George Perec LIFE: A USER'S MANUAL (1978)



Georges Perec’s singular ‘Life a User’s Manual’ revolves around three interlocking philosophical problems: what is the difference, if any, between literature proper and arbitrary games of chance? Are they both equally futile? Or, if not, how will literature gain the upper-hand? Perec's quest to test the latter is exhaustive, despite being only a relatively modest 500 pages, and these in turn broken up into 99 episodic chapters and concluding with an epilogue in a semblance of continuity. If the novel’s length isn’t on the epic scale of a Melville, Proust, or an Eliot, then its submerged architectonic structure is. In fact, in terms of formal organisation according to a set schema, this is up there with Dante’s multi-level hell, Joyces’s 'Ulysses', or perhaps more influentially, Cortázar’s ‘Hopscotch’, and surely sets the standard for any writer in its wake. Anyone familiar with Roberto Bolaño’s ‘The Savage Detectives’ will see a lot of similiarities. Given its repute, it is unlikely that anyone will come to Perec’s novel without some general knowledge of its organizing principles. Before I'd read it, I’d picked up that the novel’s entwined tales were all set within the same Parisian apartment block, in which the action moves from apartment to apartment according to what is known as ‘The Knight’s Tour’—as if the narrator (or was it the action?) could only move from one place to another in the familiar ‘L’ shape; as if the narrative was laid out on some kind of gridded board presumably related to the layout of the apartment building. Yet by the time you read the first few chapters you can see that such an underlying pattern means little to your conscious enjoyment. The apartment has floors and a cellar, for a start. How does one calculate movements through a three-dimensional cubic space according to the logic of a two-dimensional chessboard? A better geometrist might be able to see it without constructing a diagram, possibly. But I didn’t beat myself up. Having heard a short general introduction by the late Harry Mathews, I knew that the meaning of Oulipo relates to a workshop of POTENTIAL literature. Mathews contended that their use of formal constraints were of no value in themselves, but only served as means to produce LITERATURE. To clarify this, he used the example of the most well-known Oulipo work, Perec’s ‘Life A User’s Manual’ which is apparently riddled with multiple constraints, but they are so smoothly integrated that a reader doesn’t even notice them. The pleasure of the novel is said to lie elsewhere. If the joy of Perec is not in puzzle-spotting, where is it? Five sources of potential enjoyment: 1. The scrupulous way in which Perec narrates stories of individual heroism (The French Resistance fighter who is tortured to death by the Gestapo for information he cannot provide) or personal tragedy (the ballerina who aborts a baby to be ready for a major performance organized by her impresario husband only to discover afterwards that he has committed suicide, unable to live with the fact that his lover could kill his child). Perec somehow tells these stories without sentimentality or improbable toughness, perhaps because so few of them end as anticipated, circumstance diverts, old age is often resigned, and people do buckle under pressure. 2. The tales which ruminate on the meaning of art in terms of its practical construction and draw attention to the materiality of the product. Artworks are collected as rare physical objects. Paintings are analyzed at the level of the chemical composition of the oils and solvents and pigments as well as what they intend to represent. For Perec, art is usually created alone, but always-already communicates with an obscure receiver, who may in turn decipher the principles, codes, or rules of the work and create another in the process. Art's value relates to its uniqueness as an object, or should that be as cybernetic process? I think of a line in Deleuze and Guattari’s 'A Thousand Plateaus', where they dismiss the ‘extrinsic fiction of the fine arts’ in favour of a notion of productive problems. 3. Some of that absurdity is present in the epic scale of Perec’s work. If the novel is a testament to Perec's dogged pursuit of a complex interlocking structure of constraints no matter how difficult it gets or how long it will take, then many of the tales feature content which involve pursuing life ambitions to an end where such adherence to a guiding dream no longer makes much sense, when one is old, sick or alone. For Perec, art seems like a kind of Sisyphean task, and he revels in the absurdity of those who are willing to sacrifice their lives for some version of it, without the portentous mythic grandeur. 4. If the constraints are largely invisible, the lurking intuition that this novel is a product of a diabolical scheming is ever-present. There’s an archivist’s delight in the Dewey decimal system, concluding with its 65 page appendices of floor plans, indexes, chronologies and an alphabetised checklist of ‘tales’ which you really shouldn’t check until afterwards. A final page draws attention to the plagiaristic origins of many a line and paragraph through a final shout out to some of Perec’s favourite writers. What better homage than theft? Even better when Perec incorporates their words seamlessly. Many of the tales involve scheming grand thefts, disguises and plagiarists of one sort or another, paralleled by a monomaniacal pursuit of the offender. A reader’s pleasure in these tall tales is often that of someone enjoying being regaled by a raconteur: these are shaggy dog stories of the highest quality. 5. A little knowledge of Perec’s biography helps a reader better appreciate the novel’s continual fascination with the visual arts. As a young man, Perec reputedly wanted to become a painter but soon gave up after realising he had little ‘talent’. Instead, he wrote. As any pervert knows, a passion is seldom ever fully abandoned, only sublimated into something else. ‘Life A User’s Manual’ gains its narrative momentum from two trajectories: the character Bartlebooth’s ongoing quest to systematically erase all his amateur watercolours which he has spent half a lifetime constructing in a plot too convoluted to explain, and the growing sense that all the small present tense descriptions of locations within the building, function as vignettes in what will amount to some grand reveal at the end. Would it spoil the reader’s pleasure to know all this in advance? For works of great literature, the contrary is often asserted. Knowing Romeo & Juliet won’t make it to old age won’t much spoil the play. Yet a thorough knowledge of Perec’s operations will ruin a major source of enjoyment of the novel, and this relates to the degree of internal necessity in the tales which make up ‘Life A User’s Manual’. To what extent is this novel a trick? Does it function as a good riposte to those who would distinguish the frivolity of puzzles from the gravitas of art? Perhaps it is not enough to propose that art fabricates its own rules while games follow those prescribed by others. What if literature is just following the rules of the wider circuit of the arts in general which is only harder to explicate? Artists obviously do compete against each other, to paint the best portrait or write the best ghost story, and if not against each other, then against art history as a whole. The Oulipo Group, composed of mathematicians and writers in a 50/50 split, have a profound interest in games like Chess, or Go. What if the difference between art and games was analogous to the difference between mathematics and games? While games might serve as material for both artists and mathematicians in terms of stimulating new ideas or works, a prescribed game might best be described as a kind of short circuit, a limiting scale, which retains many of the pleasures of creating aside from those involving changing the rules of the game itself. Then the analogy follows that an artwork or a mathematical theorem, say, is a ‘game’ played against art history or all the mathematics up to this point. Perhaps. Except of course, mathematicians have their respective fields and niches and authors specialise in particular forms and genre. To return to Perec, whenever a reader gets a whiff that one of the tales are just experiments in form then it can feel as if Perec is wasting our time. Like a drunken raconteur, these stories can weary. What does a reader care if Perec wins or loses against his self-imposed constraint? Don't we still have the expectation that literature should offer some kind of guideline for life? That its aim should be to produce contemplation or something akin to a religious revelation in the receiver? Towards the end of ‘Life A User’s Manual’, there’s a reference to the Danish habour city, Aarhus, which happens to be my current home. Call me superstitious, but I received this line from Perec as if given a benediction from beyond the grave. I should also say that after a while these shaggy dog stories began to irritate insofar as, in order to be interesting, they largely revolved around either the impossibly wealthy or involved otherwise thoroughly bourgeois characters. It is as if Perec couldn’t imagine creating mysterious tales of wonder in the lives of those who are undereducated or impoverished. There’s a few attempts at this, to be fair, but not enough for my liking. But here perhaps Perec was once again ahead of his time. Not only does he include the curious story of a transgender rock-star, ‘Hortense’ and the business which makes the most of her (think Andy Warhol’s Factory or Antony and the Johnsons) the fact that the lives described most often involve the fabulously wealthy preempts the reality of Parisian city life today, where house prices have made the city un-inhabitable for all but the elite.