Category Archives: spring 2011 big read: life a user’s manual by georges perec

Life Big Read: Reckoning With Perec

I’ve been greatly enjoying reading everyone’s responses to Life A User’s Manual, and if you haven’t done so yet I urge you to register your opinion, regardless of it you read it during the Big Read or at some other point in the past.

I’d like to talk about one point that’s come up a number of times in a number of ways–people are largely dividing the book into “stories” and “descriptions,” which is a fair enough way to roughly group the material in Life.

I think that virtually everyone likes the stories, and with good reason, as they’re quite fanciful, entertaining, generally well-plotted, intriguing, meaningful, etc. Where we see much more differentiation is in the descriptions, which some people like, some don’t like, and some seem to have grown to like after deciding to just go with them.

Long lists and purely descriptive prose are definitely a subjective thing, in Life as well as in all of literature. For the record, I like Perec’s descriptions very much, not just in this book but in his others as well, and I could probably read an entire book that was just Perec describing objects, but I recognize that this will not be the case for everyone. (And likewise, I’m left indifferent by descriptions in many other books.)

But whether or not you like the descriptions as much as I do, there’s a very strong argument for them being there, and for you going with them and reading them. First of all, they should be there because Perec was obsessed by them, and Life is nothing if not Perec indulging his obsessions. This is what good authors do: they put their obsessions into the form of books, which we then read. Life was the capstone achievement of a lifetime of Perec following the things that intrigued him, and I doubt he knew why he found these things intriguing, nor why he wrote about them in the manner he did. The only way to even hasten a guess is to read Life and offer your response to it. That’s as it should be. Because if any author can tell you why he or she is obsessed by something, and why he or she writes about it in the way they do, then you’re wasting your time reading their books. All you need to do is listen to their explanation, and you’ll have saved yourself countless hours.

My second reason that you should take the descriptions like anything else has to do with reading as an experience. If you look at the stories in Life, they evoke in us a very common experience–that of following a good story, which we encounter everywhere in life: talking to friends, watching movies, listening to the radio, forming our own life narrative, etc, etc. It’s only normal that all of humanity can love a good story because we’re all so used to the pleasures of them.

The descriptions, by contrast, are something most of us are probably unfamiliar with. And that’s good. That’s why it’s worthwhile to read them, to see Perec defamiliarize our world and our idea of “reading literature,” and to discover what kind of pleasures can be evoked by Perec’s particular manner of writing. Perhaps, at length, you will conclude that you don’t like the pleasures peculiar to Perec’s descriptions, and perhaps you will conclude that you feel you have nothing to gain by seeing Perec approach objects in our world through these unfamiliar byways. That’s fine. As I said last week, not everyone will be equally moved by all great books, and that’s as it should be.

But if you are going to make a credible attempt at reading Life, you must at least give the particular experience of Perec’s method a chance to work over you–that is, you must read the descriptions, even though you may initially get nothing from them, and see if the experience of them begins to become meaningful for you. This is the great fun and the great adventure of reading truly innovative literature: you get to see something that you never before saw, which can frequently be a difficult and frustrating experience in the beginning. But I urge you to stick with it. The rewards are immense, and unattainable anywhere else.

Life Big Read: The End

stopwatch

Per the schedule, we should all be done with Life A User’s Manual this week. How many of you made it to the end, how many of you didn’t, and why did you or didn’t you?

I’m curious to know specifically why this book did or did not work for you, because it seems to divide reader-friends of mine like few others. Some take right to it, others seem to never find a way in. I can’t say exactly why. For my own part, though I never feel any narrative momentum when I read Life, that doesn’t bother me in the least. I enjoy its Decameron-like structure, the parade of stories and stories-within-stories, and stories-within-stories-within-stories. I’ve always liked books like that (The Golden Age would be a good example from last year), books that are virtuosic in their ability to contain a million viewpoints and a million details and a million characters all within one schema. If a book can do that and do it well continuously, I really don’t care about the absence of plot. But then again, I like to read the encyclopedia and the dictionary, so I’m clearly sympathetic to this kind of a book.

I also have much sympathy with the themes that Perec picks up. I think he foresees a hell of a lot in Life and gives the final word to a number of other things. Whatever you thought of it, I don’t think it’s arguable that it’s the capstone to a certain kind of writing that flourished in the middle of last century and pretty much ended with Life. That’s not to say that the book hasn’t given birth to new writers, Oulipian and otherwise, just that none of those inspired by it ever did it the way Perec did.

One of our readers, Bob Garlitz, tendered his resignation on his blog last week.

I did that once with the great novel by Cortázar, Hopscotch. I did enjoy that book immensely. Life is no Hopscotch. Life may be, but the novel is not. At least the four hundred pages I read did not endear me to the experience in the ways that reading Hopscotch did. Not even close. I read Perec’s Avoid, famous for not using one “e” either in French or in either of the two English translations. That should have been enough. I knew better when Conversational Reading announced the project. So, cut your losses, embrace your failure, hand the book on at the transfer station or try to sell it over the next ten years. No doubt it is a masterwork. I am just not much of an Oulipian sympathizer or fellow traveler. Back to Bernhard or on to someone else. Better do some research now on Jardin des Plantes before biting into that macaronesque morsel. I will need, it seems, a short course on the relationship, if any, between Oulipo and the Nouveau Roman. Or perhaps enough with all these French writers. Back to England, back to the Raj, pick up Jane Gardam’s Old Filth instead. Or how about Pessoa, Saramago, Vargas Llosa. Even better, a new work by Aira. There is guaranteed reading pleasure.

I like what Garlitz says here insofar as he doesn’t talk in terms of him failing the book or the book failing him–simply he says that though it may be a masterpiece, it wasn’t for him. Which is of course perfectly fine. You wouldn’t walk into a museum and expect to like every painting you saw, even if the museum you walked into was the Louvre, so why would you expect to have an affinity for every masterpiece of world literature?

But where I disagree is in Garlitz’s assertion that he is “not much of an Oulipian sympathizer.” To judge an entire school of writing on not liking Perec is over-hasty, as Oulipo has proven that there are many, many books that can be made out of its method. (You can see my favorites in this list right here.) For instance, Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is an incredibly plotty, very fun and funny book that has very little in common at all with Life. If you didn’t like Life want another crack at Oulipo, I highly recommend it. Or for something complete different, you could try My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973 by Harry Mathews. Or any number of books on my list.

Life Big Read Question Thread 5

Incontro con Italo Calvino

So here are a couple of things for you to ponder. Number one, now that we’ve gotten through most of the book, I want to return to one of the very first questions we brought up–do the constraints matter to you or not?

I’d like to know what everyone thinks, so please do share your thoughts. Have you thought about any of the constraints as you’ve read? Do you wish you knew more about them? Less? Would the book be different without them? Would your reading be different? Do you care?

And secondly, if you haven’t discovered yet, Chad Post has been doing some great blogging of his read of Life A User’s Manual as part of this Big Read. He’s put up his third and latest post just this week, and it happens to deal very much with the constraints. So check that out, plus his other posts on the read so far.

And if you have any questions or answers, put them here.

And if you’re enjoying the read, I remind you, this is donation week.





Life Big Read: The Big Middle

knights-tour


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So I think this week in the Life Big Read is the part in which we all take a deep breath and plod through this book’s long middle. The excitement of beginning, along with the momentum of discovering Bartlebooth’s big plan, has peetered out, yet we are not quite into the homestretch yet. Rather we are in the middle, a bit of a muddy trench filled with story after story, description after description, list after list.

This, for me, is the slowest part of Life A User’s Manual, and yet, there is much here to thrill. I’ll first direct everyone’s attention to what is certainly one of the most grand and bizarre lists in literature, that which takes up the entirety of Chapter 74, “Life Machinery, 2.”

It begins again with that elusive “he,” whom at this point I think we agree is Valene, and proceeds:

Sometimes he imagined the building as an iceberg whose visible tip included the main floors and eaves and whose submerged mass began below the first level of cellars: stairs with resounding steps going down in spirals; long tiled corridors . . .

And so begins a list that will take up the following four pages [405 – 408], broken out into multiple subsections and including “canals lined with strings of barges,” “mine galleries with blind ageing horses drawing carts filled with ore,” “a whole subterranean city organised vertically into neighborhoods,” and “eyeless beings who drag animal carcasses behind them,” all, I remind you, connected to and existing below the apartment.

Two questions: first of all, what on earth is going on here?

Secondly, this seems like the appropriate time to stop and consider Perec’s use of lists, which has been a major feature of the book. I’m curious to know how you all feel about lists in general, and Perec’s in particular.

Lists, to me, are a funny thing in literature. I think it is very easy to use them improperly and have them degenerate into a kind of empty showiness. But on the other hand some of my favorite authors have used them with great effect.

I think that the form of Life A User’s Manual–essentially a book of description that takes place in just one infinitesimal moment in time–makes it ideal for listing. Also, the book’s much-discussed infatuation with things lends it to lists too.

But to get back to the particular list we find in “Life Machinery, 2,” it feels different. It feels more “fake,” which is a strange thing to say since this book we’re reading is a work of fiction, and so we would expect for everything in it to feel more or less equally fake. But that’s not the case here. For instance, a lot of things Perec references in this book are in fact “real” in the sense that Operation Paperclip, referenced in this week’s reading, actually took place. By contrast, the “eyeless beings who drag animal carcasses behind them” don’t sound real at all, or at least not connected to any kind of reality that Life takes place in.

I’m quite curious to hear others’ reactions to this list–my own interpretation is that it’s a kind of time traveling. As we move deeper and deeper out, these subterranean depths sort of pyramid out, growing ever more abstract and capturing more of the shadowy, barely human underside of capitalism. So for instance, close to the top we have the raw inputs–great halls, factory-like entities, “mountains of sand, gravel, coke.” And then further down the highways and canals that transport it all. And then on to the waste-products and their parasites, the “ragpickers and flea merchants,” the “overturned dustbins turning out cheese rinds.” And then finally the “tiled morgues peopled with nostalgic hoods and the open-eyed bodies of the doomed.” And then finally the bottom “world of caverns” with “Cyclopses.”

The story that heads this week’s section gives us a chance to talk about two themes that I haven’t discussed so much here: mass production and virtual realities. This first story involves the mass production of virtual realities.

For those not reading along, it is about a man and woman who specialize in introducing clients to the Devil in order that they may enact a Faustian bargain. They do this some several hundred times (racking up enormous fees in the process), essentially mass producing a simulacrum of a key component of European mythology, culture, and literature.

I wonder, what exactly is the relationship between this performance for an audience of one and something like theater, or even something more subversive like a “candid camera” type theater, where the acting is done with an intent to deceive as to its reality?

And the, finally, there’s the elaboration of the relationship between Winkler and Bartlebooth via puzzle [376 – 384]. As far as I can tell, this is the most precise description that we have of the minutia of how Bartlebooth spends his days. Is it any more or less meaningful a way than those who, for instance, spend their days contriving meetings with the Devil or attempting to break new speed records in bike racing, to just take two examples from this week’s section?

Life Big Read Question Thread 4

From the Operation Paperclip Wikipedia page

From the Operation Paperclip Wikipedia page

This week concurrently with Life A User’s Manual I’ve been reading Beckett’s trilogy starting with Molloy, and I noticed this interesting coincidence of thoughts. They deal with satisfaction, meaning, and hope, items that are certainly of central importance to Perec’s book. My emphasis in both quotes.

From Molloy:

But I do not think even Sisyphus is required to scratch himself, or to groan, or to rejoice, as the fashion is now, always at the same appointed places. And it may even be they are not too particular about the route he takes provided it gets him to his destination safely and on time. And perhaps he things each journey is the first This would keep hope alive, would it not, hellish hope. Whereas to see yourself doing the same thing endlessly over and over again fills you with satisfaction.

From Life:

That was one of the few occasions when two weeks were not long enough to finish a puzzle. Customarily, the alternation of excitement and apathy, of exaltation and despair, of feverish expectancy and fleeting certainties, meant that the puzzle would be completed within the prescribed schedule, moving towards it ineluctable goal, where, when all the problems had been solved, there was in the end only a decent, somewhat pedantic water-colour depicting a seaport. Step by step, in frustration or with enthusiasm, he came to satisfy his urge, but by satisfying it caused it to expire, leaving himself with no recourse but to open a fresh black box. [384]

Thoughts? Arguments? Questions? Give them to us here.

[Incidentally, Molloy is fantastic, far, far better than I might have expected. If you haven’t yet, do not deny yourself the aesthetic pleasure any longer.]

Life Big Read: Words as Things

anamorphosis

For various reasons, during this week’s reading I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between things and words. Part of this, I’m convinced, is my concurrent reading of the recent book The Information by James Gleick, which is all about the history of language as a medium of information communication and storage.

But I also think that my thoughts about things vis a vis words (and vice versa) has to do with this week’s subject-matter. There just seems to be a lot about objects that are heavily reliant on words for their substance, or words that are objects in and of themselves.

As to the latter, I think the best example we have is Cinoc’s dictionary of lost words [329 – 330]. Here we see words as things that can be collected and arranged, like so many knick-knacks on a shelf. And, in fact, as happens with the things we collect, Perec even implies that the words Cinoc collects help define him as a person: “In ten years he gathered more than eight thousand of them, which contain, obscurely, the trace of a story it has now become almost impossibly to hand on.” [329]

Elsewhere we see people who are defined by the words they use. The clearest example of this would be the caricatures of the “Paris streetsellers,” where each one is identified by his or her “traditional cry.” Just before that we see Gregoire Simpson [the tail end of Week 3’s reading: 265 – 73], whose exit from the realm of humanity runs concurrently with his exit from the use of language. We also see Elzbieta Orlowska [299 – 301] who keeps in her small room a poster reminding her of a Polish nursery rhyme whose purpose is to get children to sleep.

Perhaps my favorite reminder of the relationship of words and things in the entire book comes in this week’s reading on page 310. We are once again talking about the long, complex history of the Gratiolet family; after going through the intersecting relationships of half a dozen family members Perec, sensing our increasing exasperation at keeping it all straight gives us a reminder in very large type: “A GENEALOGICAL TREE OF THE GRATIOLET FAMILY CAN BE FOUND ON P. 87.” And, of course, a quick look at the family tree–a thing–makes it utterly simple to sort out the relationships that three pages of language have only served to confuse.

To close, I’d like to go back to the essay by Gabriel Josipovici that I referenced earlier this week. A significant part of this essay goes back to Josipovici’s idea of modernism as a response to the crisis of authority that has gripped Western civilization ever since the decline of the Church and the rise of individual rights (a case he lays out excellently in his recent book What Ever Happened to Modernism?). In Life A User’s Manual he sees Perec as a both a human and an artist coming to grips with this lack of authority–which is really a lack of meaning–and he touches on this theme powerfully here:

This, I would say, is a side-effect of world governed by language and things, a world, in other words, like ours. Is there transcendence? It’s a question we should ponder as we read onward.

Some questions:

As we’ve been reading, when Perec revisits a certain apartment with multiple “rooms,” how many of you have flipped back to glance back over Perec’s discussion the previous rooms? I think it’s a very worthwhile exercise, as you often notice new things that could not have been known in your first trip through the apartments.

What did you make of the 20 possible pronunciations of Cinoc’s name, plus the fact that he himself did not know the pronunciation of his own name? Is this related at all to his obsession with words?

What was your response to Hutting’s version of extremely oblique portraits (borrowing a word from Perec, we might call it anamorphosic portraiture)? Can a portrait that does not include the subject still be considered a portrait?

Life Big Read Question Thread 3

crossword

We are in Week 4. Give us your questions and thoughts right here.

For my own part, you may have noticed that I didn’t do some summarizing thoughts + a poll last Friday like I usually do. Reason being, I was out of town camping in the woods.

But that experience did give me an interesting perspective on Life A User’s Manual. Of course whenever you go camping you have to build a fire, and whenever you build a fire you enter into one of the strangest, most human experiences possible. What I’m referring to is that hypnotic sensation of watching a fire burn over the course of hours, watching these flames that you’ve just nurtured to life consume themselves, plus, of course, carefully tending the fire along the way to keep everything in good order. It’s the only experience I can think of that I probably share with the earliest human beings to walk the Earth.

For me, it’s a profound experience because, well, other than art in museums I don’t tend to sit and stare at things for any length of time (I stopped watching TV years ago), and so to suddenly be drawn into the experience of watching that fire is surprising, to say the least.

I mention all this because self-consuming quests is a very big them of Life, and of life, perhaps the theme in both. And as we consider Bartlebooth’s motivation for this quest he is undertaking, it might be worth while to think about how it feels to watch a fire.

And now an observation–did everyone notice the word isograms on page 298? I didn’t know what an isogram was, so I looked it up, and it is a word or phrase with nonrepeating letters. According to Wikipedia, the longest isogrammic word in the world is “subdermatoglyphic.” You can find out more here.

I thought it was interesting that Perec uses isogram as part of the title of the fictional scholarly paper “Hariri revisited: Crosswords and Isograms.” Just thinking about isogrammic crosswords gives me headaches, but I’m sure Perec would have loved to make one.

And now a question: What did you think was the significance of Gregoire Simpson [265 – 73] a man who sort of slowly recedes from life until he disappears into nothingness. In the essay I mentioned earlier this week, Josipovici identifies him with the protagonist of Perec’s early, short novel A Man Asleep. In a book full of so many fantastical, action-packed stories, this one is oddly mute, and his relationship to things is strange as well (in the context of the book).

Life Big Read: The Best Critic of a Writer . . .

. . . is another writer. And thus I have taken Stephen Mitchelmore’s advice and checked in on Gabriel Josipovici’s sage critique of Life A User’s Manual. I encourage you all to do the same, although it will take a trip to your local library. Here’s the citation:

And here are the first two grafs. I’ll discuss this article more later in the week:

Life Big Read Question Thread 2

perec-stamp

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

mousetrap

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


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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?

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