Friday, April 30, 2010


Let us imagine a man whose wealth is equalled only by his indifference to what wealth generally brings, a man of exceptional arrogance who wishes to fix, to describe, and to exhaust not the whole world - merely to state such an ambition is enough to invalidate it - but a constituted fragment of the world: in the face of the inextricable incoherence of things, he will set out to execute a (necessarily limited) programme right the way through, in all its irreducible, intact entirety.

Georges Perec's La Vie mode d'emploi (Life: A User's Manual) is a humongous book. Specifically, it's 568 pages, which may not seem too bad, but it's 568 pages of stuff. Tons and tons and tons of it. Layers and layers of minutiae. Lists that go on and on and on, many of which I literally skipped over. Do I really need to know every last item Madame Marcia has in her antique shop?

I do because there is a mathematical formula at work here. According to Wikipedia:
These elements come together with Perec's constraints for the book (in keeping with Oulipo objectives): he created a complex system which would generate for each chapter a list of items, references or objects which that chapter should then contain or allude to. He described this system as a "machine for inspiring stories".

There are 42 lists of 10 objects each, gathered into 10 groups of 4 with the last two lists a special "Couples" list. Some examples:
  • number of people involved
  • length of the chapter in pages
  • an activity
  • a position of the body
  • emotions
  • an animal
  • reading material
  • countries
  • 2 lists of novelists, from whom a literary quotation is required
  • "Couples", e.g. Pride and Prejudice, Laurel and Hardy.
The way in which these apply to each chapter is governed by an array called a Graeco-Latin square. The lists are considered in pairs, and each pair is governed by one cell of the array, which guarantees that every combination of elements is encountered. For instance, the items in the couples list are seen once with their natural partner (in which case Perec gives an explicit reference), and once with every other element (where he is free to be cryptic). In the 1780s, the great mathematician Leonhard Euler had conjectured that a 10×10 Graeco-Latin square could not exist and it was not until 1959 that one was actually constructed, refuting Euler.

To further complicate matters, the 38th and 39th list are named "Missing" and "False" and each list comprises the numbers 1 to 10. The number these lists give for each chapter indicates one of the 10 groups of 4 lists, and folds the system back on itself: one of the elements must be omitted, and one must be false in some way (an opposite, for example). Things become tricky when the Missing and False numbers refer to group 10, which includes the Missing and False lists.

Background: Perec was a member of the Oulipo group of French writers and mathematicians united by their interest in "constrained writing," a literary technique in which a work is produced under certain self-imposed restrictions. Poetry is the most common example, since genres such as haiku and the sonnet require a very specific verse structure. In prose, constrained writing often takes the form of omitting certain words or letters, or, as in Perec's case, conforming the narrative structure to a particular pattern. Both Perec and one Ernest Vincent Wright have also written novels without using the letter "e," despite it being the most common letter in both the French and English languages. Le Train de Nulle Part (The Train from Nowhere), a 2004 novel by Michel Dansel, does not have a single verb.

Hence, Life: A User's Manual is one giant word game. Or a puzzle, which is Perec's biggest motif.

Bartlebooth is a wealthy and eccentric Englishman who owns 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, the fictional Parisian apartment building where the novel takes place. His entire life has been devoted to one singular project. Over a twenty-year period, beginning sometime shortly before World War II, he traveled the world with his faithful servant Smautf, painting scenes of various ports at a rate of every two weeks for a grand total of 500 watercolors. The finished painting is faithfully mailed back to Paris on regular schedule, where Gaspard Winckler, recruited by Bartlebooth specifically for this purpose, attaches it to a wooden support and cuts it into a jigsaw puzzle. Following his return to 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, Bartlebooth will spend the remainder of his life solving every one of the 500 puzzles. Each reassembled product is then passed onto Georges Morellet, a chemist also carefully selected by Bartlebooth, who treats the puzzle with a solution of his own invention that rebinds the paper. Finally, the recreated painting is mailed back the port it depicts where it is submerged in saltwater until not a trace of the watercolor is left. Bartlebooth intends to leave behind no evidence of half a century's labor.

Smautf, Winckler, and Morellet are also residents of 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, along with Valène, the artist who tutored Bartlebooth before he commenced his world tour, and various families and individuals of varying histories and circumstances. Madame Moreau is the elderly self-made owner of a giant manufacturer-seller of tools, craft supplies, and DIY kits. Dr. Dinteville runs his own clinic and laments the failure of his research career. The Altamonts are planning a party. Cinoc works as a "word-killer" eliminating obsolete definitions from the Larousse dictionary. Madame Albin used to own a French printing press in Damascus until anti-colonialist sentiment forced her and her husband to flee the country, following which her husband died and her fortune was largely consumed by various court cases. All of these and others are frozen in time on June 23, 1975 at 8:00 pm, when Georges Perec removed (figuratively) the facade of 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, exposed each room, and carefully laid out the contents and activities therein.

For the reader's convenience, the book also comes with a map of the building, an index, chronology, "alphabetical checklist," and postscript advising us that Life: A User's Manual contains quotations, some slightly altered, of a diverse group of writers that includes Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, Jules Verne, Vladimir Nobokov, Sigmund Freud, Herman Melville, Agatha Christie, and Gabriel García Márquez.

You could make like Bartlebooth and spend your whole life on one mission. Namely, this book. I wonder if Perec's brain ever just seized up due to the sheer amount of stuff that spills out over the course of 568 pages, like someone just emptied a whole giant bucket of miscellanea.

I don't do math, so I couldn't approach Life from that particular angle. Unfortunately, the Graeco-Latin-Euler-array-square 10×10 mumbo-jumbo is what unifies and orders all of Perec's clutter. It's like seeing the trees but being unable to comprehend the concept of a forest. Ohmigod, TREES PLANTS LEAVES LOGS STICKS EVERYWHERE! What could this be?

I can discern, however, a running preoccupation with the detective genre. Several mystery novels are included in the lists of stuff found in some of the rooms and even on the public stairway. A boy and his friends draw a crime serial for their school paper and then can't figure out how their investigator progresses from the initial question (whodunit?) to the solution. I seem to recall a couple of other examples but they have since been submerged in the sheer volume of stuff. But anyway, what I get out of this is a desire for order. The job of every sleuth, whether a hardboiled LAPD homicide detective or the small-town amateur in a cozy, is to sort and organize incoming information, stemming from the crime itself, until a pattern is articulated and then followed to its logical conclusion (whodidit!).

In other words: the detective looks at life and ascertains a design at work. A problem arose, whether suddenly or over a period of time. There was a catalyst. A crime was committed. The guilty party tried to cover their tracks. It's a recognizable narrative.

But there's also that messy entropy thing. Even if you can extract a single strand of narrative - beginning, middle, end - out of the vastness of one, two, or several lives, any attempt to impose order on an entire individual life (let alone more than one) is impossible. Your work will unravel, as life is ultimately too big to be confined to any one framework. (That's the philosophical conundrum behind every (auto)biography - see Gert Jonke's novel/memoir The System of Vienna.) Bartlebooth attempts to give his existence a unifying purpose and ends up failing when his eyesight gives out and Winckler gets a little too good at making puzzles. Bartlebooth dies trying to complete number 439.

So what I'm left with is a contradiction of sorts. On the one hand, life is full of stuff that defies organization. Yet Perec did organize it by first starting out with his crazy mathematical pattern idea and building his book from there. But then again, everything arose entirely from his own imagination to begin with so I'm not sure that's really such a contradiction after all.

In conclusion, I have to say that for some reason I did enjoy reading Life: A User's Manual despite being unable to comprehend the forest. (I hope I didn't mess up that metaphor.) But if someone were to say that they just hated it, I would totally understand.

Update: Richard linked to this diagram. I still don't get it.

Life: A User's Manual was our Unstructured Group Read for the month of April. Please feel free to join us at any time! You can find a complete book list here.

Other April participants include:


Past selections:

March 2010: Tennessee Williams, The Night of the Iguana


Emily said...

"Ohmigod, TREES PLANTS LEAVES EVERYWHERE! What could this be?"

Haha, yes, I relate. The deluge of unmitigated stuff was fairly overwhelming at times, although it did make Perec's excursions into more pure narrative (usually through the lens of one of the objects) even more delightful by comparison, and I really enjoyed his style when he was excursing. I think you're right on about the detective fiction, and it's an interesting theory in general on why detective fiction seems to be one of the most deconstructed & played-with genres out there. People feel the need to poke at the place where order and disorder meet, maybe.

And thanks for that Wikipedia quote - believe it or not I hadn't thought to consult the article, and that helped me get a handle on just how Perec's story-making machine worked. I'm impressed that the book as a whole and most individual parts of it managed to be as compelling as they were, given that so many things about them were dictated beforehand...

rhapsodyinbooks said...

With a mind like that, I suppose we can all be grateful that he chose to devote himself to the arts, instead of, say, weapons development. (Although one could imagine him designing a complicated gun with just one piece missing!)

Richard said...

Perec does play with order and chaos extensively, E.L. Fay, and so I think you're right that the detective story is a particularly rich point to focus on from that perspective. Having said that, though, I wonder if you see any connection between Bartlebooth's "failure," Valène's "failure" and Perec's "success" in completing a project that, in some ways, is so similar to his characters'. For me, that's the key to unlocking one of the ultimate "messages" of the novel. Did you have any sense that there was an explanation for the ending or did you just see the novel as an extended stunt? Would be curious to hear your reply!

Eileen said...

Thanks for the comments, folks. I'm going out of town this weekend for my brother's graduation, so I'm not sure when I'll be able to respond. I'll see if the hotel has wireless.

claire said...

Oh E.L., you crack me up! I love puzzles and math but I didn't apply them very much with this novel, as I only made sure I enjoyed reading it and not worry too much on the technical things. As it is, some of the things he did (based on the diagrams, etc.) were way over my head. I mean, I could try to understand them if I wanted to, but for now I just want to languish in the beauty of the novel and not let those ruin my experience. Some are cool to learn about but not necessary to the experience. I so enjoyed reading your post!

Eileen said...

Well, my brother graduated on Sunday with a degree in Business Management! He will likely go to work at our father's business.

Emily: "Where order meets disorder" is a great way to describe detective fiction. Humans really do have a need to make order and make sense of things, particularly tragic events (to give them meaning), so I wonder if that is primarily what has contributed to the detective genre's staying power and incredible diversity.

Jill: I think his guns would be just be too needlessly complex to produce in large numbers!

Richard: Yes, I do. I think the problem with Bartlebooth was that his project ultimately wasn't productive. Since he intended to destroy all his puzzles/paintings, there was no point to the whole think other than to attempt to conform his life to a narrative of his own invention. Plus, he as too ambitious – I mean, 500 puzzles/paintings? Wouldn't 250 have been more realistic? Valène's tougher one. I think his project was the same as Perec's – take all this chaos and make something artistic out of it. I guess what it boils down to there is the simple fact that Perec's chaos is all imaginary (the whole book comes from his head) whereas Valène, as an imaginary character in Perec's book, is trying the same thing with real life.You'll note that the index differentiates between the real, the fictitious (fictitious in both real life and Perec's book), "internally real" (i.e. Bartlebooth, 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier), and the "internally fictitious" (i.e. Madame Moreau's novel that she can't get published). So I think Perec clearly intends for the reader to differentiate between those four spheres. Does that make any sense?

Claire: Yes, math ruins things! I agree!

Anonymous said...

Huh, I never felt like Bartlebooth's project was unproductive. He didn't quite finish the whole thing, but to the best of his ability he did what he intended to do - with 'exceptional arrogance' he, to his own satisfaction, fixed and described and exhausted a 'constituted fragment of the world'. (p. 133) If not for time running out on him, and Winkler's revenge (which for whatever unknown reason should 'have been forseen') he might have done it. Eh, not sure where I'm going here. I guess I feel like his failure is open to interpretation, and is no more certain than Perec's success - which comes more from the individual reader I think. Did Perec succeed here for you?

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