Category Archives: georges perec

Life Big Read Question Thread 2


Give me your questions, your answers for this week’s reading.

And I’d like to pull this from last week’s question thread:

So the Kubas are, or were, actual hunters and gatherers. It’s quite interesting that Perec would write of such people, who have few tribal possessions and no significant belief in private property ownership. It is very much the bedrock in terms of our human relationship with things. While the significance of Malinowski’s anthropology is less clear, (If I recall correctly he studied the relationship between the material, social and ideological levels of society, emphasizing in particular how the material or economic base informed the social and ideological levels) Marcel Mauss expanded his own ethnological observations into a book, The Gift. This book, which I haven’t read but have read about, as perhaps you and others have, is concerned with the concept of reciprocity, and the significance of the reciprocal relationships established between giver and receiver in the exchange of a ‘thing’. Or, as with Apenzzell, the failure to establish such a relationship with gift exchange. Obviously, this contrasts significantly with capitalist exchange and the value or meaning such exchange has on ‘things’, changing gifts into commodities-and reshaping human relationship in the process.

Great information, with obvious significance for the “thing” theme I’ve been elaborating in my discussion notes.

And lastly, a question for everyone from this week’s reading: What in God’s name is the diagonal of e’s, g’s and o’s on pp. 259 – 265 supposed to be about? This is possibly my favorite “trick” in the entire book, but I’m at a complete loss for a definitive answer as to what the hell is going on.

Life Big Read: A Better Mousetrap


An "s-shaped sofa," mentioned in Life A User's Manual

Which was your favorite sub-story this week?

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As I read this week’s section, I felt that what was most coming though was the idea of quests that become traps. I first noticed this in that quote about Bartlebooth that I mentioned earlier this week and which I will reproduce here:

That’s what struck Valene the most, his gaze which did not manage to meet his own, as if Bartlebooth had sought to look behind his head, had wanted to pierce his head to reach beyond it in the neutral asylum of the stairwell with it’s trompe-loeil decorations mimicking old marbling and its staff skirting board made to resemble wood panelling. There was in that avoiding look something more violent than a void, something that was not merely pride or hatred, but almost panic, something like a mad hope, like an appeal for help, like a signal of distress. [142]

We also see this trope in the quest-stories that Perec tells, most notably in the utterly bizarre one about the nanny who accidentally kills the baby and then is traced and hunted down over a period of years by the father. What is so sensational about this story is that–while we expect the sensation of being hunted to feel confining and dispiriting to the hunted woman–the stress of living this quest for revenge is just as bad to the father:

I killed her two days later. In killing her I understood that death delivered her just as, the day after tomorrow, it will deliver me. [172]

It’s interesting to think of exactly what a quest is, something that we discussed in the big read for The Last Samurai. As we read that book I brought up the idea that the form of the quest narrative has changed since we first began writing quest narratives with Homer:

The concept of quest story has been usefully divided into classic and modern versions–the Odyssey is the best example of the classic quest, where the hero ventures out, defeats some enemy, end eventually makes it back home. The modern quest might be typified by Kafka’s The Castle, where the hero’s quest ultimately turns into the realization that an ending will be endlessly deferred.

Seven Samurai strikes me as combining both of these visions of the quest into a beautiful symmetrically unified whole: the farmers represent the classical quest, as they venture out, recruit the samurai to defeat their enemy, and than are shown happily planting crops the next spring, their enemy defeated and their quest brought to a conclusive end. By contrast, the samurai embody the modern quest: as they triumph over the bandits only to fight another day, and at film’s end one gets the sense that no matter how many triumphs they win, it will always be only to fight another day.

I would argue that The Last Samurai also fuses the classical and the modern quests . . .

At this point in our read, I would think that if the title “Life A User’s Manual” is to be taken as an unironic title we have to think it has something to do with these futile, ultimately life-constraining quests that have already proliferated so much in the book. We might consider what causes people to enter into these quests, what roles the quests serve in the lives of their owners, how and when they become traps, how they ultimately end, and whether and how they give a life meaning.

Now for some questions on this week’s reading.

A "revolving bookcase," mentioned in Life A User's Manua

Upon reading the racy beginning to Chapter Thirty (“Marquiseaux, 2”) did anyone go back and look at “Marquiseaux, 1” (Chapter Fifteen)? They make a funny comparison, particularly given how circumspect Perec is in 1 about what precisely is going on in the bathroom next door in 2. Remember, all of these descriptions are happening at the exact same moment in time.

What did you all think of the long list of after-party items in chapter twenty-nine [149-52]? I thought it was a glorious list and I read it twice. It also put me in mind of Life A User’s Manual’s encyclopedic aspirations, as well as Perec’s fixation on things.

I really liked “On the Stairs, 3” (Chapter Twenty-eight), particularly the description of how “one day, above all, the whole house will disappear, the street and the quartier will die.” [146] Perec’s discussion of “the slow adaptation of the body to space” [145] seemed quite apt to the book’s themes as we’ve discussed them so far. And I loved Perec’s theoretical ad copy for the immense development complex that would eventually take the apartment building’s place [147]. Next to it I wrote “the way we live, expressed in the language of the way we sell.” Certainly the mechanics of living and selling are two of Perec’s obsessions.

What did you all think of the coral-like remains of the table that had been eaten by worms and then filled in with lead so that after dissolving the original wood an “exact record of the worms’ life” was left [139]? Another apt image in my opinion. This one is so striking that it remained strong in my memory every since my first reading of this book.

Now that we’ve finally had the complete description of Bartlebooth’s quest [130-135], what do you all make of it? I particularly note these quotes: “Thus no trace would remain of an operation which would have been, throughout a period of fifty years, the sole motivation and unique activity of its author” [135]; “it would be something so simple and discreet, difficult of course but not impossibly so, controlled form start to finish and conversely controlling every detail of the life of the man engaged upon it.” [134]

I found interesting Valene’s use of the word “ambition” to describe Barthebooth’s quest. Is it really ambitious?

Life Big Read: Surfaces


Here are a few thoughts about the beginning of this week’s section, with some more fully fleshed thoughts to come later in the week, once we’ve all had a fair chance to get through to the end.

We’ve already been talking a great deal about things and descriptions, so now it’s time to talk about surfaces. I’m thinking specifically in terms of Sherwood’s Tale, in which our overly credulous Sherwood purchases what he believes to be the Holy Grail, but is in fact scammed by crooks [pp. 96 – 109].

It is one of those elaborate confidence scams where a person is shown one small piece of evidence after another to slowly build up trust in what is ultimately a big, unbelievable falsehood. As such, it is very much a story about surfaces, about essentially taking evidence at face value in a naive sort of way, which of course we all do as a simple part of life every day. If there is any one thing that has distinguished itself so far in Life A User’s Manual, it is that Perec is challenging us again and again to look beyond surface descriptions.

This particular version of that exhortation adds a special twist. In the lead-up to Sherwood’s Tale, Perec goes into the idea of collecting unica–objects like the Holy Grail for which only one example exists in the world. In his discussion of unica, Perec notes examples like “the octobass, a monstrous double-bass for two musicians,” or “animal species of which only one member is known to exist,” before finally giving us a small warning: “any object whatsoever can always be identified uniquely, and . . . in Japan there is a factory mass-producing Napoleon’s hat.” [95]

And this is true: right now I’m typing this entry on a unicum of my own–the Apple computer that Scott Esposito typed his George Perec Big Read entry into. Of course no one has any interest in this unicum, like the great majority of unica in the world, yet if I became famous enough there might be a market for a factory to mass produce copies of this computer to sell to a consumer market.

What this digression about unica forces us to think about are ideas of authenticity, rarity, and singularity. All objects are “authentic” in some way, and yet we don’t consider all objects authentic. Similarly, all objects can be rare and even singular by various criteria, but in practice we only use those terms to describe very few objects, or else they would become useless to us as descriptives.

My point here is that the concept of unica throws us back to the frames that dominate our society but are rarely seen, revealing them to us. It also takes us beneath the surface appearance of an item like “Napoleon’s hat” to help us understand just what that item is.

All this relates to Sherwood’s Tale because it is precisely these frames and definitions that are being exploited to con Sherwood. His willingness to participate in the con forces us to ask why he would participate, and the fact that an author has decided to write a book about the entire episode–presumably because people will find it interesting and buy her book–forces us to ask why people would find this story more interesting than many others.

And I think all of these questions get very much back to the heart of what Perec is doing here with all of these surface descriptions, strange tales, and immense-but-bizarre quests that give meaning to the lives of his characters. We have at least three of these quests in this week’s reading–the conclusion of the explanation of Bartlebooth’s, Appenzzell’s quest to live with the natives who flee from him, and Ericsson’s quest for vengeance. Each come to dominate all material and mental resources of the questor’s life, and each become, in their way, a prison. It is worth asking why and how as we read.

And as to that, I will leave you with a quote about Bartlebooth from this section:

That’s what struck Valene the most, his gaze which did not manage to meet his own, as if Bartlebooth had sought to look behind his head, had wanted to pierce his head to reach beyond it in the neutral asylum of the stairwell with it’s trompe-loeil decorations mimicking old marbling and its staff skirting board made to resemble wood panelling. There was in that avoiding look something more violent than a void, something that was not merely pride or hatred, but almost panic, something like a mad hope, like an appeal for help, like a signal of distress. [142]

The Rise of Daily Life in French Lit

The new Words Without Borders blog has shot out of the box with their ongoing Perec coverage. The latest piece is an excellent, lengthy interview between Martin Riker of the Dalkey Archive Press and Perec-scholar Warren Motte.

Here’s a little taste:

MR: This is something else I wanted to ask you about, the role of daily life in recent French fiction, and the role Perec played in creating this literary climate. I’m particularly interested in how often in recent French fiction this interest overlaps with a sense of playfulness–the ludic–and whether that’s an inevitable overlap.

WM: It seems to me that in the kinds of things that you and I read there’s a lot of that overlap, and that’s probably why we read it. But that kind of overlap is generally thought of as being taboo, right? On the one hand you have “play” and on the other hand you have “seriousness.” You have the “play sphere” as Johann Huizinga would put it, and on the other hand you have “work.” And that distinction, which you can trace from Plato onward, that distinction between the world of imagination and the so-called real world is not really questioned until you come to the 1960s, or not questioned profoundly and in a performative way, until you get people like Jacques Ehrmann saying Well, you know, play is basically articulation. And then you get Jacques Derrida coming along and talking about “free play,” and so forth. So to me, the highest expression of that notion of the articulation of play and the quotidian is the idea that daily life can be played . . .

Perec's Unfinished Books

Even wonder what Georges Perec would have written if he hadn’t died of cancer at 45? At Words Without Borders Laird Hunt gives some idea of literature’s loss:

In December 1976 Georges Perec, who wrote, both copiously and brilliantly as it occurred, put a remarkable document into the hands of Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens, founder of the wonderful independent French house P.O.L. In it, Perec had set down not just the works he was in the process of writing and/or would write, but also those he planned to write and wouldn’t. . . .

What was in this document? A partial enumeration will give a sense. Among the projected works Perec did complete were the famous jigsaw novel, Life A User’s Manual, and Je me souviens, Perec’s volume of “banal memories, belonging to all”, which was based on Joe Brainard’s noted I Remember tryptich. Among the projected works Perec did not complete were The Book of 2000 Sentences, a novel composed of the 2000 most common sentences in the French language; The Novel of the 19th Century, which would create a narrative quilt of excerpts taken from an anthology of classics like Chateaubriand, Stendahl and Zola; another “big book”, The Tree – the story of Esther and her Brothers, which was to have taken the form of a biographical dictionary and an exploded family tree; and additional translations of the vertiginous work of a fellow Oulipian, the American Harry Mathews.

It’s interesting to note that Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto somewhat follows on in Perec’s footsteps. In books like Life: A User’s Manual Perec created something along the lines of a “narrative quilt” by working in quotations from great works of literature, without quotes or attribution. Something similar happens in Rex, though Prieto does bold the quotes so you know they’re not his words per se. The narrative conceit for the introduction of these quotes in Rex is that the narrator thinks they’re all from Proust, though of course they aren’t. (An afterword lays out the sources, though it’s also fun to guess while you’re reading.) This has some affinity with Perec, as you can read the “Proust” character in Rex as something akin to “literature.”

Publishing Georges Perec

(Godine is publishing a new, corrected edition of Life A User's Manual and the first-ever English edition of Perec's essays collected in Thoughts of Sorts. I recently spoke with Susan Barba, an editor at Godine who worked on both of these books.)

Georges Perec Life a Users Manual

Scott Esposito: My first question has to do with what's new in this edition of Life A User's Manual. The original translation by David Bellos was published in 1987, and in the ensuing 20-some years there's been considerable attention devoted to both the original and Bellos's translation. What kind of changes have been implemented in this new edition and were there any particular critiques/sources you and Bellos were drawing from?

Susan Barba: As David Bellos explains in his “Note on the Revised Edition” at the very end of the book, the changes to this edition of the translation are the result of the more than twenty years of scholarship devoted to Georges Perec since the publication of the original translation. “This twentieth anniversary edition,” writes Bellos in his Note, “seeks to take account of the corresponding and cumulative effect of these re-readings without making any fundamental stylistic change to the original translation. This is still the same book; my only aim in revising has been to make it less imperfect than it was on first appearance.” The changes we made were mostly of the variety that copyeditors and proofreaders make: spelling mistakes, mistakes in terminology, inverted colophons, incorrect page references in the index, and even the omission of a paragraph in the final chapter! I worked closely with our older Godine edition, the British Vintage edition, and David’s new file, proofreading and comparing editions, and querying David from dawn to dusk. David was my primary source in the process; I know that new editions of the French text, prepared by Bernard Magné, were of great use to him, and I suspect if you read the list of names on the translator’s note on page 657, you will have your answer as to other important sources of help.

SE: Translation is always a daunting task, but given the kind of meticulous, playful writer that Georges Perec was, it's always seemed to me that his books are more daunting than most, and never more so than in this enormously complex book. Based on that, I'd like to ask two questions: first, what was your role vis a vis Bellos in creating this new edition of Life a User's Manual, and, second, how does your work on this translation compare with your work on other ones at Godine?

SB: Quite honestly, while I spent a great deal of time on this book, I played a very minimal role in the grand scheme of things. When David’s new manuscript came to me, most of the changes discussed above had already been made by David himself. I made sure these changes were implemented in the new edition, and in the process of copyediting and proofreading, assisted by our wonderful copyeditor, Mr. Kirk Shaw, I found discrepancies and additional errors that needed to be corrected (or sometimes—and strangely for an editor—needed to be left alone since they were Perec’s original errors, not the translator’s!).

My role as the editor of this translation was far more limited than, for example, my role as editor of another new book we’ve just published, Desert by Nobel-Prize-winner J. M. G. Le Clézio, translated from the French by C. Dickson. Desert was a translation I was more creatively involved with, corresponding with the author and translator about choices of translation, suggesting substitutions and changes, actively taking part in the creation of the English text. With Life A User’s Manual, I came into the process at a much later point, after the first edition had already been published, and after David Bellos had already delivered his final manuscript of the revised edition. Because the translation was not open to stylistic changes, my role, while involved, was circumscribed, more a mechanic than an engineer.

SE: In his translator's note, Bellos stated that he's made "liberal use of the principle of compensation." As both an editor and as a reader, what's your opinion on translators using equivalences when they feel the original can't be translated literally?

SB: Without getting embroiled in a thorny argument about the question of fidelity, I’ll say this much: I think we rarely read successful literal translations of texts (apologies to Mr. Vladimir Nabokov). All translators make use of the principle of compensation to one degree or another; while Bellos might describe his use as more liberal than another’s (and he alludes to the arguments this liberal use has engendered in the same Note), I’m all for it in this case because it’s in the spirit of Perec’s work. The jokes, allusions, mathematical equations, and puzzles with which Perec peppered his work were an integral part of his texts and their reasons for being. If the translator has a choice between providing a literal translation which spoils the joke or elegance of the equation and substituting his own symbols in order to preserve meaning, then yes, let x equal y. I believe Georges Perec would agree.

SE: I wanted to also ask you a couple of questions about Thoughts of Sorts, a collection of Perec’s essays originally published in 1985. This is the book’s first English publication—what sorts of things in there would appeal to people who enjoy Perec’s fiction?

Georges Perec Thoughts of Sorts

SB: Well, I think the works in Thoughts of Sorts are part of the same project as Life A User’s Manual and Perec’s other novels in that they attempt to make sense of the human experience, but they do so with considerably more attention paid to the ways in which one makes sense: by sorting, thinking, ordering, classifying. A fascinating autobiographical portrait of the author also emerges from these pages, and anyone who has enjoyed Perec’s novels will be captivated by the many little details Perec shares with us about his life: his experience with psychoanalysis, his favorite reading position and place, the objects found on his writing desk, and much more.

SE: And lastly, I’m wondering if essay is the right word to describe many of these pieces. I’m thinking, for instance of “81 Easy-Cook Recipes for Beginners,” which is pretty much just what the title implies, or “I Remember Malet & Isaac” which is sort of an experiment into memory by cutting and pasting headings and phrases from his school history books. These things are great to read . . . but: essays?

SB: Yes, it might seem questionable, but when you begin looking into the history of the word you’ll find it suits quite well the works included herein. The OED defines essay as “I. the action or process of trying or testing. [. . .] II. A trying to do something.” Only in the eighth definition of the word do we finally reach what one might consider the common contemporary definition of the essay: “A composition of moderate length on any particular subject, or branch of a subject; originally implying want of finish, ‘an irregular undigested piece’, but now said of a composition more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range.” What is striking about the etymology and various meanings of “essay” is the centrality of effort, the essay as a testing ground. Other definitions include the essay as an experiment or the testing of food or drink. In a broader, historical light, then, essay seems exactly the right word to describe these pieces, which range from fully finished compositions more or less elaborate in style to experiments in memory, history, and even cookery.

Machine by Georges Perec Rev’d at Complete Review

Michael Orthofer reviews "The Machine," a radio play written by Geroges Perec and published for the first time in English in the recent all-Perec issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction.

I've read this piece in my copy of the RCF, and it's great. Here are some of Michael's thoughts:

Perec takes the poem and subjects it to a number of operations — protocols that are, essentially, Oulipian constraints. And, as he explains:

To the attentive listener it may become clear that this play about language not only describes the functioning of a machine, but also, though in a more concealed and subtle manner, the inner mechanism of poetry.

Beginning with a purely technical analysis — "number of words", "number of metrical feet", etc. — Perec takes apart and pieces back together the poem in all sorts of ways. It is read front to back, bottom to top, randomly. Then come the more elaborate renderings and readings.

From simple rules ("omission of the last word of each line", "insertion of sounds in the word center") to "proverbialization" and "encyclopaedic diversification" he re-writes the poem in dozens of different forms. It's a study in the ways of the Oulipo (and language/machine-rules) but, surprisingly, also quite illuminating. Poetry does beget more poetry, even in this treatment.

Special Perec Issue of the RCF

Via the Dalkey Archive's monthly newsletter. I'll be looking forward to this:

Spring RCF…

The Spring Review of Contemporary Fiction is a special issue on Georges Perec, updating our previous Perec issue, with an updated introduction by David Bellos and including a never-before-published Perec radio play.

Georges Perec’s Movie

Via RSB, I find this nice report from The Auteurs on Georges Perec’s 1974 movie Un Homme Qui Dort. The movie is based on Perec’s early novella of the same name (published in English by Godine as A Man Asleep.)


The occasion of this report is Dort’s release on DVD (although currently unavailable through Amazon U.S. Based on The Auteurs’s description (and some of the stills), Dort sounds somewhat similar to Robbe-Grillet’s experimental film, Last Year at Marienbad:

In the early ’70s Perec and his friend Bernard Queysanne, a filmmaker
whose experience had heretofore been as an assistant director, teamed
up to make a film of the book. While much of the film’s narration—which
comprises the entirety of the film’s verbal content; there is no
dialogue—is taken directly from the novel, Perec jettisoned the book’s
linear structure in favor of, Bellos explains, "a mathematical
construction. After the prologue (part 0, so to speak) there are six
sections. The six sections are interchangeable in the sense that the
same objects, places, and movements are shown in each, but they are all
filmed from different angles and edited into different order, in line
with the permutations of the sestina. The text and the music are
similarly organized in six-part permutations, and then edited and mixed
so that the words are out of phase with the image except at apparently
random moments, the last of which—the closing sequence—is not random at
all but endowed with an overwhelming sense of necessity."

For anyone who has seen Marienbad, this still will especially resound:


All in all, sounds like a worthwhile film. I’ll be looking forward to its appearance on these shores.

Life A User's Manual

coverSomething tells me Georges Perec would find all this ruckus over plagiarism silly.

From Life A User’s Manual:

. . . and Moriane with its alabaster gates transparent in the sunlight, its coral columns supporting pediments encrusted with serpentine, its villas all of glass, like aquariums where the shadows of dancing girls with silvery scales swim beneath medusa-shaped chandeliers.

From Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities:

When you have forded the river, when you have crossed the mountain pass, you suddenly find before you the city of Moriana, its alabaster gates transparent in the sunlight, its coral columns supporting pediments encrusted with serpentine, its villas all of glass like aquariums where the shadows of dancing girls with silvery scales swim beneath the medusa-shaped chandeliers.

All we get by way of attribution is a brief postscript: "This book contains quotations, some of them slightly adapted, from works by: . . . "

Actually, Perec’s "thievery" is even worse than the above would indicate since the quote from his book is in the context of a Frenchman regaling an Arab chieftain with stories of his travels. So not only is Perec stealing Calvino’s words but his ideas as well. If the postscript is to be believed (and I wouldn’t put it past Perec that he’s playing some joke on us with it), you’ll also find verbatim lines from Borges, Lowry, Freud, Agatha Christie, Marquez, Stendhal, Nabokov, Melville, and a ton others.

Why is he doing this? I have no idea, but I think it must relate back to the book-spanning central metaphor of puzzles. If I’m getting Perec right, then the bits and pieces of life fit together like a very well-constructed puzzle. As Perec tells us

It’s not the subject of the picture, or the painter’s technique, which makes a puzzle more or less difficult, but the greater or lesser subtlety of the way it has been cut; an arbitrary cutting pattern will necessarily produce an arbitrary degree of difficulty . . .

The art of jigsaw puzzling begins with wooden puzzles cut by hand, whose maker undertakes to ask himself all the questions the player will have to solve, and, instead of allowing chance to cover his tracks, aims to replace it with cunning, trickery, and subterfuge.

Life, Perec seems to be saying, is something where you try to arrange the puzzle pieces into a coherent picture, but which is always tricking you. Why else would so many characters in this book meet unexpected fates? Why else would Perec time and again lead his characters right up to the brink of fulfillment, only to toss them down some unexpected blind alley? It’s like, to paraphrase Perec, to hold the last piece of a puzzle in your hand–a "W"-shape–and to see an "X"-shaped hole.

What does this have to do with quoting from Calvino? Well, Perec’s puzzle metaphor works on a number of different levels throughout the book, and one of them is the level of culture. Perec constructs his novel as a series of vignettes, averaging maybe 10 pages each, that tell the stories of different parts of a Paris apartment building. As you read the book, you can mentally slot each tenant into an expanding schematic picture of the apartment. Likewise, as their lives unfurl before you (sometimes you get the nice meaty middle, other times Perec goes off on tangents and ends up intricately discussing the life of someone the person met for a few moments), you can slot the characters into a thick set of relationships. Assembling these lives together is kind of like assembling a puzzle.

And I think Perec’s point is that literature works in a similar way. All these stories–these texts–have grown together into a certain shape. You can take it as it is, or you, the reader/writer, can come along and arrange them into a picture (or a collage).

The form of Perec’s book itself reflects this. In very large part this book is purely descriptions. Descriptions of paintings, of tables, of lamps, of floor tiles (for goodness’s sake!), of walls, of pens, pipes, silverware, plates, hats, clothes. Many, many pieces of civilization’s detritus are physically embodied here, like brochures, tickets, schedules, shopping lists. (And speaking of lists–this book is a veritable paradise of lists.) As noted before, even when Perec tells a story (and he tells many, very, very good ones) he’s often borrowing from somewhere else. Taken together, the book just seems like so many pieces of late capitalism bound together between two glossy covers.

Yet, all this flatness contains great depth. Although the book is filled with many, many descriptions and rarely delves into a character’s mind, it’s difficult not to read into the vignettes presented here. Perec’s Parisian apartment building is meant to be a chessboard of sorts–it’s a 10 x 10 grid and (if I’m not mistaken) Perec moves around it like a knight: he always jumps two spaces in one direction, and then moves one more perpendicularly. Although at first glance Perec’s chess board appears as razor-thin as the pages of his book, a closer inspection shows that there are depths upon depths.

To describe it, I’ll turn to Calvino in Invisible Cities:

Kublai was a keen chess player; following Marco’s movements, he observed that certain pieces implied or excluded the vicinity of other pieces and were shifted along certain lines. Ignoring the objects’ variety of form, he could grasp the system of arranging one with respect to the others on the majolica floor. He thought: "If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains."

     Actually, it was useless for Marco’s speeches to employ all this bric-a-brac: a chessboard would have sufficed, with its specific pieces. To each piece, in turn, they could give an appropriate meaning: a knight could stand for a real horseman, or for a procession of coaches, an army on the march, an equestrian monument; a queen could be a lady looking down from her balcony, a fountain, a church with a pointed dome, a quince tree.

     Returning from his last mission, Marco Polo found the Khan awaiting him, seated at a chessboard. With a gesture he invited the Venetian to sit opposite him and describe, with the help only of the chessmen, the cities he had visited. Marco did not lose heart. The Great Khan’s chessmen were huge pieces of polished ivory: arranging on the board looming rooks and sulky knights, assembling swarms of pawns, drawing straight or oblique avenues like a queen’s progress, Marco recreated the perspectives and the spaces of black and white cities on moonlit nights.

     Contemplating these essential landscapes, Kublai reflected on the invisible order that sustains cities, on the rules that decreed how they rise, take shape and prosper, adapting themselves to the seasons, and then how they sadden and fall in ruins. At times he thought he was on the verge of discovering a coherent, harmonious system underlying the infinite deformities and discords, but no model could stand up to comparison with the game of chess. Perhaps, instead of racking one’s brain to suggest with the ivory pieces’ scant help visions which were anyway destined to oblivion, it would suffice to play a game according to the rules, and to consider each successive state of the board as one of the countless forms that the system of forms assembles and destroys.

     Now Kublai Khan no longer had to send Marco Polo on distant expeditions: he kept him playing endless games of chess. Knowledge of the empire was hidden in the pattern drawn by the angular shifts of the knight, by the diagonal passages opened by the bishop’s incursions, by the lumbering, cautious tread of the king and the humble pawn, by the inexorable ups and downs of every game.

     The Great Khan tried to concentrate on the game: but now it was the game’s purpose that eluded him. Each game ends in a gain or a loss: but of what? What were the true stakes? At checkmate, beneath the foot of the king, knocked aside by the winner’s hand, a black or a white square remains. By disembodying his conquests to reduce them to the essential, Kublai had arrived at the extreme operation: the definitive conquest, of which the empire’s multiform treasures were only illusory envelopes. It was reduced to a square of planed wood: nothingness . . .

Then Marco Polo spoke: "Your chessboard, sire, is inlaid with two woods: ebony and maple. The square on which your enlightened gaze is fixed was cut from the ring of a trunk that grew in a year of drought: you see how its fibers are arranged? Here a barely hinted knot can be made out: a bud tried to burgeon on a premature spring day, but the night’s frost forced it to desist."

     Until then the Great Khan had not realized that the foreigner knew how to express himself fluently in his language, but it was not this fluency that amazed him.

     "Here is a thicker pore: perhaps it was a larvum’s nest; not a woodworm, because, once born, it would have begun to dig, but a caterpillar that gnawed the leaves and was the cause of the tree’s being chosen for chopping down . . . This edge was scored by the wood carver with his gouge so that it would adhere to the next square, more protruding . . . "

     The quantity of things that could be read in a little piece of smooth and empty wood overwhelmed Kublai; Polo was already talking about ebony forests, about rafts laden with logs that come down the rivers, of docks, of women at the windows . . .

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