The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

Available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and direct from this site:


Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

For low prices on Las Vegas shows visit LasVegas.ShowTickets.com
  • OopsOops

    But, fortunately, probably not as good as Kafka. Take the example of Casimir Adamowitz-Kostrowicki, born in Paris in... »
  • The Other MitteleuropeanThe Other Mitteleuropean

    The New York Review covers the latest book from the one many prefer to Stefan Zweig. Hitler was named Reich chancellor... »
  • The Wallcreeper by Nell ZinkThe Wallcreeper by Nell Zink

    You really have to hand it to indie press people: leave it to us to collectively hyperventilate and continually apologize for a... »
  • Back to the FutureBack to the Future

    I'm not exactly sure why we need Jennifer Weiner to rehash the whole "blogs versus critics" thing. Here's an idea: if some... »
  • Sacred TearsSacred Tears

    My contribution to Music & Literature Issue 5 is a long essay on Stig Saeterbakker that began in my reading of his essays. For... »
  • Translating ModianoTranslating Modiano

    Mark Polizzotti on translating Patrick Modiano. His translation of Suspended Sentences comes out next month from Yale... »
  • Beckett’s Letters, Part IIIBeckett’s Letters, Part III

    Another review for Volume 3 of Samuel Beckett's Letters. The Independent. The success of Waiting for Godot is still warm and... »
  • If You Don’t Know About Publishing . . .If You Don’t Know About Publishing . . .

    Busy day today, so I don't have the time to catalog all the absurdities here, but needless to say Matthew Yglesias should stick... »
  • There Is Only One Way to ReadThere Is Only One Way to Read

    I know that people like Farhad Manjoo get paid to be techno-utopians, but I still don't quite understand why they seem to think... »
  • Two New CavinosTwo New Cavinos

    Collection of Sand has just been published in English in the U.S., as has the Complete Cosmicomics. More Calvino in the world... »

You Say

  • Gilly: Just finished it, it is an astonishing book.
  • Arielle: The title of the article has a typo!
  • Patrick O'Donnell: Irony abounds: when I clicked to take a quick look at this
  • Richard: That article is ridiculous. I can't even reply, except to sa
  • Andrija F.: And don't forget to add Elfriede Jelinek, my favorite among
  • Richard: If you search for this Chris Roberts, God being on Amazon (y
  • Seamus Duggan: READ MARILYNNE ROBINSON!!!!! No encouragement needed, althou

Group Reads

The Tunnel

Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

A group read of the book that either "engenders awe and despair" or "[goads] the reader with obscenity and bigotry," or both. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Fans of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo: A group read of the book that went from Xlibris to the University of Chicago Press. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Life Perec

Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Starting March 2011, read the greatest novel from an experimental master. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Last Samurai

Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

A group read of one of the '00s most-lauded postmodern novels. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Tale of Genji

The Summer of Genji

Two great online lit magazines team up to read a mammoth court drama, the world's first novel.

Your Face Tomorrow

Your Face This Spring

A 3-month read of Javier Marias' mammoth book Your Face Tomorrow

Shop though these links = Support this site


Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

New Books
Here are ten of my favorite moments from these hugely interesting letters.


Interviews from Conversational Reading

New Books
See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante September 16, 2014
    Few novelists have captured the rhythms and flow of life with the veracity of Elena Ferrante in her Neapolitan Novels. Following the friendship between Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo from childhood to old age, the tetralogy spans fifty years; over the course of that time, no emotion is too small, too dark, too banal to be recorded. No expense, so to speak, is […]
  • Trieste by Daša Drndić September 15, 2014
    As Drndić reiterates throughout the novel, “Behind every name there is a story.” And Haya Tedeschi’s story is draped in death. Born to a Jewish family that converted to Catholicism and tacitly supported the Fascists in Italy, Haya was a bystander to the Holocaust. She attended movies while Jews and partisans were transported to concentration camps; she pored […]
  • The Tree With No Name by Drago Jančar September 15, 2014
    At the opening of chapter 87—the first chapter found in The Tree with No Name—Janez Lipnik finds himself up a tree, shoeless, and lost in the Slovenian countryside. He makes his way to a house where he is taken in by a woman teacher who is waiting for her lover, a soldier. It becomes clear we are at the height of World War II. Soon after, we follow Lipnik […]
  • Kjell Askildsen, Selected Stories September 15, 2014
    Here, at the midpoint of his narrative, Bernhard, the affectless and purposeless protagonist of "The Unseen," experiences existential near-emancipation at dusk. This retreat toward obscurity in terse, direct language—thematic and stylistic markers of each work in the collection—comes immediately after Bernhard’s sister mentions her plans to enterta […]
  • Berlin Now by Peter Schneider September 15, 2014
    In his new book of essays, Berlin Now, Peter Schneider reveals himself as a gnarled Cold Warrior who has been stricken with many of the maladies common to his generation. With the specter of Communism exorcized, his new enemy is Islam. The book is a collection of short interlocking pieces introducing Anglophone readers to Berlin; it is not being published in […]
  • Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente September 15, 2014
    In 1999, Marcos Giralt Torrente’s debut novel, Paris, was awarded the XVII Premio Herralde de Novela prize. Despite his success, it took fourteen years for Giralt’s work to appear in English, with the story collection The End of Love arriving in 2013. Now, this year sees the publication of two more books by Giralt: Paris, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, a […]
  • 10:04 by Ben Lerner September 15, 2014
    “It seemed that the [New Yorker] story—which was in part the result of my dealing with the reception of my novel—had been much more widely received than the novel itself,” says the narrator of Ben Lerner’s second novel, 10:04. Perhaps this narrator is Lerner himself—at one point he describes 10:04, within its own pages, as “neither fiction nor nonfiction but […]
  • Theories of Forgetting by Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
    Lance Olsen’s Theories of Forgetting is a masterful work structured around Robert Smithson’s earthwork “The Spiral Jetty.” Olsen’s novel is comprised of three narrations, written each by a separate member of a family. The husband’s and wife’s texts progress in opposite directions across the book, with each page divided among these two inverted texts; though […]
  • An Interview with Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
    The most substantial may be that innovative fiction knows what it is, that someone like me could define it in any productive way, that innovative fiction might somehow be one thing, or somehow consistent through time and space. None of these is the case. That’s exactly what I find most exciting about writing it, reading it, thinking about it. Innovative fict […]
  • The Ants by Sawako Nakayasu September 15, 2014
    In The Ants, we receive a study of existence through ants. That is, there are ants everywhere, ants substituted in every segment of the landscape, yet their behavior seems to reveal something altogether human. Too human. The ants are crushed and disappointed. They are warm and many. They are involved in gang wars and live inside carrot cake. The unique quali […]

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 . . .

You Might Also Like:

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. Life: A User's Manual In Life: A User’s Manual, Georges Perec describes a rarely visited tribe deep within Sumatra. An anthropologist is trying to understand the habits of the...
  2. Daily Life From Claire Messud’s excellent review of Suite Francaise, which is set in France during the first two years of the German occupation during World War...
  3. Michiko on Pynchon Michiko lets us down. The problem is these characters are drawn in such a desultory manner that they might as well be plastic chess pieces,...
  4. Photo book Geoff Dyer in The Guardian. Idris Khan’s response was to photograph every page of the book and then digitally combine them in a single, composite...
  5. Letters/E-mails This has been linked to a bit already, but what the heck. So my question, Is e-mail really the boon to literary biographers that people...

Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.

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??

Leave a Reply

  

  

  

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>