Life : A User's Manual, Paperback Book
5 out of 5 (2 ratings)


In this ingenious book Perec creates an entire microcosm in a Paris apartment block.

Serge Valene wants to make an elaborate painting of the building he has made his home for the last sixty years.

As he plans his picture, he contemplates the lives of all the people he has ever known there.

Chapter by chapter, the narrative moves around the building revealing a marvellously diverse cast of characters in a series of every more unlikely tales, which range from an avenging murderer to an eccentric English millionaire who has devised the ultimate pastime...


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"One of the most singular literary personalities in the world, a writer who resembled absolutely no-one else" - Italo Calvino on Georges PerecTaking inspiration from one of my more organised friends, I'm planning on spending at least part of my summer contemplating my dissertation, so as not to find myself overburdened come next May. However, having had to desperately rush in order to get my preliminary title handed in - in order to meet the deadline - I panicked, which is why 'Experiments in Narrative Structure' is going to be my focus. An interesting topic, to be sure, but one that comes attached with numerous difficulties - at the moment, not only is my outline much too general, but actually selecting texts is no easy feat either.It was this process that led me to Georges Perec's Life A User's Manual, a novel that fits my own brief perfectly, in that in terms of execution, it is both unconventional and hugely ambitious. Presented as a historical document - complete with index and chronology - it tells the story of the Rue Simon-Crubellier apartment block, and all the people who have ever been a part of the building. Perec takes the reader from room to room, describing everything - fixtures, fittings, furniture and all - in extensive detail in order to set the scene, before relaying the stories - which range from the relatively mundane to the bizarre - of those who have lived there. Indeed, description is a device Perec uses throughout, eschewing dialogue almost completely, a bold move that pays off because Perec crafts such a vivid narrative, leaving little to the imagination, as is appropriate for a novel presented as a definitive account.It seems somehow fitting that I chose to read this novel the same week I saw Synecdoche, New York. Both pieces share the thematic link of death as a natural consequence of life - as the only possible ending to every story - whilst at the same time managing to celebrate the capacity of the human spirit. Caden Cotard is the sort of obsessive whose vision would have been perfectly at home in Rue Simon-Crubellier; after all, the novel spends a fair amount of its time dealing with obsession, an emotion the very nature of which means that a large number of the tales are devoid of happy endings; as each new story begins, you find yourself waiting for the 'but' that frequently signifies imminent tragedy. Never is this more apparent than in the story of Percival Bartlebooth, a central character of sorts whose fate is emblematic of much of the narrative. A millionaire concerned that his wealth will consign him to a life of idle boredom, he concocts a scheme that is entirely self-defeating, but will serve to keep him occupied for the rest of his days. He spends ten years learning the art of watercolour painting, before heading out on a twenty-year long world tour, during which time he produces five hundred paintings. Upon completion, each one is sent to an expert puzzle-maker, who converts each of them into a seven-hundred-and-fifty-piece jigsaw. Returning from his travels, Bartlebooth begins to put the puzzles back together, with each completed puzzle being converted back into a watercolour painting, before then being sent back to the place where it was created, where it undergoes a process that renders it as nothing more than the blank sheet of paper it once was so long ago.The nature of this plan means that Bartlebooth, as intended, leaves no visible mark on the world, a desire on his part that is filled with a sense of melancholy and defeatism - after all, is there not within us all a longing to be remembered? In undertaking such a time-consuming yet ultimately useless task, Bartlebooth impresses upon the reader the suggestion that most of us end up leaving no lasting impact on the world whatsoever - he has fully accepted this as truth, and so dedicated his life to something which ends up removing him from society, whilst ostensibly leaving no trace of his existence. Yet that isn't the whole truth; after all, Bartlebooth's influence is felt throughout the novel, and he has clearly had an impact on a great number of people - not just those living within Rue Simon-Crubellier, but those who heard of the man purely by accident, such as the art critic Charles-Albert Beyssandre, whose interference eventually undermines the success of Bartlebooth's plan. The idea that all of the stories within the novel are connected even whilst they appear to be self-contained is crucial to its success, creating a sense of community that illuminates proceedings, and the air of inevitability of failure that hangs over the novel never detracts, because the journeys the characters undertake almost always have meaning, which lessens the impact of their eventual failure, whilst also ensuring that any successful outcome is a cause of great contentment to the reader.In contemplating Perec, Warren Motte and Jean-Jacques Poucel defined the four directions that the author claimed to have pursued in his writing: "a concern for the everyday and its details; a tendency toward confession and autobiography; an impulse toward formal innovation; and a desire to tell engaging stories." Life A User's Manual is a triumphant blend of all of these directions, and has to be considered one of the most significant twentieth century literary achievements.

Review by

Seldom you come across a book which is so magnificent in its scope, so disarmingly rich in style and variation, that after finishing it, you feel quite numb and dull. And later, when you try to reflect on the book, you are desperately short of words and expressions. Common examples include James Joyce’s “Ulysses” or Dostoyevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov”.Recently, I’ve finished reading “Life: A User’s Manual” by Georges Perec and without hesitation, I’ve placed it in the aforementioned category.I’m supposed to call “Life: A User’s Manual” a book, or a novel, but I prefer the word ‘tapestry’, and indeed, it is an ingenuous one. The title page describes it as “Novels”, in plural, and we’ll understand its significance a little later. The central character of the narrative is a wealthy Englishman called Bartlebooth (recently I've come to know that this is a cross between Herman Melville’s Bartleby and Valery Larbaud’s Barnabooth; such tongue-in-cheek references are abundant in this piece of work) living in a Parisian apartment at 11, Rue Simon-Crubellier. Not knowing what to do with his time or his fortune, he contrives an extensive plan which will keep him busy for the rest of his life. His plan goes as follows—1) In the first 10 years he devotes himself learning the techniques of water-colour under the guidance of Valene, who also comes to live at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier.2) Then, he starts his voyage spanning a period of 20 years around the world, accompanied by his faithful butler Smautf (an obvious reference to Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days”, bringing back the sweet memories of my childhood days) and painting 500 landscapes in different ports in different countries.3) As soon as he finishes each of these canvases, it is sent to Gaspard Winckler, a clever and ingenuous craftsman (another resident of 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier) who converts it into a jigsaw puzzle, increasingly difficult in nature, and stores them for future.4) After returning from his voyage, Bartlebooth solves those jigsaw puzzles.5) Each of the solved puzzles is then transferred to Georges Morellet (still another resident of the same building) who then rebinds the paper with a special glue and restores the original painting, removing the support of the pasteboard.6) This painting, which is in almost the identical state when Bartlebooth painted it, is then sent to the port where it was painted, exactly 20 years after the day of its creation.7) The painting is then placed into seawater until the colour dissolves, leaving a plain virgin sheet of paper.8) This blank sheet is then returned to Bartlebooth.9) The whole process is repeated for all the 500 paintings.Now, as the narrative progresses, it dawns upon the readers that the novel is set not only on the day of Bartlebooth’s death, but also, at the precise moment of his death. All the characters and objects, living in the microcosm of this Parisian apartment, are frozen in time and space by the author as he goes on painstakingly describing each of them, in each of the flats in the building, where they are and what they have been doing at that fateful moment, with elaborate references to their past, present and future. And this act of describing them is actually what the novel consists of. Probably now, the word “novels” makes some sense, because in the course of this narrative, we’ve come across more than 100 main stories (concerning all the residents and their lives), spanning almost 142 years (1833-1975).But, what is the point of telling such a convoluted array of stories? And, moreover, what is the point of indulging oneself into such a tedious and futile endeavour like Bartlebooth? The answers are the same—NOTHING!The most striking characteristic of this tapestry is its capability of referring to itself and its elements. The book itself is in the fashion of a vast jigsaw puzzle, similar to the ones Bartlebooth has been solving throughout his life. All the different stories and characters are the random pieces of the puzzle. As you are going through them, you engage yourself in joining them together, groping around in dark, unsure of yourself. Eventually, at the end, this tapestry emerges with full splendour.The quixotic effort of Bartlebooth and that of the author touch upon yet another theme. However hard a person tries to attribute a meaning to an act, ultimately it is devoid of any significance, or rather, if it has any significance at all, that is purely random (remember Sassure’s “Signifier - Signified” duo which is random). We are nothing but preys of an illusory meaningfulness which we pursue till the end of our lives. The effort of both Bartlebooth and Perec is a mockery of this illusion. At the end, Bartlebooth dies without finishing the project, in the process of becoming aware of the impossibility of such a task.While Bartlebooth’s bizarre project provides the central theme, 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier gives the book its structure. Supposedly, the narrative moves like a Knight in a chess game, one chapter for each room (thus, the more rooms an apartment has the more chapters are devoted to them). Perec haults in each room and tells us about the residents of the room, or the past residents of the room, or about some of their acquaintances. Perec devises the elevation of the building as a 10×10 grid: 10 storeys, including basements and attics and 10 rooms across, including 2 for the stairwell (the plan is given at the end of the book, along with a 58 pages long Index!). Each room is assigned to a chapter, and the order of the chapters is given by the knight's moves on the grid.George Perec was a member of the OuLiPo ("Ouvroir de littérature potentielle", which translates roughly as "workshop of potential literature") group. The members of the group were devoted to “constrained writing” techniques (Perec himself wrote an entire book without using the vowel e for once). In this novel also, there are certain constraints that he subjects himself to, like the number of lists in each chapter, number of objects etc. Unfortunately, as an uninitiated reader, I couldn’t delve deep into such numerological nitty-gritty.The book swarms with numerous references to other authors, books and characters, including Jules Verne, Captain Nemo, Passepartout, Kafka, Nabokov, Gaston Leroux, Cheri-Bibi, Marcel Proust and so on. As a novice reader it is an unpardonable audacity to even think of uncovering all those subtle nuances, but if you can, at least, sneak a peek at some of them, you will be justly rewarded. But be careful, there are plenty of red herrings, which may soon thwart you off the track.Another nasty twist at the end of this post! It is not Perec, who is describing all these disparate elements of a story. Rather, he is just describing the concept behind an unfinished sketch by Valene (the art teacher of our old friend Bartlebooth), aspiring to depict the building and its residents in fullest possible details (yes, along with the incidents from their past lives). Valene stops working on this painting precisely at the moment of Bartlebooth’s death!What should be said about this one-of-its-kind book, if not diabolic?