The French writer Georges Perec was drawn to self-imposed challenges. He wrote one short novel without ever using the letter E, and another in which E is the only vowel used. With Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, he belonged to the literary cohort known as Oulipo, an acronym for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (“Workshop of Potential Literature”), whose members shared the belief that formal constraints could have a liberating effect. As Perec put it, “I set myself rules in order to be totally free.” Setting strict rules governing time and place in his novel Life, A User’s Manual (1978), he produced a work that is simultaneously capacious and intimate, forthcoming and wily. By Perec’sown count, the novel tells no fewer than 107 tales, among them “The Tale of Four Young Folk stuck in the lift,” “The Tale of Freischütz the Dachshund,” “The Tale of the Acrobat who did not want to get off his trapeze ever again.” Mixed into the pages are recipes, plot summaries for serial mysteries, genealogical trees, inventories, nursery rhymes, crossword puzzles, and a list of things found on the stairs.
When Life, A User’s Manual was published in the United States in 1987, it was widely recognized as a major work. In a review for The New York Times, Paul Auster described it as a “crazy-quilt monument to the imagination.” Richard Eder of the Los Angeles Times called it an “extraordinary work.” He also expressed some frustration: “When, after 581 pages, we are through, we are not through.” For 99 chapters, actions have been held in suspension and examined in detail, yet the book’s puzzles remain unsolved. An “Alphabetical Checklist,” an index and a chronology full of sly reminders, adds to sense that there is more to discover, inviting us to make our way back through the text and notice what we’ve missed. “The ironical thing,” Perec himself acknowledges, is that the book reaches its end before the central actions can be brought to completion. With its endless looping, the novel anticipates the kind of text that keeps on going for as long as we keep scrolling down the screen. In this case, though, the author is daring us not just to keep reading, but to read a little more closely.
In the years since Perec wrote his novel, reading habits have evolved in unforeseen ways. Andrew Dillon, a professor of information science at the University of Texas, Austin, describes how the process of “touching, pushing, linking, scrolling and jumping through text” is changing the way we read. As we learn to process language through agile skimming, it is tempting to quit in the middle of a long, complex book, especially one that doesn’t allow its characters to finish what they’ve started. Yet it is this very quality that makes Perec’s novel newly relevant, given the recent interest in all things unfinished.
Gracefully translated from the French by David Bellos, Life, A User’s Manual revolves around life inside an apartment building in Paris. Perec tells stories about all of the inhabitants, touching on their habits, their histories, their possessions, even their pets. The book’s many parts are bound together by the story of Percival Bartlebooth, who moves into an apartment at 11 rue Simon-Crubellier to be near the painter Serge Valène and take watercolor lessons from him. After 10 years, the quixotic Bartlebooth sets out on a journey, his faithful servant Smautf by his side, with the aim of painting seafront scenes from around the world. He paints 500 watercolors, which he sends to Gaspard Winckler, another resident of 11 rue Simon-Crubellier. Winckler is charged with the task of cutting up Bartlebooth’s watercolors and making jigsaw puzzles out of them. The puzzles are packed in special boxes made by Madame Hourcade, yet another resident of the building. The boxes are then delivered to Bartlebooth, who spends his remaining years back in his apartment, putting each puzzle together. Once the puzzle has been assembled, he sends it to another neighbor, a lab technician who has the job of reconstituting the puzzle as a painting. In the final step, the painting is returned to its place of origin and dipped in a detergent that washes away the colors. Art, craft, and industry are joined in a series of actions that leads to complete erasure.