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"The ephemeral and the eternal"
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.