I’m curious to know specifically why this book did or did not work for you, because it seems to divide reader-friends of mine like few others. Some take right to it, others seem to never find a way in. I can’t say exactly why. For my own part, though I never feel any narrative momentum when I read Life, that doesn’t bother me in the least. I enjoy its Decameron-like structure, the parade of stories and stories-within-stories, and stories-within-stories-within-stories. I’ve always liked books like that (The Golden Age would be a good example from last year), books that are virtuosic in their ability to contain a million viewpoints and a million details and a million characters all within one schema. If a book can do that and do it well continuously, I really don’t care about the absence of plot. But then again, I like to read the encyclopedia and the dictionary, so I’m clearly sympathetic to this kind of a book.
I also have much sympathy with the themes that Perec picks up. I think he foresees a hell of a lot in Life and gives the final word to a number of other things. Whatever you thought of it, I don’t think it’s arguable that it’s the capstone to a certain kind of writing that flourished in the middle of last century and pretty much ended with Life. That’s not to say that the book hasn’t given birth to new writers, Oulipian and otherwise, just that none of those inspired by it ever did it the way Perec did.
One of our readers, Bob Garlitz, tendered his resignation on his blog last week.
I did that once with the great novel by Cortázar, Hopscotch. I did enjoy that book immensely. Life is no Hopscotch. Life may be, but the novel is not. At least the four hundred pages I read did not endear me to the experience in the ways that reading Hopscotch did. Not even close. I read Perec’s Avoid, famous for not using one “e” either in French or in either of the two English translations. That should have been enough. I knew better when Conversational Reading announced the project. So, cut your losses, embrace your failure, hand the book on at the transfer station or try to sell it over the next ten years. No doubt it is a masterwork. I am just not much of an Oulipian sympathizer or fellow traveler. Back to Bernhard or on to someone else. Better do some research now on Jardin des Plantes before biting into that macaronesque morsel. I will need, it seems, a short course on the relationship, if any, between Oulipo and the Nouveau Roman. Or perhaps enough with all these French writers. Back to England, back to the Raj, pick up Jane Gardam’s Old Filth instead. Or how about Pessoa, Saramago, Vargas Llosa. Even better, a new work by Aira. There is guaranteed reading pleasure.
I like what Garlitz says here insofar as he doesn’t talk in terms of him failing the book or the book failing him–simply he says that though it may be a masterpiece, it wasn’t for him. Which is of course perfectly fine. You wouldn’t walk into a museum and expect to like every painting you saw, even if the museum you walked into was the Louvre, so why would you expect to have an affinity for every masterpiece of world literature?
But where I disagree is in Garlitz’s assertion that he is “not much of an Oulipian sympathizer.” To judge an entire school of writing on not liking Perec is over-hasty, as Oulipo has proven that there are many, many books that can be made out of its method. (You can see my favorites in this list right here.) For instance, Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is an incredibly plotty, very fun and funny book that has very little in common at all with Life. If you didn’t like Life want another crack at Oulipo, I highly recommend it. Or for something complete different, you could try My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973 by Harry Mathews. Or any number of books on my list.