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.

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I’m perplexed. I’m not seeing any diagonal e’s, g’s and o’s. I would suggest they have a reference to “ego.” Who’s ego I might guess to be Valène since he’s discussing his placement in a painting about the building’s inhabitants.

For those of you who can’t see it: look at the last letter of the first line of this section: “Pelage.”

Now look at the second-to-last letter of the 2nd line: “exiles.”

Now look at the third to last letter of the 3rd line: “eye.”


See it? And so on. Freaking amazing, and an amazing translation job by David Bellos.

In French the letters spell out ame (soul). I didn’t see this, in either language, but had it pointed out to me. It’s amazing enough in French, but to get the translation lined up is astonishing – I am in awe of David Bellos.

I agree. That’s amazing to translate that trick. I’d love to be pointed in the direction of an article about the translators of Perec. I’m especially interested in how the hell the translator of a Void was able to also avoid the letter e. That has to be just as impressive as Perec’s accomplishment.

I was thinking today about the function of constraints and games and what enjoyment I get out of them. How do they add depth to a piece of literature? In one sense, games/puzzles are shallow. Why read this book instead of doing a crossword? Is this book just a giant really complicated word jumble? I don’t think that would be very fulfilling. I’ve come up with a couple reasons that might go beyond that. One is beauty/style. Letting the words and letters (and themes and characters, however you want to chunk it) tumble around and do flips and dances is very pretty, like filigree or fine wooden inlays. As long as those ornaments hang on something otherwise well-made they make up part of the author’s voice/identity and help map his mind onto yours while providing you a new mental architecture to hang your complex fancy thoughts on. The second is the mood and approach to questions games evoke in a reader. If you’ve been chopping wood all day your answer to profound philosophical questions will likely be different than if you’ve been tracing your way through mazes. An experimental writer might then give us puzzle after puzzle and then ask us “How should one live/organize/’create meaning in’ one’s life?”. I’d guess that produces a large bias in the types of answers you get back. I suppose any style that is consistent enough to train the reader’s mind would do such a thing.

I have to say that I’m enjoying (in the actual pleasure of reading sense) “Life” a lot more than I thought I would. For years it had sat on my shelf, one of those novels I thought I should read because it was going to be “good for me,” but difficult and frustrating in the way that only a translated French experimental novel can be.

But as to the question at hand about the diagonal, my thoughts are along these lines — what does it matter? It seems to me that the restraints that Perec gives himself and the games that he plays (knight’s move etc.) mean a lot for him as a writer than they do to me as a reader. Yes, they’re amusing and yes they’re clever, but at the end of the day I don’t think they really really matter. When we look back at Joyce, for instance, what stays with us are the characters and the atmosphere and their lives and Joyce’s voice (or voices) not so much Joyce’s gamesmanship. And when we look back at Perec, I suspect, what’s going to stay with us, what’s going to matter, are the characters we’ve met, the lives they lived, the way those lives intersected, the life of that building, and not Perec’s gamesmanship.

One of my favorite quotes from Harold Bloom is this one: “His [Shakespeare] few peers — Homer, the Yahwist, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Tolstoy, perhaps Dickens — remind us that the representation of human character and personality remains always the supreme literary value, whether in drama, lyric, or narrative. I am naive enough to read incessantly because I cannot, on my own, get to know enough people profoundly enough.” In Perec as well, I think, what matters are the characters and their stories and the way those stories reveal character. The rest is just, at least for me…window dressing. Lovely really cool window dressing, but window dressing all the same.

Without meaning to, I’ve been identifying Valene with Perec in my mind. Chapter 51 is a perfect example why, as Valene is working on a project quite similar to Perec’s.

As my husband pointed out to me early on, any time there is a list set off from the body text in this book it’s safe to assume there is an Oulipian game afoot. I am not adept at solving these puzzles (I’m having flashbacks to long car trips in childhood where I’d just stare stupidly at Games Magazine, unable to work out anything).

So, from my admittedly limited pov, the 179-line long bravura acrostic seems to be a fairly straightforward game, maybe the most straightforward so far. It’s an “inclusion” — a text within a text — where “ego” is the inclusion. I think it’s delightful because it is also something like a text-within-a-text-within-a-text if you are identifying Perec with Valene. I feel I’m peeking into the author’s planning notebook, getting a glimpse of some of the stories to come.

And what does it mean? For one, the acrostic section summarizes all the people (the egos, the souls) of the story, as opposed to the things (which Valene is thinking of painting, just before the acrostic begins).

Now, if anyone is good at puzzles/more conversant with Oulipian games, please tell me what you think of the list of captions on the drawings of Plassaerts’ (p 252-253)or the dream associations on the stairs, page 183.

I’ve been noticing more and more of these games, “constraints,” or patterns as I move through the book. Not wanting to spoil for myself the Valene-Winckler-Bartlebooth (three men!) intrigue, I haven’t yet read the Josipovici article, which may cover some of the following. But I wanted to venture the thought that Perec’s puzzles and patterns serve thematic purposes as well as an aesthetic ones – that they connect, on the largest level, to the ambitions signaled in the book’s title.

That title was at first a bit misleading for me. Typical American that I am, I came to the book focused on its ethical valence – like R.E.M.’s “Life and How to Live It,” only wry and Gallic. But apprehensions to the contrary began to arise as soon as I started reading.

They crystallized when I hit the phrase “instructions for use,” on p. 391. Here, the “instructions” in question are a document specifying “an immutable order in which every item had to be folded and placed”
back into Bartlebooth’s trunk, “which otherwise could never have been made to close again.” I don’t have a French copy of the book handy, but I’m guessing “instructions for use” is, in the original, “mode d’emploi.”

Now here’s where things – for me, at least – get interesting. The novel presents us with a vast set of “things,” among which Perec amusingly and philosophically refuses to distinguish. (You see this most nakedly, in the index, but also in the sentences themselves). Objects of various kids, “real” and “represented,” past and present, but also people, stories, and, as Scott points out in another post, words themselves. Even individual letters. The ontological flattening that makes these objects resemble each other – that makes it hard to
tell where a character in the novel ends and a character in a painting in the novel begins (assuming the novel’s characters aren’t themselves already in a painting, which I’m beginning to doubt) – is one of the
book’s most striking, crazy-making, and pleasurable formal features.
And if the title’s “Mode d’emploi” is like Bartlebooth’s, the connotations are less Montaigne than Ikea: Perec’s offering not “How to Live,” but a method for assembly (or disassembly). (Or, from another angle, an inscrutable diagram that makes you want to call the help line.)

A traditional assembly of this material would involve chronological linearity, pointing out the distinctions between, say, Marquiseaux and Old Lady Forthright, etc. but one could argue that these conventions are just another mode d’emploi – another way of applying a set of rules or constraints to the set of all things. Partly as a way of pointing this out, of making our own “modes d’emploi” obtrusive to us, of inviting us to interrogate them, Perec gives us other (equally) arbitrary ways of working on the same set – which brings out patterns and puzzles that are typically hidden from us.

At the structural level, the chief example is the “Knight’s Tour” constraint to which Scott has alerted us (though figuring this out is part of the puzzle; figuring out the question is part of the question.) At a more fine-grained or fractal level, we get the dozens of little embedded games that determine the arrangement of sentences and words.

So as much as Perec may be suggesting what we’ve been discussing – that life is things – I think he’s also showing us that meaning IS the use or arrangement of those things, how we move through or go at them. (Richard Hofstadter’s ideas of emergent meaning, and of the formal expression of sets and rules, might be useful here.)

In short: Meaning, in “Life A User’s Manual” is not inherent in objects, but depends upon the “mode d’emploi” brought to bear on them. As the preamble points out, the “meaning” or experience of a jigsaw puzzle is
determined not so much by the thing depicted as the pattern in which it is cut. What had seemed necessary is revealed as arbitrary, and vice versa, as if essence and substance were doing a dos-i-do. And on second thought, maybe this all has an ethical dimension as well.

At the very least, La vie mode d’emploi offers us experiences and meanings of the highest order. Never before has life been quite so literally what you make of it.

As for the lack of a colon, I’m still stumped.

There is a jewish tradition of saying psalms chapters with initials identical to those of a person who died, and then saying the chapters with the initials נשמה – soul.
This is another clue, maybe the strongest one, to the memory of perec’s mother.

[…] are various moments of Oulipian fun and games to be found in Life, such as pages 259-265, which, as Scott pointed out features diagonal e’s, g’s, and o’s. (If you can’t see this, start at the […]

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