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?

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I didn’t mind reading the catalog from the DIY business. I can’t say I gave it as much attention as other passages but it stands out in terms of formatting and I think it works as a list just like many of the other lists in the book. Of course I also enjoy reading Barthelme. I guess I think of the lists as frames around something an author is trying to describe indirectly. I don’t have the book in front of me just this second but I recall thinking some of the items in the catalog were ‘cute’ and some more more handy. I’m not a home improvement guy myself but I wonder if there are items that conspicuously off-kilter or missing.

The Knight’s Tour construct is probably more useful for the author than it is for the reader. If it does give a sense of space and affect the pace at which characters can be linked together that will bear out in the reading without my explicit knowledge of how many spaces up and to the right I moved. It seems like this constraint is pretty easily circumvented when convenient by stretching apartments across ‘squares’ and placing characters where he likes. Or for that matter Perec has already used Valène’s space to talk about Winckler or vice versa (can’t remember just this second).

As far as Bartlebooth’s quest goes I suspended disbelief and took it as a conceit in a work of fiction. It’s really difficult to compare Life’s world to mine in order to tell what’s quirky and what seems normal. Is it at all representative of Paris in the 70s? Did people really have servants and servant’s quarters at that point? Oh that reminds me. How does Perec gain access to the knowledge necessary to write at length about the lives of the superwealthy? That’s more of a general question in my mind. How do writers get so many details and insights into the lives that they don’t lead?

Hello everyone… TQC contributor J. Lingan here. Happy to be reading this in a group because, to be perfectly frank, I might not have stuck with it otherwise after the first Part.

I’m enjoying some of the long asides and fictional histories (I wrote my undergrad thesis on “Tristram Shandy,” so I’m always happy to indulge some authorial digression), and the Bartlebooth “quest” is a funny enough device to hang a book on, in my opinion. Still, the skeptic in me is having a hard time divining the “point” of the whole thing thus far. I understand the structural ideas and the constraints that Perec’s using, but the thematic implications (Scott mentioned many of them above) all seem fairly obvious.

Since this is also my first first-hand experience with Oulipo, I’ll expand the question: what were the group’s ultimate goals? Why the constraints, the puzzles, the rampant allusions and intertextual references? What should I be looking for other than highly diverting puzzles?

I’m with John. Digressions seem more like a maze to me. Jim

First, I love this book. I have read it multiple times. I’m not a thinker. I’m a feeler (not like one on Gregor Samsa’s head). Therefore, I am eager to listen when thinkers talk about art I admire. I’m on the level of the late, much lamented Chris Farley when it comes to my ability to analyze (“Remember when you did that thing? That was great.”). So here I am, reading along again with my trusty hand drawn by me Knight’s Tour map. I mean, you know, like, this is great!

Greetings fellow readers!

Thus far, I’ve found this work challenging. It’s construction is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered and I’ve found it very difficult to keep track of the character’s relationships to one another. Despite this, ample rewards have sprouted amongst the anecdotes.

The most compelling chapter in this section (for me) was Ch. 3, which describes the sect of “The Three Free Men.” The initiation ceremony that the men have undertaken may be of particular interest when considering the host of material objects that Perec describes throughout the work. For instance, part of the first stage of each man’s initiation is the “contemplation of a perfectly trivial mental or material object to such a degree as to become oblivious to all feeling, even to extreme pain…” The metal dice that rest beneath the heels of each man provides an additional symbol (!?) of materiality and perhaps Kafka or Cumus-like absurdity. But maybe not…

Some reoccurring questions about Perec’s intentions:

1) To what extant do 21st century advanced-industrial folks cultivate an identity through the accumulation things?

2) Is this book even about identity?

I’m going to hold out on speaking to Bartlebooth’s “quest” until I get a little further along.


While I would describe myself as a plot driven reader, I am loving this book and am really enjoying the lengthy descriptions and diversions. It may be because myself and a lot of those I’m close to are taking a hard look at their own lives in the midst of this “recession” and taking stock of what the meaning of their life’s work and possessions are — these are things I think about every day, both in the “what can I live with and what can I live without” idea of material things, and also as a member of a struggling, creative field where I spend an extraordinary amount of my time working hard on projects that may never have an audience or give back much in the form of monetary returns.

This perspective has made Bartlebooth’s “quest” poignant to me so far as just… life. You work hard on something meaningful to you, large or small, private or for an audience, maybe some of it will remain after your death, maybe none of it will and… that’s the best you can do. So I’m interested to see where it goes, and especially how his decision to structure his life around this quest has given others around him their purpose in life too.

As for Moreau’s catalogue, I found it interesting that the great lists of items were lists of kits. They were objects, but objects that were intended to be used to build other objects, and therefore, I wanted to know everything in each kit because the items told you what you could build or change, the scope of the project, etc. Some of them were very “do-it-yourself” fix it kits and some of them were much more open ended and creative projects. I did get a big kick out of the “business kit” at the end of the list. To me, it seemed much more like a “Halloween costume” than a useful kit.

I’m reading this in French – I decided if I was going to struggle with Perec it might as well be in the original language. It’s increased my vocabulary immensely especially on furniture but it hasn’t been the struggle I expected. The rhythm of the prose, the sheer love of words, the unexpected plays on words (though I suspect I am missing a lot of them), the lists of everything imaginable that is part of the life of the bourgeoisie of the 20th century, have completely seduced me.

I like Bartlebooth’s strange quest which seems as meaningful a way to spend one’s life as many others. So I agree with Ginny’s response above. I’ve been looking at my own possessions in a new way and wondering how Perec would list them. I’ve been reading ahead so won’t say too much more, but I’ve found I have to go back and reread sections that are referred to later on. At the moment I am taking a lot on trust, that the puzzle will all fit together in the end – but maybe not.

I thought the ‘he’ (il) in Chap 17 was Valene, as on the next page we read about Bartlebooth visiting ‘him’ (lui) for his daily lesson, and the following sentence says, ‘Valene, lui…’. In the chronology at the end Valene is listed as moving into the building in 1919. But maybe I am wrong on this.

I get the impression that I am meant to get… an impression; of people, their lives, fears, goals, biographies etc… through the objects and stories they leave behind. It strikes me as a sort of tale of one’s mortality. What do we (those people) leave behind when they/we die? Images? Stories? Physical stuff? What’s the bloody point of it all? I am waiting to see if their lives “matter” after the cataloging and puzzles stop (assuming they do). Not having read ahead at all I am curious to see where this is going and may be completely wrong in my suppositions but this I how it strikes me so far. It is entertaining without being heavy or belabored. I laughed out loud a few times. Interesting book.

Hey guys,

Awesome comments. I can’t respond to everything I want to right now because there’s so much stuff on the table, but here are a few quick responses to some of the points:

* OuLiPo–basic idea here (and this is a huge simplification) is that constraint enables freedom/creativity. Thus the constraints, games, puzzles, etc–they were all a way of firing the imagination. You can look at it as a response to capitalism–this era of unprecedented freedom, wealth, etc. Constraint starts to look like an answer to lots of questions. (For contemp. versions of the embrace of constraint, think of the slow food movement; the popularity of Buddhism in the U.S.)

* I think servants and servants’ quarters were fairly common in the ’70s, and even lots of domestic help now. France is very different than the U.S.!

* For some reason I really liked the three free men too. It’s always stuck with me. Its such a tense, living scene in my mind, with so many sharp details that just stick in my brain. Plus the whole idea of a sect slowly taking over the world by force of mathematical reproduction sees so Perec-like.

* Totally agree that the book makes you think about how what you own owns you, how it will “live” after you die, where it all comes from. I think these are very characteristic questions for late capitalism that we’ve seen other postmodern authors take up (e.g. Don DeLillo). My question to you: What’s Perec’s unique wrinkle on this theme?

* I like the idea of the catalog being objects used to build/manipulate other objects. So now it’s not just enough to own things–we have to own things to work on the other things we already own. Where does it all end? Also, I would argue that all the kits and such brilliantly anticipate the lust for DIY home improvement that took over U.S. society circa 1990 – 2010; it was probably the middle class hobby of that era. This isn’t the only thing Perec correctly anticipates in this book.

Re Bartlebooth’s quest, I’m with Ginny and Gilly – not really reading into it but rather I am happy to take it at face value. If I had such financial resources, and as a result time, then I would love to travel the world in a similar fashion, with only a flimsy excuse to tie my trip together needed.

Also I will have to go back and re-read now, but I too thought that the “he” in Chp 17 referred to Valene.

What I’m enjoying most so far is the sheer fecundity of Perec’s imagination: the stories and characters just spill out of him. And the fact that they’re all told in retrospect, capsule summaries of a life, makes them more like actual life to me than most fiction: we learn people’s stories–from them or others–in summary form afterwards, not as they’re being lived. Perec’s version may be more ironic and whimsical than those we get from friends or friends of friends, but they’re recognizably of that genre. I live in a building of 18 units, and I could imagine–if I were more sociable and inquisitive–getting this sort of account from each of the apartments (though the range of experience and story would be much narrower than Perec’s goofily world-spanning accounts). I’m just astonished at how much life Perec is able to inject into what are technically static scenes.

I just wanted to second Gilly”s response that the guy on the stairs is Valene. He moved into the building in 1919 and the guy on the stairs has 55 years of history there. A snippet from when I was googling around about the book suggested Valene was Perec as storyteller and Winckler was Perec as puzzlemaker. I don’t know if I personally need to put the author inside of the characters so explicitly as that.

Here, right now, at this moment on Sunday, as my girlfriend puts her groceries away, I’ll open my notebook and pick up my pen, and I’ll begin to write my initial thoughts about Life A Users Manuel. I should mention, dear reader, that what follows should not be taken as criticism, for I am simply not up to it; I haven’t the strength-a cold, a fever-to take Perec to task, exposing his limitations. Alas, all I have is praise and respect, and I coddle my feeble mindedness with the conviction that Perec’s book simply resists critical examination and exposure. Confounded, I was thrust back to basics. I could not get over my amazement; it was each sentence, simply that, the complete beauty and refined classical clarity of Perec’s prose. I felt immediately at home, safe in the hands of a superior sensibility. I was infected, and I too came to feel superior, somewhat. On the subway I was filled with contempt by all the ipod wearers, and those readers of sixth rate novels-composed in dreadful, dead simple sentences. In superior fashion, I realized that to live a life devoid of Perec was to subject oneself to a strange aestheticism (Borges on Dante), and I wondered, could immersing myself in the beauty and clarity of Life’s sentences make me a better person ? As I was wondering about Perec as therapy, or the unintentional, beneficial consequences of reading Perec-perhaps LAUM could play a role in prison reform-I came to the realization that such a possibility is just ironic enough. Because in Life there is no exploration of interior states, no explanations of feeling and motivations. Perec’s descriptions, of people as well as things, impressively, maintains an objective descriptive distance from his subject, and this distancing helps account for the originality of Life. I was struck by the tone, as well, the warmth maintained despite this objective distance, and while I sense there is coyness in the narration it is always charming, and seems at times imbued with real joy.


I have read Perec’s novel before, but I thought this would be a good time to read it again.

To answer some of the questions:

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?

I love the way Perec has structured his story. By moving about the building in such a controlled fashion, he creates the impression that the world of the building is much larger than it is. By that I mean we are never explicitly following a character as they go about their business; instead, we are introduced to a variety of people all connected in obvious and less-obvious ways.

The obvious – they all live in the same building and, most of them have lived there for a long time. Thus, people know one another, which means that in one person’s section, others will be mentioned. At first, this is confusing, because we don’t know these other people, but gradually we come to learn about them. As this is a reread for me, I know what to look for and I “recognise” people straight away.

This is a familiar literary technique, though generally it is used for a single character – consider Cormac McCarthy’s the Judge, or Melville’s Moby Dick – these characters are larger because we never inhabit them. They remain unknown, and so we fill in the blanks. What we imagine is larger than what could be written by virtue of our imagination becoming entangled within our feelings and the impressions derived from the language of the story.

Perec uses this technique in a very different manner. Instead of it being an embodiment of evil (the Judge), he uses it for everyone. In Smautf’s chapter, Bartlebooth is a “large” character because he is unknown to Smautf other than as his employer, and as the wandering painter. In a number of chapters, the sound of Winckler’s fretsaw is mentioned, and this distance (ie we aren’t directly learning about it in the sense of “Winckler sat down and used his fretsaw”) creates more of an impact through repetition and influence.

The anecdotes and stories serve to remove the novel from the confines of the building whilst simultaneously anchoring them to it. We know that, no matter how far we remove ourselves from the building during one of these stories, it is inevitable that we will return – thus, the building becomes the centre of the world. If we consider the sheer number of countries and cities mentioned just in the first part, it is tremendous to think that this one Parisian building could have links to them all. But it does, and we learn them, and thus, the building gains equal footing with all manner of great and ancient cities and places.

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?

I’ve read the book, so I know as much as anyone what Bartlebooth is up to. But I would suggest that, while Bartlebooth’s quest is by far the most prominent, many of the secondary and tertiary characters pursue equally impossible quests throughout their lives. Everyone is reaching toward their own infinity. Smautf becomes obsessed with factorials that are too big to be written down. Winckler works on creating puzzles so intricate they seem only to be puzzles to him (the ring that can only be ‘solved’ once, etc). The Japanese (Chinese?) cult that will eventually have everyone in the world as a member.

All of these – and there are more, but that’s off the top of my head – are of a similar vein to Bartlebooth’s quest. They are all ultimately pointless and cannot truly be achieved. At the same time, they are all quests larger than a single individual’s life, and thus, in a strange way, assist in giving that life meaning while also taking it away. If you can’t ever achieve something, then what a waste to give your life to it. On the other hand, a goal bigger than a single individual has something holy about it, akin to a sacrifice of self.

What did you think of the extract from the catalogue 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?

This fits in with the above quite neatly. By reading this tedious list – by writing this tedious list – both Perec and the reader becomes a participant in these unattainable quests. Everything cannot be listed, but to list everything is a goal a person might have.

A list of everything cannot be read, but the attempt may be made. Half a page, or a page – or a summary – would have more than sufficed, but this list went on for such a long time that there must be meaning. And the meaning is, I think, that an accumulation of information might provide you with something, but it doesn’t provide you with much. There’s nothing to gain morally, ethically, or intellectually by reading a list of items, and yet these lists are endemic throughout our lives. We give them meaning by giving them meaning, which is what Perec has done here.

Some other thoughts:

I am enjoying this book a lot more the second time through (to be fair, I’m doing a three-read with it, so, reading each part three times then posting). I know what to expect, and because of that, I can enjoy each piece for what it is. I don’t need to work on the jigsaw puzzle as much as someone reading it their first time through.

I think the preamble is very telling, and the final paragraph in it (concerning the fact that the jigsaw maker needs to anticipate each move the puzzler will do in order to create the most challenging puzzle) is a clear message to the reader. This is Perec’s jigsaw, and he knows the acrobatics we are going to perform to unravel his creation.

The things-ness of the novel is quite striking; equally striking is Perec’s aptitude for description. I very rarely feel bored with lengthy paragraphs of description, and often in fact find these amongst the most interesting parts of each chapter. Similarly, the repetition works well, and the same for the echoes of meaning between chapters.

Perec was a discovery for me last year, and thus far, a close reading of Life A User’s Manual has been amongst the most enjoyable reading I’ve undertaken this year.


I’ve reread the do-it-yourself catalog a few times now and every time I read it it seems more comical. There’s something intrinsically funny about “bricolage” and it’s the subject of many French cartoons and jokes. The serious exactness of the listings and the detailed vocabulary (details that are very important if you are a handyman but are of no great interest to most people) seem to echo Perec’s intentions with the other lists in the book. These objects have importance to this character, he seems to say to the reader, trust me – and then takes us deep into the background and history of one of these, a book, a photograph, a picture. We plunge into the rabbit hole after him. I found I came to love that moment and I think the rhythm of how it occurs is quite extraordinary.

I won’t say much, since there is already a post up about next week and I’m already behind (the dangers of sharing the book with your girlfriend during the same group read!) but I will say that the aspect of the book I’m most enjoying is Perec’s understated and wry humor. I’ve already laughed quite a few times and not just brain laughs, either.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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