viernes, 30 de abril de 2010

Life A User's Manual


Life A User's Manual [La Vie mode d'emploi] (David R. Godine/Verba Mundi, 2009)
by Georges Perec [translated from the French by David Bellos]
France, 1978

"Is he having us on?"
Gabriel Josipovici.  "Georges Perec's Homage to Joyce (And Tradition)."
In The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 15 (1985), Anglo-French Literary Relations Special, p. 188.

Getting to know Georges Perec, the author of Life A User's Manual and hence the object of an incipient man crush on my part, through the reading of his most celebrated novel, I frequently found myself asking: Georges, where have you been all my life?  In between such possibly spurious moments, I really did laugh out loud and shake my head in disbelief throughout this work in appreciation of its extreme inventiveness and sheer narrative exuberance.  Oft labeled an "experimental" novel on account of its jigsaw puzzle-like structure and the fact that most book bloggers are too lazy to consider reading it, Life is perhaps better thought of as a sort of distant cousin to the reader-friendly likes of The 1001 Nights, Boccaccio's Decameron, and Ovid's Metamorphoses.  An exercise in storytelling for storytelling's sake.  A vast storehouse of stories enhanced and enriched by imaginative allusions to other stories and storytellers. While one thread of the ingeniously-constructed plot revolves around millionaire British eccentric Bartlebooth's fifty year project to assemble and then disassemble a series of 500 seascapes-turned jigsaw puzzles in an act of futility that may or may not hold any special meaning for him, another has to do with Bartlebooth's neighbor, associate, and puzzlemaker extraordinaire Gaspard Winckler's plan to exact revenge on the Englishman for some unspecified reasons.  As new details about the struggle between these "two senile monomaniacs churning over their feigned histories and their wretched traps and and snares" (250) begin to emerge from the void (seemingly bringing order to the descriptive chaos), the narrative itself takes on the shape of yet another 750-piece puzzle as it mimics the form of French artist Valène's scarcely less ambitious plan to paint the Parisian apartment building where all the principal characters live as if it were a giant doll's house with the facade removed: room by room, object by object in painstaking detail, as imagined at a moment in time later to be revealed as the precise moment of Bartlebooth's death.  The result is a mystery--or if you prefer, a puzzle--fragmentarily assembled in such a way that all of the characters' neighbors and many former inhabitants of 11 rue Simon-Crubellier become an integral part of the extended cast with a corresponding domino effect on the storylines that's just incredible to behold.  And the result is a mystery--or if you prefer, a puzzle--told in such a way that while the painter's perspective often seems to double as the narrator's, woe to the careless reader who succumbs to the page-turning charms of the story and doesn't take note of all the funhouse and trompe l'oeil effects Perec's set up as snares along the way.  Just a super fun read that makes me want to smack my lips and say...C'est magnifique!  (http://www.godine.com/)

Georges Perec

A Technical Note
I had some story-related thoughts I wanted to add here regarding Perec's use of altered quotations as a form of creative "plagiarism" and the significance of Gaspard Winckler's revenge and such, but I think I'll save those for the comments box if anyone in our little readalong group would like to discuss them.  For now, though, I'd like to touch on two technical aspects of Life A User's Manual that continue to blow my mind.  First, the constraints.  Many of you are probably aware that Perec imposed a series of constraints upon himself during the writing of this novel.  Although it's easy enough to find information on this in English online, I'd like to direct your attention to this French site here for the best one-stop visual grid I've seen of the various tables Perec used to pair specific author references and other allusions throughout the novel (my favorite categories: missing and false, two "wild cards" if you will).  To see how the table's used, click on any of the contraintes, say "citation 1" or "citation 2" or "couple 1" or "couple 2," to view the authors that needed to be cited or the "couples" (Laurel and Hardy, crime and punishment, etc.) required to be mentioned chapter by chapter throughout the entire novel.  Just nuts!  Second, I'd like to return to the Knight's Tour mentioned earlier in the month when I was first getting into the novel.  You don't have to know anything about this technique to appreciate Perec's storytelling for its entertainment value, but once again, man, is that crazy!  However, the extremely-observant Isabella of Magnificent Octopus recently pointed out that Perec seems to have "cheated" on one of his moves.  Her question: What happens between chapters 65 and 66?  Although I tried to figure this out using Perec's hint that a "little girl" was to blame for this problem, I couldn't figure out what he was talking about since the page numbers cited didn't have anything to do with my edition of the novel.  Doing a little detective work last night on JSTOR, I came across the answer and learned why it was such a mystery: it has to do with French wordplay that got lost in translation!  Bear with me for this fairly long but quite elegant explanation courtesy of Paul A. Harris:

A more consciously contrived perturbation in the formal structure of the book is that while the building has 100 rooms, Life A User's Manual has only 99 chapters.  The room described in the text, found at the extreme bottom left corner of the 10 x 10 board, would be the 66th chapter.  At the end of chapter 65, a list of knickknacks concludes with a square biscuit box on which a girl is seen "munching the corner of her petit-beurre" (318).  The girl has nibbled off the corner of the board map for the book, eating the chapter in the process.  The connection between the biscuit box and 10 x 10 square of rooms is conveyed through an operation of verbal transformation favored by Perec, that of homophones (see Magné 1986, 61-62).  In the original, the square tin box is "fer-blanc, carrée" (Perec 1978, 394); the result of the girl nibbling is "faire un blanc dans le carré" (Magné 1990, 14).  And the whole conception of this clinamen is contained in a pun in French, for one "pièce" (room and/or puzzle piece) in the book can't find its place--a foreshadowing of the piece that Bartlebooth dies holding, the last piece in a puzzle whose shape is an X, while the blank space forms a W.*

So what the heck is a clinamen?  I'm glad you asked because this further exposes the fine line between Perec's sense of humor, genius, and "madness"  if you ask me!  According to my trusty handbook, "For Oulipians, the clinamen is a deviation from the strict consequences of a restriction.  It is often justified on aesthetic grounds: resorting to it improves the results."  So far, so good--but check this out.  "But there is a binding condition for its use: the exceptional freedom afforded by a clinamen can only be taken on the condition that following the initial rule is still possible.  In other words, the clinamen can only be used if isn't needed [underscore added]."**  On that note, I'm off to bed but will be eager to discuss Life A User's Manual with any and all concerned in the morning (send me your links!).

*Paul A. Harris.  "The Invention of Forms: Perec's Life A User's Manual and a Virtual Sense of the Real."  In SubStance 23(2), Issue 74, pp. 63-64.
**Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie, eds.  Oulipo Compendium.  London: Atlas Press, 2005, p. 123.

un petit-beurre, yummy
(naturally, "lu" also means "read" [past participle] in French, ha ha!)

22 comentarios:

  1. Add me to the ranks of those who have a crush on this fabulous author! Great post Richard. Reading these posts about the book is almost as fun as reading the book was - they bring back such great memories and spark up all my excitement again. Thanks for all the research - so fascinating. I'll be back late to comment more, and do please talk more about Perec's creative plagiarism! :)

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  2. Reading your review, in particular, the passage about the domino effect of the storylines and clever wordplays and trompe l'oeil effects, I am both sad and glad that I didn't participate. Glad because it would really ruin all the run of the mill tripe I read.

    I absolutely love the story of the girl nibbling off the corner of the book's board map. One might wonder how many other wonderful tropes got lost in translation, so to speak.

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  3. *Sarah: Thanks--so glad you share the enthusiasm for Perec since I've been dying to talk about this book all week! On the "plagiarism" front, the main thing I wanted to say is that I loved how Perec rewrote the 30 writers mentioned in the postscript into his novel via the embedded quotations. Made their stories "his" in the same way that we readers make all stories "ours" through the act of reading. The borrowings also added to the puzzle effect by making me wonder which stories were entirely "original" and which were "adaptations," which on an entertainment level is entirely moot as each story needs to stand on its own anyway! That being said, it was super fun to encounter something I recognized from previous reading lives like the manipulated Borges story that appears in chapter 73. Rosendo Juárez and Don Nicolás Paredes are characters from Borges' "Hombre de la Esquina Rosada" ["Man on Pink Corner"]. Although I can't say why Perec decided to riff on that story with any certainty, of course, maybe it has something to do with the fact that Borges wrote himself into the first-person narrative as a character. It also has to do with a murder mystery based on internal clues, is extremely "visual" in its storytelling style, and uses gangster slang (unusual for Borges) that Perec mimics in his version of it. There are lots of other things about this one inconsequential example I should add, but the bottom line is that Perec's choices here get more and more astounding the more I think about them. What a guy, wow!

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  4. *Jill: I think you would have loved certain aspects of Life and absolutely hated others (Perec's mania for lists, in particular). Since you like mysteries from time to time, though, maybe you should check out chapter 50 one day and get a 7-page sample of a Perec micro-mystery in the form of a short story. P.S. I added a photo of a petit-beurre to the post in your honor because that little girl nibbling story is just too much, I agree!

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  5. What an adventure this has been, reading Perec, living Perec! Thanks for your capable and thorough commentary; it makes me wonder, how can we stop now? I'm definitely going to read Life, A User's Manual again, with the French website near at hand. Although I need a little help with "le tableau des 42 contraintes" - I couldn't find a key to the locations of topics, e.g., Kafka, in the text. That drawing of the apartment building (from Saul Steinberg?), I've seen that before, somewhere. "Where a murder mystery and pi intersect," which you mention in one of your answers to a comment; I completely missed that one. Thanks for saying that Winckler's revenge was based on "unspecified reasons" - it bothered me that I hadn't picked up on his desire for revenge. And the issue of "creative plagiarism" - you're correct in saying that we all creatively plagiarize when we retell stories. Now I'm curious about the extent to which novelists do, too. In the Jewish tradition and in the Bible it's called midrash; as the traditions develop, stories are retold to new audiences and for different purposes than the original ones.

    Thank you so much, Richard, for the invitation to read Life, A User's Manual. It was wonderful fun!

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  6. *Julia, thanks for the kind words and for taking the time to read along with us during this special read! "How can we stop now?" I'm not sure. As it dawned on me that my post was only going to touch on a fraction of the things that I really wanted to discuss in the novel, I started thinking how a group could probably spend a year posting on and discussing all Perec's labyrinths (incl. why Winckler wanted revenge). Tremendously fertile terrain! I'll look for a more user-friendly guide to that table to make the topic allusions a little more clear, but in the meantime I'm really intrigued by the parallels you draw between Perec's storytelling here and the midrash. Fascinating--thanks again for "playing" along!

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  7. Whoa, that bit with the petit-buerre is too much - and that French table! I don't even fully grasp the extent of it, but am still flabbergasted. And it makes me wonder how Perec himself felt about this project by the time it was over - he has Bartlebooth descend into doubt and failure, after all, & the billionaire's project becomes for him a huge, burdensome apparatus that falters under the weight of its own conception. I felt like Perec ends up more stimulated under the pressure than Bartlebooth, but I still suppose he must have been glad to see the back of this thing, good grief!

    That said, I'm very glad he persevered. While I didn't find the result quite as "reader-friendly" as most of our group (more on my issues processing physical descriptions in my response to your comment over on my entry), the effort required was well rewarded. Thanks for suggesting it for our April read!

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  8. I'll be back; I just skimmed your post because I'm not quite finished with the novel. But, what a grand experience it's been! I'll put a post up this weekend, and revisit your blog to carefully read all the thoughts.

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  9. Just loved this book, but as Julia commented, I am done but not done. Dreaming an annotator's life I'm afraid. The librarian side of me was delighted at not only the mock lists and their gentle mockery but the exhaustive details both physical and allusionary. Both the allusions based in reality and the goofy ones he just made up. Where the real world and fictional worlds collide. And either fit together or simply offer the illusion of correct placement/interpretation. And this, and that, and then there was this... We'll never be done. And that's ok with me.

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  10. I didn't get Perec's constraints at all. (Wikipedia was kind enough to give an explanation, of which I understood not a word.) It ended up impeding my enjoyment of the book because Perec was obviously doing something but I'm too math-dumb to figure it out. Then I hit my head on my desk so hard I died.

    I am further embarrassed to say that I did not even notice the "creative plagiarism" until I finished the book and was flipping through the material provided at the end. But T.S. Eliot did it all the time and I love Eliot. If it's for a story or poem, I say it's totally cool. When I'm reading something and all of a sudden I recognize a quote or phrase from another author's work (like Ezra Pound's "laughter out of dead bellies" in Dan Simmon's Hyperion) it's like I've cracked some kind of code or am a part of this elite club that gets that sort of thing. It's like the author communicating with the savvy reader in a shared language. Or is that too corny?

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  11. "most book bloggers are too lazy to consider reading it" — Who you callin' lazy?!

    Thanks for reasearching the clinamen, and giving a name to the phenomenon. That's fantastic! (And "LU" is very funny!)

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  12. *Emily: Flabbergasted is a great word for my response to the text (both the stories themselves and some of the things I've read about the writing process itself)! One of the ironies for me with the Bartlebooth story is that even though Perec does present the character's project as a failure--and present dozens of other stories with similar failures or "tragic endings" of one sort of another--the storytelling is so effervescent that it's easy to overlook the fact that Life has rather a downer ending. Should a memento mori, even a secular one like we have here, leave you feeling so giddy and revitalized? Glad you enjoyed the novel despite your "processing" qualms, though!

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  13. *Bellezza: Glad it's been a "grand experience" for you and thanks for finding time to join us after your own readalong! Will look forward to reading your post whenever you get around to it!

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  14. *Frances: Glad you loved this, too, and can certainly relate to the "done but not done" feelings you describe! While I loved the wildness, the extravagance, and sometimes just the simple mundanity of the lists and fake bibliographies and whatnot, I also enjoyed how the fictional world was "grounded" in something approaching a humdrum reality with all the day to day detritus described. Felt it was a particularly combustible blending of the real and the fictional in some way. Hope you write a second post about all this but will understand it if you just enjoy your well-earned rest!

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  15. *E.L. Fay: For me, one of the beauties of this work is that you don't need to know anything about Perec's constraints to enjoy the storytelling or the delivery. However, I've gotten a kick out of reading about the constraints because they are just so wacky. But I would have enjoyed the way the narrative was actually delivered without any knowledge of the Knight's Tour, for example. I just thought it was cool! As far as the postscript goes, there's no reason to feel any embarrassment for not noticing it before you were supposed to. Some of us noticed it before the end, some of us didn't. No biggie. And your point about the author communicating in a shared language isn't corny at all. I think Perec was writing to amuse himself and his friends and any other readers willing to play the game with him in that manner. Nothing novel there. What's different with Perec is the number of inside jokes, embedded "clues," and the sense of humor. And as a group, we probably missed most of the allusions, which is something that cracks me up!

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  16. *Isabella: Ha ha, present company excepted, of course! I've been flipping through the Oulipo Compendium off and on during my reading of Perec, and the book is filled with bizarre stats and descriptions of all kinds of other clinamenesque oddities. So glad you asked about the "defective" move on the Knight's Tour, though, because the solution to the petit-beurre mystery is almost too good to be true!

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  17. What???!! Richard, you are flipping on the Oulipo Compendium!! You are too much! (But that's why I love you, friend.) :D

    And you are so funny, reverting your blog to French. LOL! I couldn't understand that French table so much, so if you could find an English one, please. Still, how fascinating. The creative plagiarism I was feeling throughout but could not find the proper term for it. But don't all writers do that? Just not as openly and blatantly as Perec did. Stories are being recycled in novels everyday.

    And that bit about the girl, thank you for the explanation! I had read in comments between Julia and Isabella that the reason for the 99 chapters was a girl in the middle and I was trying to find her and couldn't, before.

    I do agree with what you said to E.L. I didn't even think about his constraints while reading, just enjoyed it. And that's the whole point, isn't it? Perec might've made his book a puzzle for the reader to connect and piece together, but, unlike a real jigsaw puzzle where you have to piece everything together to appreciate the whole, this novel can be enjoyed in the bits and pieces (although he does put them together himself in the end, so we get to see everything converge). I have not read Decameron nor Ovid's Metamorphoses but am thrilled to see we both mentioned the 1,001 Nights. (I am so shallow.)

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  18. *Claire: Ha ha, thanks (although I changed the blog settings back to Spanish again today since "the month of Perec and Proust" is now over)! Anyway, yeah, the Oulipo Compendium and The 1001 Nights are strange companions, aren't they? And Perec is WAY interesting on the puzzle and plagiarism fronts even though his storytelling skills are mad even without the stunts and in-jokes and riddles. Speaking of which, the basic idea with the constraints table is that Perec made 21 paired lists of components that needed to be worked into each chapter (or 42 components per chapter) to be used according to the 10 x 10 grids corresponding to the different room locations. The constraints map combination determined most of the various types of details (author citations, styles of furniture or music to be mentioned or described, etc.) to be used to flesh out each chapter, although there was an element of free choice on certain chapters. I'll have to keep looking for a better explanation since I'm not quite up to the task myself, I'm afraid!

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  19. Well, it's good I have you to explain things to me, Richard. I took a much more superficial look at this book, not on purpose, and just lived in France again as I read it. I loved the aroma of Paris that it gave me, and the puzzle maker's dilemna which I tried to address on my post. I feel greatly enriched by this reading though, and at least you know some bloggers who are not lazy. ;)

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  20. *Bellezza: Ha ha, I know a lot of bloggers who aren't lazy--Perec readalong or not! However, the great thing about the shared reads when they work is that they generate so much discussion from so many points of view. I'm sure you know this from your own experience already, but that being said, I think living in France through Life A User's Manual is just as good a reason as any to read or write about this wonderful novel. Glad you enjoyed it and thanks for reading along with us!

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  21. Whoo-hoo! I'm going to read "Man on Pink Corner" tonight, and then the Perec's version again. Totally dorking out over this. :)

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  22. Just discovered this post today and it makes me want to start reading Life... again. I lent my original copy one too many times and never got it back but I found a new copy last year which is sitting on my shelves. It must be twenty five years since I read it and it would almost be a new book by now but I still remember the excitement I felt reading it.
    The links between constraint and creativity are interesting. They can allow people to access areas of the right brain which otherwise stay inactive. http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/apr/06/neuroscience-bob-dylan-genius-creativity?CMP=twt_gu

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