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!  (

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!)

viernes, 23 de abril de 2010

Sodom and Gomorrah

Sodom and Gomorrah [Sodome et Gomorrhe] (Penguin, 2005)
by Marcel Proust (translated from the French by John Sturrock)
France, 1921-1922

Having learned what he wanted, M. de Charlus pretended to despise Bloch.  "How ghastly!" he exclaimed, restoring to his voice all its clarion vigor.  "All the localities or properties called 'La Commanderie' were built or owned  by the Knights of the Order of Malta (of whom I am one), just as the places known as 'Le Temple' or 'La Cavalerie' were by the Templars.  Were I staying at La Commanderie, nothing could be more natural.  But a Jew!  Not, however, that it surprises me; it comes from a curious liking for sacrilege, peculiar to that race.  As soon as a Jew has enough money to buy a château, he always chooses one called Le Prieuré, L'Abbaye, Le Monastère, La Maison-Dieu.  I had dealings with a Jewish functionary, can you guess where he resided?  In Pont l'Évêque.  Having fallen out of favor, he got himself sent to Brittany, to Pont l'Abbé.  When, in Holy Week, they put on those indecent spectacles known as Passion plays, half the auditorium is filled with Jews, exulting at the thought that they are going to put Christ on the cross for a second time, at least in effigy.  At the Lamoureux concerts, I had for my neighbor one day a rich Jewish banker.  They were giving Berlioz's L'Enfance du Christ; he was appalled.  But he soon recovered the beatific expression that is usual with him on hearing 'L'Enchantement du Vendredi Saint.'  Your friend is staying at La Commanderie, the wretch!  What sadism!  You must show me how to get there,"  he added, resuming his indifferent air, "so that I can go one day and see  how our ancient domains are withstanding such a profanation.  It's unfortunate, for he's polite, he seems clever.  All he needs now is to live in Paris on the rue du Temple!"  With these words, M. de Charlus seemed simply to be looking for a fresh example by which to support his theory; but in reality he was posing a question whose intention was twofold, the principal one being to learn Bloch's address.  (Sodom and Gomorrah [translated by John Sturrock], 489)

Whilst I'll admit that dropping myself into the middle of Proust's In Search of Lost Time with no previous exposure to the earlier three volumes in the work prob. wasn't the smartest thing I've ever done, I so enjoyed Sodom and Gomorrah after the good couple of hundred of pages or so it took me to settle into its groove that the in media res entry point definitely wasn't the dumbest thing ever either.  Ostensibly a meditation on same sex love in an era when that was still considered a vice in la Douce France, I think it's fair to say the novel is just as much concerned with hypocrisy in general and the variety of masks required to fully participate in society's non-sexual games.  Deception--and particularly self-deception--is the real subject of the "voyeuristic" close-up here, played out in a slow motion storytelling style that will well reward your patience if you give it half a chance.  What do I mean?  Not to be a whiner about it or anything, but nobody ever told me how funny Proust was before--how his celebrated psychological insights often come accompanied with a snifter of world class cattiness in tow!  While the anti-Semitic set piece above is entirely typical in suggesting that being born Jewish in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair was as big a shortcoming as being born gay or being born poor on the sliding scale of the snobby socialites in the novel, note the wonderfully-observed manner in which the narrator communicates that he's aware that the pompous Baron de Charlus' tirade is partially a cover story to mask the closeted character's interest in a potential illicit love interest.  Elsewhere, Proust was a continual revelation to me less for his humor or his subtle ironies than for his ability to combine an OCD level of detail with some surprising insight into his characters' personalities or upbringing.  Remarking on M. de Charlus' laugh at one point, for example, the narrator remarks that the laugh "had probably come down to him from some Bavarian or Lorraine grandmother, who had herself got the identical laugh from one of her forebears, so that it had been ringing out like this, unchanged, for a good few centuries in the lesser courts of old Europe, and its precious quality had been enjoyed, like that of certain old musical instruments now grown very uncommon" (332).  Just a few pages later, the narrator brings another old money character to life by describing her as a remnant of "the epoch when people of breeding observed the rule of being agreeable and the so-called rule of the three adjectives" (335).  I was tickled by the explanation of the latter rule:

Mme de Cambremer combined the two.  One laudatory adjective was not enough for her; she would follow it (after a dash) by a second, then (after a second dash) by a third.  But what was peculiar to her is that, contrary to the social and literary objective she had set herself, in Mme de Cambremer's letters the sequence of the three epithets wore the aspect, not of a progression, but of a diminuendo.  Mme de Cambremer told me in this first letter that she had met Saint-Loup and had appreciated more than ever his "unique-rare-real" qualities, and that he was due to return with one of his friends (the one, indeed, who was in love with the daughter-in-law), and that, if I cared to come, with or without them, to dinner at Féterne, she would be "overjoyed-happy-pleased."  Perhaps it was because the desire to be agreeable was not matched in her by any fertility of imagination or richness of vocabulary that, eager to utter three exclamations, this lady had the resources to provide in the second and third only an enfeebled echo of the first.  There need only have been a fourth adjective for nothing to have remained of her initial affability (335-336).

For anyone who's ever suffered through a poorly-constructed blog post praising or berating some lesser-tier writer, suffice it to say that the astounding level of detail in moments like Proust's diminuendo digression is the sort of thing that will make it all worthwhile!  And moments like these, while likely old hat to In Search of Lost Time veterans, frankly litter the work in question.  That the narrator, so observant in the ways of others, is himself guilty of a very human self-deception when it comes to his own love life and his feelings for the suspected lesbian Albertine, naturally makes me eager to see what happens to him and his loved one next.  In the meantime, I believe I have some catching up to do first: thanks and no thanks to book gangsta Frances of Nonsuch Book, whose encouragement of me to join her little In Search of Lost Time shared read mid-stride has added another 3,000 pages of reading to my TBR now that M. Proust has lived up to the hype yet once again!   (

Marcel Proust

viernes, 16 de abril de 2010

La literatura nazi en América

La literatura nazi en América (Seix Barral, 2008)
por Roberto Bolaño
España, 1996

Buenos Aires, 1901-Buenos Aires, 1994
Entre sus propuestas juveniles se cuenta la reinstauración de la Inquisición, los castigos corporales públicos, la guerra permanente ya sea contra los chilenos o contra los paraguayos o bolivianos como una forma de gimnasia nacional, la poligamia masculina, el exterminio de los indios para evitar una mayor contaminación de la raza argentina, el recorte de los derechos de los ciudadanos de origen judío, la emigración masiva procedente de los países escandinavios para aclarar progresivamente la epidermis nacional oscurecida después de años de promiscuidad hispano-indígena, la concesión de becas literarias a perpetuidad, la exención  impositiva a los artistas, la creación de la mayor fuerza aérea de Sudamérica, la colonización de la Antártida, la edificación de nuevas ciudades en la Patagonia.
Fue un jugador de fútbol y futurista.

llamado el Doncel
Arequipa, 1940-Arequipa, 1986
Entre los adjetivos de sus críticos destaquemos los siguientes: paleonazi, tarado, abanderado de la burguesía, títere del capitalismo, agente del CIA, poetastro de intenciones cretinizantes, plagiario de Eguren, plagiario de Salazar, plagiario de Saint-John Perse (acusación esta sostenida por un jovencísimo poeta de san Marcos y que a su vez desató otra polémica entre seguidores y detractores en el ámbito universitario), esbirra de cloacas, profeta de baratillo, violador de la lengua española, versificador de intenciones satánicas, producto de la educación de provincia, rastacuero, cholo alucinado, etc., etc.
(La literatura nazi en América, 57 y 79-80)

Aunque tuve muchas dificultades en encontrarlo, ¡$50 después puedo decirles con toda certeza que La literatura nazi en América va a ser uno de los mejores libros de mi año!  Una "novela" rara en la tradición de las Vies imaginaires [Vidas imaginarias] (1896) de Marcel Schwob, la Historia universal de la infamia (1935) de Borges, y La sinagoga degli iconoclasti [La sinogaga de los iconoclastas] (1972) de J. Rodolfo Wilcock, esta jodidamente divertida obra se parece mucho a un diccionario biográfico dedicado a las vidas y obras de varios derechistas, locos, y derechistas locos de la América filo-nazi.  Sorprendemente, este tema sórdido y deprimente parece haber abierta la puerta a Bolaño para escribir el libro quizá lo más chistoso y lo más más cáustico de todos sus libros.  Si la idea de una novela escrita como una enciclopedia de monstruos y basura humana parece un poco rara, no te preocupes.  Bolaño llena sus páginas acá con un catálago de personajes inolvidables (por ejemplo, el haitiano Max Mirebalais, "alias Max Kasimir, Max von Hauptmann, Max le Gueule, Jacques Artibonito", el plagio en serie a veces conocido como "el Pessoa bizarro del Caribe" [140]) y con una variedad de obras (Diálago con Hermann Goering en el Infierno, del poeta venezolano Franz Zwickau), pensamientos ("El único sistema político en el que creo a ojos cerrados, dice [la mexicana Irma Carrasco: Puebla, México, 1910-México, D.F. 1966] en una entrevista a la revista Labores de Casa, es el teocrático, aunque el generalísimo Franco tampoco lo está haciendo tan mal") y editoriales (mi favorito: El Cuarto Reich Argentino) igualmente inolvidables.  Aunque todo el mundo que le gusta una parodia virulenta junto a su "criticismo literario" podría disfrutar del inventivo de la escritura, los hinchas de Bolaño van a encontrar placeres particulares acá.  Entre el elenco de personajes, por ejemplo, se destaca la presencia del general del ejército rumano, Eugenio Entrescu, "al que crucificaron sus propios soldados en 1944", y del chileno Carlos Ramírez Hoffman, el asesino multiple y pilota de poemas en el cielo de una obra bolañesca más sobria, de las novelas 2666 y Estrella distante.  Bolaño mismo aparece como un personaje en la última biografia de La literatura nazi en América, "Ramírez Hoffman, el Ínfame" (a casi 30 páginas, el capítulo más largo del libro pero en realidad una versión condensada de los eventos de la novela corta Estrella distante), en un momento en cual la intersección entre la literatura y la realidad en la novela llama la atención a las sombras de las dictaduras militares latinoamericanas del siglo pasado.  Si es imposible ignorar la sugerencia que los nazis de verdad caminan entre nosotros y entre los monstruos inocuos que solo identifican con los nazi, también es difícil explicar cómo un libro tan escalofriante en algunos respectos puede ser tan enormemente cómico a la vez.  Para mí, casi una obra perfecta.  Para ti, ¿quien sabe? ¡Espectacular!  (
Nazi Literature in the Americas [La literatura nazi en América] (New Directions, 2009)
by Roberto Bolaño (translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews)
Spain, 1996

Buenos Aires, 1901-Buenos Aires, 1994
As a young man Salvático advocated, among other things, the re-establishment of the Inquisition; corporal punishment in public; a permanent war against the Chileans, the Paraguayans, or the Bolivians as a kind of gymnastics for the nation; polygamy; the extermination of the Indians to prevent further contamination of the Argentinean race; curtailing the rights of any citizen with Jewish blood; a massive influx of migrants from the Scandinavian countries in order to effect a progressive lightening of the national skin color, darkened  by years of promiscuity with the indigenous population; life-long writer's grants; the abolition of tax on artists' incomes; the creation of the largest Air Force in South America; the colonization of Antarctica; and the building of new cities in Patagonia.
He was a soccer player and a Futurist.

known as The Page
Arequipa, 1940-Arequipa, 1986
Among the expressions employed [by his critics] were the following: prehistoric Nazi, moron, champion of the bourgeoisie, puppet of capitalism, CIA agent, poetaster intent on debasing public taste, plagiarist (he was accused of copying  Eguren, Salazar Bondy, and Saint-John Perse, in the last case by a very young poet from San Marcos, whose accusation sparked another polemic opposing academic followers and detractors of Saint-John Perse), gutter thug, cut-rate prophet, rapist of the Spanish language, satanically inspired versifier, product of a provincial education, upstart, delirious half-blood, etc., etc.
(Nazi Literature in the Americas [translated by Chris Andrews], 47 & 69-70)

Although I had a hard time finding a copy of it in Spanish, $50 later I can tell you with all certainty that the Spanish language version of Nazi Literature in the Americas is going to be one of my favorite books of the year!  A strange "novel" in the tradition of Marcel Schwob's 1896 Vies imaginaires [Imaginary Lives], Borges' 1935 Historia universal de la infamia [A Universal History of Iniquity], and J. Rodolfo Wilcock's 1972 La sinagoga degli iconoclasti [The Temple of Iconoclasts], this fucking amazingly entertaining work resembles nothing so much as a biographical encyclopedia devoted to the lives and works of various right-wingers, nutjobs, and right-wing nutjobs from the Nazi-loving fringes of the Americas.  Surprisingly, this sordid and depressing theme seems to have opened up the creative floodgates for Bolaño to write what might have been his funniest, most caustic book ever.  If the idea of a novel written as an encyclopedia of freaks and human flotsam and jetsam seems a little dubious to you, not to worry.  Bolaño has peopled his pages with a full supply of unforgettable characters here (for example, the Haitian Max Mirebalais, "alias Max Kasimir, Max von Hauptman, Max le Gueule, Jacques Artibonito," the serial plagiarizer sometimes known as "the Caribbean's bizarre answer to Pessoa" [127 & 130]), not to mention the variety of equally memorable titles of works (the Venezuelan poet Franz Zwickau's "A Dialogue with Hermann Goering in Hell"), stray thoughts ("'The only political system in which I have complete confidence,' [the Mexican Irma Carrasco: Puebla, Mexico, 1910-Mexico City, Mexico, 1966] told an interviewer for the women's magazine Housework, 'is theocracy, although Generalísimo Franco is doing a pretty good job too'") and publishing houses (my favorite: The Fourth Reich in Argentina) included.  Although the creativity of the writing should appeal to anyone who can appreciate a nice, vicious parody to enjoy alongside their "literary criticism," hardcore Bolaño fans will find a couple of particularly nice surprises in store.  Among the colorful cast of characters, for example, Romanian army general Eugenio Entrescu, "crucified by his own soldiers in 1944," and the Chilean Carlos Ramírez Hoffman, the serial killer and skywriting pilot villain of a much grimmer Bolaño work, will stand out to those familiar with their appearances in the novels 2666 and Distant Star.  Bolaño himself appears as a character in Nazi Literature in the Americas' final biographical entry, "The Infamous Ramírez Hoffman" (at nearly 30 pages, the longest chapter here by far but actually a condensed version of the events narrated in Distant Star), highlighting a tense moment in which the intersection between literature and reality in the novel suddenly shifts to recall the shadows of the Latin American military dictatorships of the last century.  If it's difficult to ignore the implication that the real Nazis live and breathe among us amidst the mostly harmless freaks who only identify with them, it's also sort of tough to explain how a work so chilling in some regards can be so enormously funny at one and the same time.  For me, almost a perfect work.  For you, who knows?  Killer.  (

sábado, 10 de abril de 2010

On E.R.'s Blog, 2

Will assume that most of you reading Life A User's Manual for the upcoming 4/30 group read are already aware of the postcript where Perec admits to borrowing or adapting "quotations" from a number of different writers.  While I'm not far enough into the novel yet to see how meta Perec gets with these fictions, I do look forward at some point to comparing stuff like "The Tale of the Acrobat who did not want to get off his trapeze ever again" (for me, one of the many highlights so far) with Kafka's "First Sorrow" & etc. to see if something other than just a playful rewrite is involved.  For now, though, I'm going to take the lazy man's way out and draw your attention once again to that post that e.r., one of my favorite bloggers anywhere, put up on his blog at the end of last month.  E.R. points out that Gaspard Winckler, the character charged with turning Bartlebooth's watercolors into jigsaw puzzles in Life A User's Manual, learned his craft from a man named Gouttman.  Incredibly, another Goutman with a very similar set of credentials but with only one "t" to his name also appears as a character in Flaubert's posthumously-published novel Bouvard and Pécuchet.  Doing the intertextual math, e.r. hypothesizes that the Goutman of Flaubert's novel could very well be the same Gouttman of Perec's novel reappearing 70 years after his encounters with Bouvard and Pécuchet just in time to train the young Gaspard Winckler in his craft.  An astonishing shelf life for such a minor character, no?

Perec: "Another time, with sudden warmth, [Winckler] told Valène about the man who had taught him his work.  He was called Monsieur Gouttman, and he made religious artefacts which he sold himself in churches and procurators' offices: crosses, medals, and rosaries of every size, candelabra for oratories, portable altars, artificial jewellry, bouquets, sacred hearts in blue cardboard, red-bearded Saint Josephs, china calvaries.  Gouttman took him on as an apprentice when he had just turned twelve."

Flaubert:  "One time she brought along a portly individual, who had small eyes like a Chinaman and a nose like a vulture's beak.  This was Mr. Goutman, a dealer in religious artifacts.  Out by the shed, he took a few items from their boxes: crosses, medallions, and rosaries in all sizes, candelabras for shrines, portable altars, tinsel bouquets, as well as Sacred Hearts made of blue cardboard, Saint Josephs with reddish beards, and porcelain crucifixes.  Pécuchet coveted them all; only the price held him back."

Not sure how important all this is in the grand scheme of things, but it's amusing to note that a character named Gaspard Winckler himself appears in multiple Perec novels.  The puzzles, they just keep on coming!

  • e.r., barcoborracho
  • Flaubert, Gustave.  Bouvard and Pécuchet [translated by Mark Polizzotti].  Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2005, p. 214.
  • Perec, Georges.  Life A User's Manual [translated by David Bellos].  Boston: Godine, 2009, p. 37.

jueves, 8 de abril de 2010

On E.R.'s Blog, 1

About a third of the way into Life A User's Manual, I'm way enjoying Perec's storytelling virtuosity and his ability to pull the literary equivalent of a rabbit out of the hat in practically every chapter.  Also excited about the apparently random way Perec chose to sequence his stories, which on closer inspection isn't random at all.  To make this more clear, here's a map I borrowed from e.r.'s barcoborracho which shows how Life A User's Manual moves throughout the apartment building at the heart of the novel to get from Chapter 1 to Chapter 99 in a series of structured maneuvers.  And here are some words from Perec himself describing how he settled on this decision:

"It would have been tedious to describe the building floor by floor and apartment by apartment; but that was no reason to leave the chapter sequence to chance.  So I decided to use a principle derived from an old problem well known to chess enthusiasts and known as the Knight's Tour; it requires moving a knight around the 64 squares of a chess-board without its ever landing more than once on the same square.  Thousands of solutions exist, of which some, like Euler's, also form magic squares.  For the special case of Life A User's Manual, a solution for a 10 x 10 chess-board had to be found; I managed this, rather miraculously, by trial and error.  The division of the book into six parts was derived from the same principle: each time the knight has finished touching all four sides of the square, a new section begins...  It should nevertheless be noted that the book has not 100 chapters but 99.  For this the little girl on pages 295 and 394 is solely responsible [pages 231 and 318 in the English translation]."  --Georges Perec, in Oulipo Compendium, p. 175

Suffice it to say that all these games, as clever as they are, wouldn't mean much if Perec's stories weren't as satisfying as they so often are.  However, learning about some of the constraints Perec imposed on himself in the writing of Life and the creative solutions he came up with to work around them has made reading the novel a much richer experience for me.  For more on Perec's delight in the novel as jeu, see e.r.'s rather smashing post on Life A User's Manual in Spanish here or stay tuned for my own comment on e.r.'s intertextual detective work in English later here.  Voilà!

miércoles, 7 de abril de 2010

Queneau, 1

Life A User's Manual is dedicated to the memory of Raymond Queneau (1903-1976), the ex-surrealist and lifelong mathematics devotee who co-founded the Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle) with François Le Lionnais in 1960.  Key works include the 1947 Exercises de style [Exercises in Style], "a series of texts by Raymond Queneau in which the same inconsequential story is told in 99 different ways,"* and--at the other end of the spectrum--the 1960 Cent mille milliards de poèmes [A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems a/k/a 100,000,0000,000 Poems], "a sequence of 10 14-line sonnets" that, when read in all its possible combinations of interchangeable lines, might take someone reading the book 24 hours a day a total of 190,258,751 years to complete according to Queneau's calculations.**  Not having a calculator handy, I've decided to accept Queneau's figures on good faith.  Source: Oulipo Compendium (edited by Harry Matthews and Alastair Brotchie).  London: Atlas Press, 2005, pp. 14** and 147*.

martes, 6 de abril de 2010

Perec, 1

"I detest what's called psychology, especially in fiction.  I prefer books in which characters are described by their actions, their gestures, and their surroundings.  [...]  It's something that belongs to the great tradition of realism in the English and German novel of the nineteenth century, which I've exaggerated a little, almost taking it to hyperrealism."  Georges Perec, 1981

Remembering the debate at the outset of last year's 2666 readalong sparked by whether Roberto Bolaño's wordiness in The Part About the Critics was too much of a good thing (for those who missed it, the group was quickly divided into camps of those who hated Bolaño's level of detail and those who were enamored with his prose), I was tickled to find the quote above in David Bellos' Georges Perec: A Life in Words (London: Harvill, 1993, p. 573) because I think it does a lot to explain why Perec and maybe Bolaño made some of the storytelling choices that they did.  Having said that, I also have to wonder how the haters would have reacted to Life A User's Manual and the deliberately frisky provocation posed by its room-by-room description of the current and former inhabitants of a Parisian apartment block with all their significant belongings (and even a home repair catalogue at one point) included.  Too funny!

jueves, 1 de abril de 2010

April Shared Read: Life A User's Manual

Just a quick post to mention that my "non-structured reading group" cohorts Claire, Emily, Frances, Sarah, and I will be reading Georges Perec's celebrated 1978 novel Life A User's Manual [originally published in French as La Vie mode d'emploi] in April as part of our monthly shared read program for 2010.  Any and all are welcome to join in, with the discussion slated to take place on participating blogs on Friday, 4/30.  Will refer those interested in a quick introduction to the work to the U.S. publisher's website here and direct those interested in a more studious appraisal of the novel, a Three Percent review which also includes a brief overview of Perec's career, here.  Won't say too much more at this point other than that the little I've read of Life A User's Manual so far combines a dizzying storytelling virtuosity with a prankish sense of humor.  Am beginning to understand why Caravana fave Roberto Bolaño often hailed it as one of his favorite novels, but those interested in a more middlebrow seal of approval should note that Life A User's Manual is also included on that sketchy 1,001 Books to Read Before You Die list so beloved by lemmings everywhere.  Anyway, hope you can join us!

Orbis Terrarum 2010 Challenge

Since there are few things in the blogosphere duller than a reading challenge sign-up post (possible exceptions: the Teaser Tuesdays meme and over-caffeinated bloggers who prattle on about "discussions" they've just had on Twitter), please bear with me as I share how excited I am to join the Orbis Terrarum 2010 Challenge hosted by Bethany of Dreadlock Girl!  Although I've decided to eschew almost all reading challenges this year in favor of a number of shared reads with good friends and the old-fashioned idea of reading what I want when I want instead, I love Bethany's concept of reading a book a month from a different country based on the author's nation of origin.  That really speaks to me for some reason. On a personal note, I'm also very fond of this challenge because I've met many of my favorite bloggers (e.g. Claire, Emily, Gavin,  Sarah, and the super friendly Bethany herself) as a direct result of our participation in it during previous OT campaigns.  In any event, click here for more details on this year's challenge or click here for a round-up of what I read for last year's event.  I'll also be hosting a film mini-challenge of some sort for this year's event, and will keep you posted once Bethany and I iron out the details.  Cheers!

1) Roberto Bolaño's La literatura nazi en América [Nazi Literature in the Americas] (Chile)
2) Georges Perec's Life A User's Manual [La Vie mode d'emploi] (France)
3) Naguib Mahfouz's Miramar (Egypt)
4) Roberto Arlt's Los siete locos [The Seven Madmen] (Argentina)
5) Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories (USA)
6) Rodrigo Rey Rosa's El cojo bueno [The Good Cripple] (Guatemala)
7) Maj Sjöwall's and Per Wahlöö's The Laughing Policeman (Sweden)
8) Thomas Bernhard's Wittgenstein's Nephew (Austria)

Roberto Arlt's Los siete locos [The Seven Madmen], a distinct possibility for my Argentina pick.