided 66, a number to which the author had a particular aversion following the death of his jewish mother in wartime nazi concentration camps.
Where a large part of the book's appeal lies is in the way Perec tells his interwinding tales. His obsession with the infra-ordinary, the ostensibly insignificant details which form the more consequential elements of our lives, is clear. Long inventory like lists abound, and scrupulous digressions take the reader on adventures all around the world, to turn what are a priori dull and lifeless reports into the most engaging anecdotes.
To merely dip into the surface of this book is to enter a skillfuly constructed world that mirrors our own yet subtley points out the unquestioned absurdities which comprise our everyday existence. Amongst those who have read the work there is an unconditional admiration. It is an achievement that defies belief. It deserves to be read.
on 7 October 2014
Clever I suppose but leaves one with the feeling that George could have achieved the same end by randomly culling paragraphs from nowhere in particular. Mildly amusing, mildly diverting, a series of somewhat twee vignettes none of which stand on their own merits and are equally unable to hold together as a whole.