Life A User’s Manual – Georges Perec (translated by David Bellos)

 

UserManual…play is essentially a separate occupation, carefully isolated from the rest of life, and generally is engaged in with precise limits of time and place. There is a place for play: as needs dictate, the space for hopscotch, the board for checkers or chess, the stadium, the racetrack, the list, the ring, the stage, the arena, etc. Nothing that takes place outside this ideal frontier is relevant. To leave the enclosure by mistake, accident, or necessity, to send the ball out of bounds, may disqualify or entail a penalty.
Roger Caillois “Man, Play and Games” (translated by Meyer Barash) p6

Georges Perec’s ‘Life A User’s Manual’ is a place for play, a 580-page game, ninety-nine chapters structured “with precise limits of time and place.”

Here is a work that can be examined on many many levels, today I have chosen to look at the structure of the book, the “play”.

Imagine a building, (possibly) nine storeys high, with a basement, an entrance hall, stairwell, lift and various apartments, no need to image too hard, at the conclusion to the novel there is an outline;

LifeUserMan

Let’s break these rooms down a little further, ten sections, over ten storeys in height, 10×10 – one hundred evenly sized squares:

IMG_8500

I would love to add a credit to the creator of this “map” however all sources (Pinterest etc) do not quote a source.

Let’s now remove the façade from the building and take a snapshot of the detail in each of the squares.

Enter the stairwell, up to half way (the square marked “1” on the image above), you are a knight, the chess piece, and from here you are to move in an ‘L’ shape, you will either move two squares sideways and then one square up or down, or two squares up or down, and then one square sideways. Let’s make this a little easier, as I made my way through the book, I highlighted the completed squares on a printed grid using a different colour each time I completed a part of the book.

IMG_8571

Perec’s novel is a giant chess game, in fact it is many games, chess, a jigsaw puzzle, solitaire, and then there are games within the games;

Let is 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.
In other words, Bartlebooth resolved one day that his whole life would be organised around a single project, an arbitrarily constrained programme with no purpose outside its own completion. (p117)

At the novel’s core, and he does sit near the centre of the building, is Bartlebooth and his mission to paint five-hundred watercolours at various locations on the planet, have the paintings made into jigsaw puzzles, which he will complete and then return those paintings to their place of origin and have them reduced back to blank paper. “A fragment of the world” that is futile, “A single project, an arbitrarily constrained programme with no purpose outside its own completion.”

Throughout this journey, there are hundred and hundreds of asides, games played in rooms, crossword puzzles, futile meditations, hints for the reader to solve the unsolvable, and a cast of thousands (well probably 100’s, there is a 59 page Index listing all of the references, it forms part of the game – as well as a checklist for “some of the stories narrated in this manual”).

As the reader travels into the depths of a painting, or along with an historical story, you are stopped in your tracks and returned to the concrete world of 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, the building where you will need to move as the knight into another space, and another puzzle.

Sometimes Valène had the feeling that time had been stopped, suspended, frozen around he didn’t know what expectation. The very idea of the picture he panned to do and whose laid-out, broken-up images had begun to haunt every second of his life, furnishing his dreams, squeezing his memories, the very idea of this shattered building, laying bare the cracks of its past, the crumbling of its present, this unordered amassing of stories grandiose and trivial, frivolous and pathetic, gave him the impression of a grotesque mausoleum raised in the memory of companions petrified in terminal postures as insignificant in their solemnity as they were in their ordinariness, as if he had wanted both to warn of and to delay these slow or quick deaths which seemed to be engulfing the entire building storey by storey; Monsieur Marcia, Madame Moreau, Madame de Beaumont, Bartlebooth, Rorschach, Mademoiselle Crespi, Madame Albin, Smautf. And himself, of course, Valène himself, the longest inhabitant of the house. (p127)

The book contains such oddities as family trees, newspaper articles, map titles, visiting cards, shop signs, chessboard diagrams, advertisements, to name only a few items, keeping the playfulness bubbling along.

Ahhh, but there are one hundred squares, and only ninety-nine chapters? Yes, there’s a blank square, a missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle, how could a user’s manual on life be complete?

Returning to Roger Caillois;

Thus games are not ruled and make-believe. Rather, they are ruled or make-believe. It is to the point that if a game with rules seems in certain circumstances like a serious activity and is beyond one unfamiliar with the rules, i.e. if it seems to him like real life, this game can at once provide the framework for a diverting make-believe for the confused and curious layman. Once easily can conceive of children, in order to imitate adults, blindly manipulating real or imaginary pieces on an imaginary chessboard, and by pleasant example, playing at “playing chess.”
“Man, Play and Games” (translated by Meyer Barash) p9

I urge you to step into 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, dressed as a knight of course, head up the stairs, and take your instructions from Georges Perec, you’ll enter a second reality!

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12 thoughts on “Life A User’s Manual – Georges Perec (translated by David Bellos)

  1. I’ve had this book on my TBR since 2010 Readings had a sale on Vintage titles, but I’d never looked at it properly. I got it out to check that it had the diagram, and yes it does, plus it also has an index, a chronology, an alphabetical checklist, a postscript and a translator’s note as well. These extras take up nearly 80 pages!
    What software did you use to make your diagram?

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  2. Thanks Tony for this introduction. I’m inspired to put this on my TR list for 2019.
    I’ve had this book on my shelf ever since it was first published in English translation. The original Harvill edition came in several different colours. Mine is blue – but there was also yellow, red, green and….?

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    • I have the Vintage Classics edition (in red as shown). I haven’t commented much on the content, I can see why a few people would not like it however it’s on my “books to take to a desert island” list as there would always be more to be found.

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  3. Pingback: Life A User’s Manual – Georges Perec (translated by David Bellos) | Messenger's Booker (and more)

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