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on 21 January 2002
Perec switches dimensions: In an ordinary novel, the main dimension
of movement is time - all movement in space and detail are derived
from this movement in time. In Perec's "Life, A User's Manual" the
main dimensions of movement are space, and not the least - detail.
Any movement back or forth in time is merely derived from this
primary movement.
This peculiar mode of movement gives rise to a peculiar writing style
where the writer can not mention an object without at the same time
mentioning its details. It is a very contagious writing style, and so
while reading this book, something I mainly did on the train to and
from work - usually between 7AM and 9AM in the morning and between
4PM and 7PM in the evening on weekdays, except for tuesdays when I
would either leave early or arrive late due to work-outs - I found
myself digressing in details (moving in the dimension of detail) as I
wrote email to friends or participated in other exchanges. It might
remind you of Arabian Nights, except that it is the objects and not
the people who tell the stories within the stories.
A warning for you who wish to read this book: Just as with "Zen and
the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", you will find yourself wondering
through the first 100 pages or so if this book is ever going to go
anywhere. As opposed to the case of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance, you will find it doesn't. But by that time, you won't
care that it doesn't. It is a wonderfully self-contained universe
that starts and ends with nothing.
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on 28 October 2007
A Paris apartment block becomes a virtual chessboard in a book of games and puzzles. A multitude of stories amasses around the objects and facts that fill each room and each individual connected with the building. And at its core, there is the story of Bartlebooth, the wealthy gentleman who decides on an arbitrary course of existence that will take a lifetime to achieve, and his puzzle-maker, Gaspard Winckler, who ultimately frustrates his plan. Its beauty for me lies in the fact that its form so fully mirrors its content. Just as Perec bases the journey from room to room on the knight's tour round the chessboard, landing once and once only on each square, so he exerts his freedom from these self-imposed structures and rules by making a false move. And these are not the only rules that Perec used to write the novel. This adherence to arbitrary structures has its mirror in Bartlebooth's essentially pointless, yet rigorously constructed, life; the exertion of freedom, in Winckler's final revenge. Like 100 Years Of Solitude, its many, many threads come together at the last. Like Invisible Cities, it is the things that are least mappable (the flight of the swallows) that ultimately have the most meaning.
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on 19 March 2010 should be noted that contrary to the item description, THIS IS NOT A BILINGUAL EDITION.
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ONE The Reading
I knew that this book would have “an angle” as the author, Georges Perec, was a member of Oulipo (1), an experimental writing group. It was also quite a fat paperback, so I started reading it with trepidation, wondering how far I would get before I gave up. I was surprised to find that I ploughed through it quite happily, partly because it contains bite-sized stories that are easy to digest. However, if you are looking for a conventional work of fiction you will be disappointed, bored and probably a little angry.

TWO The structure
The book is structured around the apartments in a Paris building (2). It describes the contents and current and past residents of these apartments (4). Often these descriptions lead to anecdotes and tall stories. These are coloured by the author’s fondness for detective stories and puzzles. The chapters are numerous and a few of the stories are continued across chapters (5).

THREE The book
The book has 99 chapters divided into 6 parts followed by a one page Epilogue (giving 100 chapters in all). The chapters are short. Each concerns a place, usually an apartment or a room in an apartment, but it can also be on the stairs or in one of the cellars or the lift. The main text of the book has 500 pages (exactly). In addition there is a 59 page Index (3), an 8 page Chronology and a 4 page “Alphabetical Checklist of Some of the Stories Narrated in the Manual”.

FOUR The footnotes
(1) Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) was founded in 1960 as a group of French writers and mathematicians who were interested in writing that was constrained. These constraints included lipograms (excluding one or more letters), palindromes (where the text reads the same backwards or forwards) and using the movements of the knight in chess. Apparently this book is based on a 10 by 10 grid corresponding to the apartment building it describes. This is combined with a set of lists by a mathematical equation called a Graeco-Latin square.
(2) There is a one page schematic plan of the building on page 501, which is a useful reference.
(3) How many works of fiction have an index, let alone a 59-page index?
(4) Each chapter describes a location and has the name of the apartment’s resident or has a location. Thus chapter 38 is titled “Lift Machinery, 1” and chapter 74 is “Lift Machinery, 2”. The first is a story about people in the lift; the second is a fantastical journey into the fabulous levels below the lift shaft. Madame Marcia lives on the ground floor with her husband and son, where she has an antiques shop. Chapter 24 is titled “Marcia, 1” and describes the contents of the back room of the antiques shop. Chapter 32 is “Marcia, 2”. It describes Madame Marcia and the contents of her bedroom. Chapter 39 is “Marcia, 3”. It gives the back story of Monsieur Marcia. Chapter 66 is “Marcia, 4”; it describes the front room of the antique’s shop, particularly the objects at the back of this rom, which Madame Marcia uses as an office. Chapter 73, “Marcia, 5”, begins by listing the contents of the front room of the antiques shop run by Madame Marcia’s son. However it soon detours to a tale of a former occupant of the store, his sister and her husband.
(5) There is one story that threads through the whole book. A wealthy resident of the building, Bartlebooth, takes lessons in watercolour painting from someone who will eventually himself move into the building. Bartlebooth then travels the world with his servant painting a watercolor in each port he visits. These are sent back to another resident of the building who converts them into jigsaw puzzles. Bartlebooth returns to the building and completes the jigsaw puzzles. Then the whole process is reversed. The backing to each jigsaw is removed and the water colour re-created by joining the pieces of paper together. This re-constituted watercolour is sent back to its original port where the image is removed chemically and the blank paper sent back to Bartlebooth.
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on 22 April 2012
Sadly did nothing for me. I'm sure writing within the bizarre constraints the author has imposed on himself is technically admirable and he has clearly spent enormous effort in imagining in microscopic detail multiple aspects of the many lives described but, for the most part, it was like reading a book of sudoku or an index. There are minute detailed descriptions of apparently every item in every room, there are interminable lists.

To be fair, there are occasional quaint and entertaining diversions into the back stories of some of the characters which engage temporarily from the tedium; like finding a few loose leafed short stories interspersed in a dry encyclopaedia.

Most of the characters seem to fail in their plans. The supreme irony for me is that the author convinced me to waste my life away reading it, not unlike Bartlebooth's time-wasting master plan of futility.

User tip: Live your life: don't read this...
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on 4 November 2015
Some of the people in this book lead exciting lives, some don't. They add together to make a book of melancholy charm.
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on 18 March 2013
to me, it seems so amusing that another reviewer called this 'an exercise in futility, but not for me'. forgive me for being so pedantic...but surely the entire premise of this book is the exercise in futility that we call life. if there is a main character in the building that is the whole universe of this novel, it is bartlebooth, a man so rich that he has devised a plan for his life so deviously futile that despite 50 years, a complete plethora of skills, workmen, travels, paint, glue, jigwaws and postage, he still cant complete, and is left with a jigsaw piece in his hand, that you might think that there is no reason for his life in the first place. but you would be wrong. there is a reason for the lives of every person in this book, in this building, if only to explain the reason for something else. it is a rabbit warren of a read, it is, undoubtedly about the futility of life, but it is brilliantly written, so funny it makes you laugh out loud, and its just life in all its stupidity. it has no narrative, you do not connect with any of the residents, it is a jumble of stories and subterfuges. sometimes you find out why, sometimes you could be the diary of any building in the world. people come and go, have kids, plans, become rich, lose it all, get murderded, get happy, move away, come back, have another marriage, steal, buy, etc etc. if you are a nosey person and love looking through peoples windows to see what paintings they have on their walls, you will just love this...
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on 13 June 1999
There is just so much in this book. Thousands of distractions, details and puzzles and yet the amazing narrative of Bartlebooth's life may make you assess your life in the way it did for me. A couple of years ago I went to a literary talk by the translator (David Bellos) where he left the audience totally astounded as he related the details of how Perec constructed this book.
I'll be honest and say that most people I've lent this book to, didn't finish it. So don't bother to read this book unless you are prepared to savour the details and the hundreds of little stories that are weaved into the substantial main narrative. Perec was a genius, without doubt, and this book stands with Ulysses as one of the greatest and least read novels of the century.
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on 10 February 2014
our bookclub as a whole did not like this book. It was like a beautifully written catalogue of interior design in a block of flats. beautul writing needs human interest to hook the reader, this book was lauded by critics but fell short of amusing and appealing to the ordinary reader.
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on 17 November 2013
Wonderful book ! Fascinating level of detail & great stories within a story. Extremely well crafted story-telling Highly recommended ,
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