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

Life Big Read: Question Thread

So I want to try something new here. Each week I’ll post a question thread, and then we all can post any questions at all we have about this week’s section in the comments. This can be anything, from, What does the story about X mean? to How do you translate trompe-l’œil, and what exactly is it? to Where did we last see Madame de Beaumont?

I’ll do my best to answer all the questions, but I’d like everyone else to provide answers as well!

I’ll get things started: Does anyone know if the Kubus, the tribe that Appenzzell attempted to live with, actually existed, or if existed any kind of similar tribe?

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]

Life Big Read: Some Initial Thoughts and Some Questions


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So now that we’ve finished up with Part I of Life A User’s Manual, I’m curious to know how people are getting along. You’ll no doubt have noticed that the form the book takes is very particular–there’s a lot of description (as I discussed in this post), and not a lot happens; all we really get are these brief stories and anecdotes about people and objects encountered in the apartment. Do people like this? Why do you think Perec has structured the book in this way?

Another point of discussion–we’ve already had some various opinions on the value of knowing about the various constraints Perec embedded in this book. For my own part, I think knowing about at least a couple of the major ones is important. I view something like The Knight’s Tour as being as much a part of the book as Bartlebooth because this funny little constraint is very much conditioning how Perec tells this story. He can’t just jump from character to character as per his whim–he has to navigate over there via his knight’s leaps. By turning the form of his novel into a chessboard, he’s added an element of space to his composition in a way that few books ever will. This conditions they way the story can be told, which itself conditions which stories can be told.

Similarly, I think Perec’s choice to jigsaw unattributed quotes into Life cuts right to the core of one of the things that this book is about–the way that the pieces of life, of culture, of human relationships, of capitalistic society, they way the little bits and pieces that make up each of these things are slotted in to one another.

Okay, enough jibber jabber. Some questions. First of all, what the hell is Bartlebooth up to? What’s up with this lifelong, more or less pointless quest that he has decided to dedicate his vast resources and rare freedom toward? Why did Perec make this exceedingly odd quest the centerpiece of this book? And is this quest really a quest? What exactly is a quest?

Another question: What did you think of the extract from the catalog from Madame Moreau’s do-it-yourself home improvement business [pp.79 – 83]? It’s a pretty long, jargon-filled list. Did you like it? Did it bore you? Why stick it in the book at all? Why didn’t Perec simply allude to it, of include a shorter list just to give a flavor of the catalog?

What do you think of this character talked about in Chapter 17 only named as “he.” This man has “lived in the building longer than anyone else” [67] and has very extensive memories of all sorts of details from the life of the apartment building:

He tried to resuscitate those imperceptible details which over the course of fifty-five years had woven the life of this house and which the years had unpicked one by one: the impeccably polished linoleum floors on which you were only allowed to walk in felt undershoes, the oiled canvas tablecloths with red and green stripes on which mother and daughter shelled peas; the dishstands that clipped together, the white porcelain counterpoise light that you could flick back up with one finger at the end of dinner . . .

Who is this man? (Perec’s authorial doppelganger, perhaps?) What is he doing on the stairs? Will we ever hear from him or see him again?

Life Big Read: Things


So now that we’ve had a chance to experience a bit of Life A User’s Manual, let’s talk about one of the most distinctive things about Perec’s prose in this book: the extraordinary tangibility of it.

I don’t know about all of you, but just about every last thing described in this book feels remarkably palpable, touchable, and real to me. I think this is important. Here’s why.

To explain what I mean, let’s go back to one of Perec’s very first books, titled simply Things. This is a great, small book. It’s about two young French professionals in the ’60s who have just begun making their way in life. The book is titled Things because that’s just what the two protagonists are obsessed with–things, namely chic consumer goods. They’re torn between fully embracing consumer culture and all it represents and keeping a cool distance (and all that represents). Tellingly, Perec’s protagonists are in their late 20s, the age when one’s youthful aspirations for a romantic, bohemian life are beginning to seriously clash with one’s aspirations for a place of some status in society. The book is about how they navigate this stage of life, between a life of no-thing and a life of things.

Clearly, Perec was aware of the powerful force that could be exerted by consumer objects in a capitalistic society, as the tension in Things revolves around exactly the force that these objects emit on his youthful protagonists. It was very much a concern of the times (think, for instance, of Barthes’ Mythologies), and although Perec perhaps has a reputation for abstract, postmodern games, it’s not too much of a surprise to see that the power of things fascinated him. After all, that very postmodernism that he so well embodied goes hand in hand with a thoroughly commodified society in which objects have great symbolic value.

So what does all this have to do with Life? Well, just read the prose. You will hardly find a single object in this entire book that is not described in exquisite, incredibly precise, yet breathtakingly brief detail. Take, for instance, all the precision of detail in this list from page 43:

Lined up on top of this bookcase are various casts, an old Marianne from some town hall, large vases, three fine alabaster pyramids, whilst the five layers of shelving bow under the weight of a heap of knickknacks, curios, and gadgets: kitsch objects from a 1930s Inventors’ Exhibition: a potato-peeler, a device for stirring mayonnaise with a little cylinder that releases the oil drop by drop, a tool for fine-slicing hard-boiled eggs and another for making butter whorls, a terrifying complicated monkey wrench no doubt intended to be merely the ultimate in corkscrews; . . .

Notice how substantial Perec makes the knickknacks by telling us that the shelf bows under their weight (a memorable image; normally the only thing that can make a shelf bend is books). Notice too that he labels these things as kitsch–despite that they were the subject of a special “inventor’s exhibition.” This contrast points us toward the themes of copies, fakes, and cultural appropriation that are already rife in this book. Also note that, even though this is just a list of items, yet it’s so well defined, so varied, so intriguing. I feel as though I could read this list forever.

And that’s a good thing, because a substantial amount of space in Life A User’s Manual is taken up by descriptions of things and, frequently, the story behind them.

It’s very much worthwhile to consider why Perec describes these things in such detail and why he allows them to dominate his book. Partly, this domination is required by the conceit of the book–that it describes a single moment in Paris on June 23, 1975. Really, all a book that exists in but one moment in time can do is describe–and what better to describe than things?

Also notice how the book becomes encyclopedic with these descriptions, that is, how the things and their backstories build up a mosaic image of a postmodern, globalized culture. This is, of course, very much represented (perhaps even idealized) in Bartlebooth’s mad scheme to paint 500 ports in ever corner of the globe over the course of 20 years (and notice, again, how Perec details so many components of transnational capitalistic society in explaining how this scheme works).

So as we read, take some time to consider why things so often take center stage in this book. Think about how they function in the book, how Perec approaches them, and what the many, interconnected stories behind them might mean.

Welcome to the Life A User’s Manual Big Read


Okay everyone, the Life A User’s Manual Big Read starts today. Welcome! If you need a refresher on the schedule of reading, have a look here.

Now then, first things first: everyone observe that there’s no colon in the title of this book. No, I’m not sure why either. Maybe we can figure it out.

I don’t want to say too much about this week’s reading yet, so for today just a few words about how Perec set this book up. Famously, Life A User’s Manual is riddled with constraints. As a member of the group OuLiPo, Georges Perec was a writer very much familiar with the idea of constraints. For example, probably the most famous writing constraint he ever engaged in was to write an entire book in which the letter “e” never appears. (And in fact, it has been translated into English, maintaining the constraint.)

Life A User’s Manual is saturated with all kinds of constraints (to get an idea, have a look at this table, in French but still quite comprehensible if you don’t have any French). I’m not nearly qualified to talk about all of these constraints, but there are a couple very famous ones that we should know about before we start reading.

The first is The Knight’s Tour. The idea of this is that there are specific routes by which the chess figure known as a Knight can touch every square on a chessboard. Perec envisioned his apartment as something like a chessboard, making it a 10 x 10 grid (36 squares larger than a chessboard’s 8 x 8). In Life, the narrative voice is akin to the Knight in that it moves from square to square via the leap that only a chess Knight can make (i.e. two steps forward, one to the right; or two steps left, one forward). Note that the apartments in Perec’s building are not each only 1 square in size . . . many of them are built by combining adjacent units into one large unit, which Perec notes in their descriptions. Each of the 99 chapters in Life corresponds to one of the squares, meaning that for some characters we are in their apartments more than once (albeit in different rooms of the apartment). And yes, the math majors among us have already noticed that 10 x 10 = 100, not 99. We’ll talk about that missing 100th chapter later.

Knowing this, and watching the clues that Perec leaves (usually at the beginning of each chapter) you can, if you want, reconstruct a diagram of the apartment as we go along. (There’s also a completed diagram at the end of the book, but I heavily recommend you don’t look at it early.) In fact, doing so as we read is probably tantamount to accepting Perec’s implicit challenge to “put together” his puzzle, as Bartlebooth does with jigsaw puzzles in the book. This would make sense, as one of the themes that Perec elaborates throughout Life is that of a puzzle as a medium of communication between the puzzle designer and the puzzle doer.

The one other thing I’ll mention right now is that Perec famously placed quotes from favorite authors directly into the text of Life without any sort of indication whatsoever. Undoubtedly some of these quotes will be recognizable to you, and it is a thrilling moment to see, for instance, Borges suddenly emerge from the text as though popping out of a pool of water. Probably, though, many of these quotes will go completely unnoticed, a further testament to Perec’s skill as a writer.

There is, I think, very much of a point to jigsawing in these quotes from other texts, as we’ll soon see that Life is very much concerned with ideas of appropriation and the global web of international culture (one wishes Perec had lived to see the Internet).

That’s enough for a first post. Enjoy this week’s reading, be on the lookout for more posts, and share any discoveries or thoughts in the comments section!

Life A User’s Manual Big Read Schedule


In this post you’ll find the reading schedule for the 2011 Life A User’s Manual Big Read, plus a list of resources and books you may want to have a look at in conjunction with the read.

The read will start on Sunday, March 13, one week after we launch the spring issue of The Quarterly Conversation. If you want to join in, this is the text we’ll be working with.

One note: I’m only including pages up through page 569 of the Godine corrected edition in this schedule. You are encouraged to read the Appendices in conjunction with the read, but I’m not going to include them on this schedule.


Week 1: March 13 – March 19: Preamble plus Part 1 (pp. XV – 89)
Week 2: March 20 – March 26: First half of Part 2 (pp. 93 – 173)
Week 3: March 27 – April 2: Second half of Part 2 and First half of Part 3 (pp. 173 – 273)
Week 4: April 3 – April 9: Second half of Part 3 (pp. 274 – 344)
Week 5: April 10 – April 16: Part 4 (pp. 347 – 459)
Week 6: April 17 – April 23: Part 5 (pp. 463 – 521)
Week 7: April 24 – April 30: Part 6 + Epilogue (pp. 525 – 569)
Week 8: May 1 – May 7: Concluding thoughts & discussions


Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature, edited by Warren Motte
Oulipo in their own words. A collection of writings by members of the Oulipo group, including Italo Calvino, Harry Mathews, Georges Perec, Jacques Roubad, and Raymond Queneau.
Georges Perec issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction
Essays about Perec, and some texts by him.
Georges Perec: A Life in Words by David Bellos
Gigantic biography of Perec by the translator of Life.
The Orchard: A Remembrance of Georges Perec by Harry Mathews

Web Resources

Georges Perec at Words Without Borders
Reading Georges Perec from CONTEXT
Georges Perec at The Scriptorium
Paul Auster’s New York Times Review of Life
Oulipo information

Spring 2011 Big Read: Life A Users Manual

We have chosen our Big Read for this spring, and it is Life A User’s Manual by Georges Perec. Thanks to everyone who voted.

If you are going to be reading along with us, I recommend Godine’s corrected translation of the book (published in 2008), in which David Bellos updates his original 1987 translation. (For information as to the differences between the two, see my interview with Godine editor Susan Barba.)

Full schedule of reading to come soon, but for now plan on starting the read in early March.

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