Convalescent Conversations – Madeleine Vara (Laura Riding)


Laura (Riding) Jackson is not a poet who I have spent much time with, and after reading this book when researching her, I was amazed that the majority of references refer to her via her relationship and collaborations with Robert Graves, not as a poet herself. As the introduction to this short novel tells us, “‘Convalescent Conversations’ was published in 1936, under her pseudonym, Madeline Vara, by Seizin Press, which she ran with Robert Graves, who was at the time both lover and collaborator; this was the same year in which Riding and Graves would flee Mallorca and Franco’s fascism.”

The introduction goes on to advise,

After marrying writer Schulyer B. Jackson in 1941, Riding officially changed her name to Laura (Riding) Jackson. We have decided to refer to the author as Riding not (Riding) Jackson in this edition for two reasons: first, to maintain fidelity to the text as it was originally published; secondly, to emphasise the radical break between the Riding of the 1930’s and the (Riding) Jackson who renounced most of her earlier work.

This is a novel presented as a series of philosophical discussions between two patients of a hospital, Eleanor and Adam, we do not know whey they are interred, which “opens their illnesses to interpretation as metaphor” (p vii). The conversations are interspersed with an Omniscient narrator, generally setting the scene and place or at times commenting on the periphery of characters moving in and out of Eleanor and Adam’s sphere, interrupting their conversations. Likely to have been viewed as experimental in the 1930’s, this novel at times is quite dated, a product of its times?

ADAM: Yes, it’s easy enough for Russians to be Communists, because they have absolutely no sense of property, their own or anybody else’s. It’s just a lack of any kind of ambition, and sitting about criticizing people who have ambitions as greedy and ruthless – and there are some quite decent ambitions. I once let my rooms to some Russians for six months when I had to be out of England. And when I took them over again – well, there are some things you can’t blame on the cat – and they didn’t even have a cat. (pgs 102-103)

However, the philosophical discussions between Eleanor and Adam, present a raft of existentialist musings on subjects such as religion, language and sex.

‘You don’t really think we’re being anything but silly do you?’ asked Eleanor.
‘I think we’ve been as serious as tow philosophers. Didn’t Miss Kenwood say patients were fond of philosophy?’
‘You don’t really think that philosophers are serios, so you?’ asked Eleanor.
‘I’d like to know what else they are if they’re not serious. Why, it’s the only excuse they have. Take that away, and –’
‘Take that away, and they’re just talking. Like you and me. What better excuse can you ask?’
‘But there has to be an excuse for talking,’ Adam said. ‘For instance, us. The demands of common politeness.’
Eleanor seemed to regard this as an excuse for silence: was he, after all, just tiresome? It was difficult to tell with men. They weren’t naturally good talkers.
‘I don’t want to break in on any private reveries,’ said Davis, coming up later, ‘but it’s time to go back to bed. It’ll taste all the sweeter when you pick up the lost threads to-morrow.’
‘Aren’t you slightly mixing the metaphors?’ asked Adam.
‘I was never much good at keeping them separate,’ said Davis. (pgs 26-27)

The rise of Fascism and modernism is a sub-plot at play here, with numerous comments on literature, politics and current affairs being subtly drip fed throughout;

‘…It’s crime stories that have all the happy endings these days, and love stories all the tearful ones. I don’t know what’s come over the world all of a sudden.’ (p12)

Sex is also a frequent subject of conversation, between two recently introduced patients, with a backdrop of polite manners where the nurses ensure the two talking patients are placed a certain distance apart on the balcony, where polite introductions are required to promote potential romance. The liberal, and early feminist, views of Laura Riding, would surely have caused quite a stir in the 1930’s;

ADAM: But have women a secret – a real secret?
ELEANOR: Indeed they have! And they know how to keep it. They keep it so well that men think they can master it just by sleeping with them. It’s like with some mysterious island, say the Island of the Hesperides, where the golden apples grow. The apples aren’t real golden apples, merely symbols that it’s a pretty wonderful island. But Hercules kills the dragon and steals the apples and brings them home, thinking he’s conquered the secret of the island. Every man is a sort of Hercules and sex is just a tour to foreign places. He kills the dragon, brings home the fruit, and thinks he knows it all. (p37)

Outside of Adam and Eleanor’s conversations there are a handful of other characters, only one another patient the majority being nurses, and our narrators refer to them a number of times as being “simple-minded”.

Now, Mrs. Lyley was a simple-minded but not small-minded person. Many people are simple-minded because their interests do not extend beyond themselves; and we call this innocence, if they are not very active people, and egotism if they are. And both kinds we should say that they were small-minded. Not so with Mrs. Lyley. Her interests did extend beyond herself; but she did not have much confidence in her ability to help other people in their problems, her ideas were not very well organized and not many – the world would never call on her for advice, and if it did her answer would be that she had no head for dealing with other people’s affairs, having little enough for her own, which she always settled by making herself happy in the little world that fate had assigned to her. She saw life, that is, as a conglomeration of little worlds. And her interest in all the other little worlds besides her own was confined to a desire that the people living in them should be as happy as she was in hers. Her simple-mindedness, which was neither innocent nor egotistical, consisted in this desire that everyone should be happy. (p104)

A short work, running to 132 pages, this is an addition to the Ugly Duckling Presse ‘Lost Literature’ series and their work has brought a missing piece of the prolific Laura Riding’s writing back into print. Given Laura Riding renounced a lot of her earlier work, Wikipedia lists 38 collections in her “selected bibliography” with this book not being on that list, I am grateful to come across something of hers that is a little more obscure as it is a book that presents a number of themes and discussions that are ripe for further examination in other writings. An engaging, interesting and thought provoking book.

It was very interesting to mix with other people, just as conversation was interesting, but it wasn’t life. Life was something little, not big. (p105)

Eleanor and Adam’s conversations, are they big?


In Every Wave – Charles Quimper (tr. Guil Lefebvre)


Every day is the day you died. (p43)

As the blurb advises us “a man loses his daughter while swimming one summer’ and this very short novella is a lament, a letter or confessional to a very young daughter lost under tragic circumstances. An event that becomes “just a line or two in the local paper. A tragic accident, a momentary distraction with fatal consequences.” But for our writer that day is relived over and over again, and it is the day where his search for his daughter, in every drop of water, “behind every rock, in every bush, in every wave” begins.

Our protagonist takes his grief into isolation, and the opening two pages bring forth a raft of images;

My voice has changed and it keeps catching me off guard. It isn’t mine anymore. It isn’t even a voice anymore. More like the rasping, creaking sound of a raven or locust. (p10)

Besides the usual associations of bad luck, ravens also connect the material world with the world of spirits, In Greek mythology they are associated with Apollo and were his messengers into the moral world. In Christian lore they protect the bodies of Saints. And locusts are associated with plague proportions, destroying every living thing. Such vivid imagery in a few short sentences.

Our writer of this lament takes his grief to sea, a search for the missing body of his drowned daughter’s body. Gestation is associated with the sea, “as time passes, somewhere deep beneath the surface, the ocean’s belly swells with a rumbling, palpable electric charge.” (p10)

Childhood games are associated with the macabre, “I draw a hopscotch court on the deck with the chalk of my bones. It runs from heaven to hell.” (p62)

Filled with recollections, looping revisits to the fateful day of his daughter’s disappearance, where the memories change, this is a deeply affecting tale of ceaseless grief. A grief that our writer takes into isolation and scribbles, later with a compass tip and squid ink, covering his skin. His grief, his memories, his guilt, all physically become himself.

Looping from the present, to memories of his daughter, and the period between her death and his launching a vessel to sea, this work wholly embodies his grief. Our protagonist explains to his daughter his life since the fateful day where a moment of distraction leads to tragedy. His personal and marriage breakdown, his withdrawal from society, his visions. Akin to an epic poem, every sentence contains a link to her memory.

Did you know that in some very dry countries they string nets among the clouds in the mountaintops? The fog gets trapped in the nets, then trickles down to the villages below.
You’re like one of those nets stretched out inside me. (p61)

In every incarnation of water, he sees his dead daughter, in tears, in drinking water, in rivers, in puddles, in rain, in the sea.

The sheer size of the sea, where our writer searches for his daughter’s body, becomes the sheer size of his grief.

Elias Canetti, in his non-fiction work ‘Crowds and Power’ (translated by Carol Stewart) gives this explanation of the sea as a symbol;

The sea is multiple, it moves, and it is dense and cohesive. Its multiplicity lies in its waves; they constitute it. They are innumerable; the sea-farer is completely surrounded by them. The sameness of their movement does not preclude difference of size. They are never entirely still. The wind coming from outside them determines their motion; they beat in this or that direction in accordance with its command. The dense coherence of the waves is something which men in a crowd know well. It entails a yielding to others as though they were oneself, as though there were no strict division between oneself and them. There is no escape from this compliance and thus the consequent impetus and feeling of strength is something engendered by all the units together. The specific nature of this coherence among men is unknown. The sea, while not explaining, expresses it. (p80)

In this novella the sea represents the writer’s grief.  “It is dense and cohesive”, “never entirely still”, “there is no escape from this compliance”.

An extremely powerful soliloquy that addresses every parent’s fear, losing a child, in a poetic and powerful manner, this is a work that is deeper and more complex than its apparent parts. A very short book that demands re-reading. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see this debut work appear on the Best Translated Book Awards longlist and will be eagerly awaiting Charles Quimper’s later writings.

A review copy of this novella was provided by the publisher QC Fiction, a publisher of contemporary Quebec fiction translated into English.

Hopscotch – Julio Cortázar (tr. Gregory Rabassa)


…man only feels secure when he is on grounds that do not touch his deepest part: when he plays, when he conquers, when he puts on his various suits of armor that are products of an ethos, when he hands over the central mystery to some revelation. (p166)

Continuing the theme of novels with an unusual structure, or in some cases written with constraints. Julio Cortázar’s ‘Hopscotch’, another work with a playful theme.

For the uninitiated Julio Cortázar’s novel consists of one hundred and fifty-five chapters and comes with a “Table of Instructions”;

In its own way, this book consists of many books, but two books above all.
The first can be read in a normal fashion and it ends with Chapter 56, at the close of which there are three garish little stars which stand for the words The End. Consequently, the reader may ignore what follows with a clean conscience.
The second should be read by beginning with Chapter 73 and the following the sequence indicated at the end of each chapter.

A few months ago I mapped the second reading chart on a simple grid;


As you can see pure chaos, none of the sequential harmony seen in Georges Perec’s ‘Life A User’s Manual’.

Narratively ‘Hopscotch’ “recounts the adventures of an Argentine intellectual living in Paris with his lover and bohemian friends, and follows him back to Buenos Aires, where he works in a circus and a mental asylum.” However, it is not this narrative where the riches of this work are at play.

Hopscotch itself is a game, tossing a small object or a stone, and jumping through space(s), numbered, to reach the goal, in Cortázar’s version the ultimate square is heaven.

Hopscotch is played with a pebble that you move with the tip of your toe. The things you need: a sidewalk, a pebble, a toe, and a pretty chalk drawing, preferably in colors. On top is Heaven, on the bottom is Earth, it’s very hard to get the pebble up to Heaven, you almost always miscalculate and the stone goes off the drawing. But little by little you start to get the knack of how to jump over the different squares (spiral hopscotch, rectangular hopscotch, fantasy hopscotch, not played very often) and then one day you learn how to leave Earth and make the pebble climb up to Heaven…the worst part of it is that precisely at that moment, when practically no one has learned how to make the pebble climb up into Heaven, childhood is over all of a sudden and you’re into novels, into the anguish of the senseless divine trajectory, into the speculation about another Heaven that you have to learn to reach too. And since you have come out of childhood… you forget that in order to get to Heaven you have to have a pebble and a toe. (pgs 221-222)

And not unlike Georges Perec’s ‘Life A User’s Manual’ this work contains a number of other play or games references;

…the bishop moves, rooks move, the knight jumps, pawns fall away, and in the center of the board, big as anthracite lions the kings remain flanked by the cleanest and last and purest of their armies, at dawn the deciding lances will be crossed, fate will be served, peace will reign. (p80)

Given the bohemian lifestyle in Paris, the book is filled with philosophical discussions and digressions, from straightforward intellectual arguments through to jazz style blabbering, accompanied by references to the records being played at the time. There are quotable quotes galore, a Twitter feed’s paradise, however these insights are also peppered with acerbic literary commentary;

…the only way to get a hold on Argentina was to come up on it from the shameful side, find the blush hidden under a century of usurpations of all kinds, as writers had pointed out so well, and therefore the best way was to show it in some way in which it didn’t have to take itself so seriously. (pgs 241-242)

In the expendable chapters the character “Morelli”, and his writings, frequently pops up, he’s a character hinting at the construction and writing of ‘Hopscotch’ (or a similarly structured novel) itself, Cortázar’s alter-ego (ignore the male/female reader in the following quote, it is explained in the work, although it is sexist).

It would seem that the usual novel misses in its mark because it limits the reader to its own ambit; the better defined it is, the better the novelist is thought to be. An unavoidable detention in the varying degrees of the dramatic, the psychological, the tragic, the satirical, or the political. To attempt on the other hand a text that would not clutch the reader but would oblige him to become an accomplice as it whispers to him underneath the conventional exposition other more esoteric directions. Demonic writing for the female-reader (who otherwise will not get beyond the first few pages, rudely lost and scandalized, cursing at what he paid for the book), with a vague reverse side of hieratic writing.
“To provoke, assume a text that is out of line, untied, incongruous, minutely antinovelistic (although not antinovelish). Without prohibiting the genre’s great effects if the situation should require it, but keeping in mind the Gidean advice,
ne jamais profiter de l’élan acquis. Like all creatures of choice in the Western world, the novel is content in a closed order. Resolutely opposed to this, we should search for an opening and therefore cut the roots of all systematic construction of characters and situations. Method: irony, ceaseless self-criticism, incongruity, imagination in the service of no one. (p404)

One final interesting section of the book, and there are so many, a chapter that completely shook my reading style and forced me to slow down and absorb, Chapter 34. It is written in alternate lines, the opening line coming from a book that our protagonist’s lover is reading, the second line is his thoughts about the book he is reading, the third the book again and so forth;

In September of 1880, a few months after the demise of my
And the things she reads, a clumsy novel, in a cheap edition
father, I decided to give up my business activities, transferring
besides, but you wonder how she can get interested in things
them to another house in Jerez whose standing was as solvent
like this. To think that she’s spent hours on end reading tasteless (p198)

A systematic breakdown of the structures we are used to.

No need to add more accolades to the innumerable that exist out there, if you haven’t read this book yet, take the time to do so. Just like my chart of the chapter sequence, there is no order to the chaos, immerse yourself, enjoy.

The page numbers in the quotes above are taken from the Everyman’s Library edition, which also includes Julio Cortázar’s short story collections ‘Blow-Up’ (translated by Paul Blackburn) and ‘We Love Glenda So Much’ (translated by Gregory Rabassa)

All That Is Evident Is Suspect: Readings from the Oulipo 1963-2018 – Edited by Ian Monk & Daniel Levin Becker


The Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (‘Oulipo’) was created in Paris in November 1960 by François Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau. The Oulipo would seek out, according to Raymond Queneau, “new forms and structures that may be used by writers in any way they see fit.” The application of mathematics and the sciences to literature, more specifically formal constraints, is used to liberate the writer’s creativity.

There are (or have been) forty -one members of the Oulipo, some are deceased, and the newly published collection ‘All That Is Evident Is Suspect: Readings from the Oulipo 1963-2018’, contains works by every member to date. The book contains fifty-four pieces, one co-authored.

The book opens with a short work by founder Raymond Queneau himself, undated and titled “Slept Cried” (translated by Ian Monk), it is a single page “elliptical evocation of the whole of existence”, a pertinent way to open the collection;

Started this diary today: desirous as I am to note down my first impressions. Unpleasant.
Hot milk, as they call it is disgusting: not nearly as good as amniotic fluid.
Having been washed and rubbed down, here I am still blind, back in my crib. Very interesting.
Slept twenty hours. Cried four. I quite clearly am not taking to hot milk.
I also pooed: in my linen.

To close the piece, after an “interruption of seventy-four years”, the diary is revisited. Is the Oulipo “extremely tired”?

As per any collection from a variety of writers this book is uneven at times, some pieces feeling clunky in their construction, this could be as a result of the translation as a constraint in French would be difficult to translate into English using the same constraint (for example, the piece “Invisible Cities: Lille” by Olivier Salon (translated by Ian Monk), “is a lipogram variant called a bivocalism: like the city’s name (Lille), it contains no vowels besides E and I.”)

Having said that the vast majority of the collection is very readable, stimulating and intriguing.

The piece by Italo Calvino “How I Wrote One of My Books” (translated by Iain White) “outlines the algorithm governing the interchapter narrative in his 1979 novel ‘If on a winter’s night a traveller’. Calvino stipulated that the explanation was never to be published in Italian.” Having read Calvino’s book twice before I now feel the need to revisit it for a third time given the complex algorithm in play.

I have previously referred to two pieces, from this book, regarding the structure of Georges Perec’s ‘Life A User’s Manual’ however the collection is not simply explanations as to the constraints used by the writers in other works, in fact these are minimal, generally consigned to the short explanatory paragraph accompanying each piece.

Some personal highlights, Latis’ “The Atheist Organist” (translated by Daniel Levin Becker) a small sample of his novel that contains “seven prefaces, a preface to those prefaces, a post-face, a postlude and no actual novel.” Jacques Bens “How to Tell a Story” (translated by Daniel Levin Becker), a short story taken from ‘Nouvelles désenchantées’ a collection that was awarded the 1990 Prix Goncourt de la Novelle (the award for short stories).

On Tuesday, April 25, 1989 – which was the Feast of Saint Mark, one of the four evangelists and, accordingly, one of the patron saints of writers – at around ten past two, a student in the sixth grade at the Collège Saint-Jean raised her hand and asked:
“How does one go about telling a story?”
Matthew had not been expecting this.
“Which story?” he said.
“I don’t know, just a story!”
“Well, that’s just it, you need to know, because not all stories are told in the same way. Look, let’s take the first idea that comes into your mind. It might be about a situation, or about a character. The story would develop differently depending on which. And usually you have both at the same time, because it’s rare to have one without the other. Then you have to give your hero a name, which is always sort of complicated. What’s your name?”

“Poems of the Paris Metro” by Jacques Jouet (translated by Ian Monk), fifteen and a half hours in the creation it was written covering every station in the Paris Metro, where the first line is composed mentally between the first two stations, it is then written down when the train stops at the second station, and so on. Stanza breaks are made when you change train lines, the work was based on graph theorist Pierre Rosenstiehl’s “Frieze of the Paris Métro”, a piece where he planned out the journey, so Jacques Jouet could write his exhaustive poem. Here’s the first few lines;

If governing, governing the coming hours, is more a matter of surprising myself than                                                      planning ahead,
the first few minutes have already rather put me out.
I have more than enough time to explain why.
Outside, I had hoped for slight rain so as to enter into the concept of shelter,
keeping a slight wetness, on the backs of my hands, for my thirst,
but this night at 5:30 a.m. was dry and mild and black like a black dress lit up from inside
by a body standing up in its fullness.

Jacques Jouet’s other contribution, “The Republic of Beau-Locks” (also translated by Ian Monk), is the first book in an ongoing serial novel, one I now need to hunt down.

Seven novel outlines by Paul Fournel, retells the same story from seven different perspectives, the piece translated by Daniel Levin Becker, it is playful and although a repetition the narrative shifts dramatically, voices include a parrot and a bunch of flowers.

Anne F. Garréta’s “N-evol” (translated by Daniel Levin Becker) opens with a set of six “givens”, starting with “1. the obsolescence of the novel, its inadequacy to everything a subject today might live, observe, experience, and think; 2. The boredom provoked in me by reading a “contemporary” novel;” the piece then observes various activities in nightclubs, toilets, using the voice of the DJ (sound familiar to readers of Garréta’s “Sphinx”?).

There is a very moving graphic piece by Étienne Lécroat (translated by Matt Madden), “Counting on You”, an homage to Lécroat’s sister who died just before her fiftieth birthday, it commences with a panel containing fifty words and a drawing with fifty strokes, then moves to a panel with forty-nine words and a drawing with forty-nine strokes and so forth until an empty final panel. A beautiful homage indeed.

Other notable, enjoyable pieces are Jacques Roubaud’s “Arrangements” part of his ‘Great Fire of London” project, this piece using 111,111 characters, Bernard Cerquiglini’s collection of emails presented as “A Very Busy Year”, Daniel Levin Becker’s “Writer’s Block” a consideration of a concrete sculpture using 999 words to ask 99 questions, the contemplation of a wordless poem by Marcel Bénabou, and Eduardo Berti & Pablo Martín Sánchez’s absurd “Microfictions”.

Overall the work is a wonderful introduction to forty-two different writers all using constraints within their work, and a great starting point for readers who are interested in the works of the Oulipo. An extensive coverage of the styles and types of works and one whereby you can have a taste of a writer before delving further into their work. If you want to add something a little different, something experimental and thought provoking to your library, look no further.

If you are interested in the list of the 41 members of the Oulipo please refer to my previous post about Georges Perec here.


Life A User’s Manual – Georges Perec (tr. David Bellos) – the tables and lists


To continue my posts about literature that has unusual, or strict, structures. I’ve been fascinated by the works of the Oulipo for some time, and I eagerly awaited the publication, in late 2018, of ‘All That Is Evident Is Suspect; Readings from the Oulipo 1963-2018’, edited by Ian Monk and Daniel Levin Becker. Naturally the book contains a few references to Georges Perec and his novel ‘Life A User’s Manual’. The “game” continues as I further explore the constraints, rules etc. that Perec employed when writing this book.

‘All That Is Evident Is Suspect; Readings from the Oulipo 1963-2018’ contains writing from the (current) forty-one members of the Oulipo. The piece ‘Un bilboquet d’ébène á boule d’ivoire’ (translated as “Ebony Cup and Ivory Ball”) by Marcel Bénabou, “subtly encloses a phonetic equivalent of its author’s last name”,(note, I’ve made the reference bold and underlined in the title). This is apparently a “trick borrowed from Perec’s ‘Life A User’s Manual’, whose text contains echoes of the names of all the Oulipians at the time” of publication.

So a digging around is required, another game to play with Perec’s novel (translated by David Bellos), let’s start with the members of the Oulipo in 1978 the year the book was published in France:

Noël Arnaud (Founding Member)
Marcel Bénabou 1970
Jacques Bens (Founding Member)
Claude Berge (Founding Member)
André Blavier (Foreign Correspondent)
Paul Braffort 1961
Italo Calvino 1974
Ross Chambers 1961
Stanley Chapman 1961
Marcel Duchamp 1962
Jacques Duchateau (Founding Member)
Luc Etienne 1970
Paul Fournel 1972
Latis (Founding Member)
François Le Lionnais (Co-Founder)
Jean Lescure (Founding Member)
Harry Mathews 1973
Michèle Métail 1975
Georges Perec 1967
Raymond Queneau (Co-Founder)
Jean Queval (Founding Member)
Jacques Roubaud 1966
Albert-Marie Schmidt (Founding Member)

Twenty-three names that could be echoed within “Life A User’s Manual”, however Perec may have not used his own name for the “game” so I could potentially only be looking for twenty-two.

For interest (and completeness) sake let’s add the remaining members of the Oulipo (joined after 1978)

Michèle Audin 2009
Valérie Beaudouin 2003
Eduardo Berti 2014
François Caradec – 1983
Bernard Cerquiglini 1995
Frédéric Forte 2005
Anne F. Garréta 2000
Michelle Grangaud 1995
Jacues Jouet 1983
Hervé Le Tellier 1992
Étienne Lécroat 2012
Daniel Levin Becker 2009
Pablo Martín Sánchez 2014
Clémentine Mélois 2017
Ian Monk 1998
Oskar Pastior 1992
Pierre Rosenstiehl 1992
Olivier Salon 2000

Even the Wikipedia entry for Perec’s novel contains an explanation of the lists he used in composing the work, however I again refer to ‘All That Is Evident Is Suspect; Readings from the Oulipo 1963-2018’, and specifically the entry by George Berge written in 1967 “Letter to Jacques Rouband & Georges Perec”.

Dear Friends,

If our project concerning the use of orthogonal Latin squares is still on the table, as I hope it is, I think one of you will need to take the initiative to convene the sub-sub-co-committee. In the meantime, however, I am sending an extremely rare specimen, found recently by Parker for n = 10: (p32)


Using my previous post about the 10×10 grid employed for Perec’s novel  , we can see a strong resemblance between George Berge’s letter and the structure of Perec’s novel.

However instead of a simple “ten texts…in which there appear ten characters” with “two attributes, denoted by a capital letter and a lowercase letter”, Perec created a complex system of forty-two lists of ten things. Forty of the lists are broken into ten groups of four, with lists 41 and 42 being “couples”, to add complexity to the puzzle, list 39 is “Manque” (lack) and list 40 is “Faux” (false), these lists were simply numbers 1-10, however if Perec consulted the “Faux” bi-square and found, for example, a “6” in a given cell, he would ensure that the chapter corresponding to that cell would do something “false” when including the particular fabric, colour, accessory or jewel the bi-squares for the lists in group 6 had assigned to the cell/chapter in question.


Here is the “List of Lists”



Thanks to “Ex Libris: Architecture + World Literature” blog ( for the lists, there was a lot of internet trawling to find them. I have used the official Oulipo site for the list of current members (and members joining dates) at

Hoping the “clues” I have posted here lead to further revelations when reading Perec’s novel, you might be able to spot which list is being used in which chapter!!! One day I may get to the riches and anomalies contained in “The Fifty-first Chapter” the only one oddly named (the rest are simply “Chapter xxx”) and the lists that it contains, or maybe the list of 107 “Stories narrated in this manual”…maybe not, after all it’s just a game.

EDIT – I had missed one Oulipien from the list (that’s what happens when you transpose) – apologies to François Caradec (even though he’s deceased), I’ll make up for it by looking at his ‘Dictionary of Gestures’ (tr. Chris Clarke) sometime in the future.

Shitstorm – Fernando Sdrigotti


I am interrupting normal transmission to bring you an important update, you know how easily I get side tracked by the daily shitstorm moment. What is the latest shitstorm? Pushcart Prize plagiarised poetry? (See the alliteration I used there, nice work Tony) A female journalist removed from the Australian Parliament because her sleeves were too short? Not at all, Fernando Sdrigotti has just released, through Open Pen in London, a new novelette, ‘Shitstorm’, and getting my hands on a signed, numbered first edition has been the highlight of my week. Don’t worry, I’ll forget the excitement soon enough, I’ve read it now.

My copy of the book came with an instruction document, a list of Do’s and Do Not’s for example; “Do feel the need to respond to the above on social media. Especially when you violently disagree with the opinions vented in the aforementioned Opinion Piece TM.” Or “Do Not pass up any opportunity to have an opinion on any given topic, regardless of your respective understanding.” The instruction document in the vein of Sdrigotti’s hilarious tweets like how to get published everywhere (you can read the full list here).

‘Shitstorm’ is a very short book, marketed as a novelette, which can be read in one sitting, although the wallowing is deeper than the actual word count. Essentially this is a dark fable, reflecting on the world of keyboard warriors, those going into fight for justice using their handheld devices and their furrowed brows. It starts with the story of Doctor Walter Turner, a dentist, who became known as Cecil the Lion’s killer after he hunted the famous beast in Zimbabwe with a bow and arrow, and the subsequent social media fury.

It gives us something to talk about, a reason to keep marvelling at the evil of other human beings. (p26)

The fallout of this event is the catalyst to present and discuss various shitstorms, involving cult celebrity, far-right views, transphobia, conspiracy theories, and of course the United States President.

While everyone debates whether processed meat is racist or not. (p46)

Sdrigotti has his tongue firmly in his cheek as he leads us through the outrage that we witness daily on our Twitter feeds.

In the days that follow the new North Korean missile launch many develop a sudden expertise regarding all things nuclear, ballistic, and strategic. The New Missile Crisis is followed live on television, bogs on newspapers, Twitter moments, hashtags, comments on Facebook. The whole world is watching, waiting for the smallest thing to ne be announced. But instead of novelties we are fed repetition – the same opinion is remixed several times, turned into a cubist opinion: eaten, chewed, swallowed, excreted and eaten again. But we can’t stop watching, reading, consuming, despairing about the state of the world. (p46-47)

Although satirical, this book contains its fair share of home truths. Leading from actual events, that most of us would recall, to the imagined future of the dentist Dr Walter Turner and this is where the dark fable element comes to the fore. I was reminded of the Brothers Grimm tale “Mother Trudy” where a disobedient child goes to visit a witch;

And with that, she turned the girl into a block of wood and threw it on the fire. And when it was blazing, she sat down beside it, warmed herself up, and said: “Now that really does give off a nice bright light.” (p402 ‘The Bicentennial Edition The Annotated Brothers Grimm’ translated by Maria Tatar)

Unlike many fairy tales where good triumphs over evil, this tale resonates with me as the witch triumphs, a disobedient child is defeated!!

Sdrigotti’s novelette contains many satirical truths, speaking against the unwritten rules of outrage;

Travelling is about immersing yourself in a foreign culture, even if you can’t make sense of it, and even if you immerse yourself and all your previously conceived ideas remain unchallenged. It’s about the immersion, really. Watching the local telly. Eating the local food even if you hate it. Drinking the local drink. Shooting the local animals. (p70)

A highly entertaining book that does jolt you out of the day to day monotony, forcing you to reflect on the depth of your outrage. It contains a dark, but brutally honest, message so isn’t simply social commentary.

I suggest you buy a copy, not that Fernando Sdrigotti needs the extra income from his writing, those royalty cheques must be huge. And if you buy quickly it should arrive before Christmas. I purchased my copy here, it came with a sachet of baking yeast, “its use will become clear after your reading Shitstorm TM” (as advised in the covering letter).

You can follow Fernando Sdrigotti on Twitter using the handle @f_sd

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;


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


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.


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!