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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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4 comments to Life A User's Manual

  • J.P. Smith

    Perec’s is a book I’ve championed for years. One of the acknowledged authors he’d “stolen” from is a friend of mine, René Belletto. GP had “taken” a storyline from him and incorporated it within his work. No one seemed to mind, as Perec was a great friend to many writers, Calvino included (who was a member of OULIPO).

  • Jonathan Weed

    Perhaps you know this, but word on the street is that one of the mini-constraints of “LaUM” is that each section contains precisely 2 unsourced quotations.

  • J.P. Smith

    I have a fascimile published in France of Perec’s notebooks for the writing of Le Vie mode d’emploi, which reveals that the entire book is in thrall to GP’s many rules. If you read French, and are interested in knowing more about Perec’s compositional techniques, the volume is worth looking into.
    He does have a brief acknowledgement page (wherein Belletto–see above–is mentioned), but, yes, there are many unacknowledged borrowings throughout.

  • aslan

    Does anyone know if there is a list of/guide to these unattributed quotations in LaUM anywhere??

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