Now then, first things first: everyone observe that there’s no colon in the title of this book. No, I’m not sure why either. Maybe we can figure it out.
I don’t want to say too much about this week’s reading yet, so for today just a few words about how Perec set this book up. Famously, Life A User’s Manual is riddled with constraints. As a member of the group OuLiPo, Georges Perec was a writer very much familiar with the idea of constraints. For example, probably the most famous writing constraint he ever engaged in was to write an entire book in which the letter “e” never appears. (And in fact, it has been translated into English, maintaining the constraint.)
Life A User’s Manual is saturated with all kinds of constraints (to get an idea, have a look at this table, in French but still quite comprehensible if you don’t have any French). I’m not nearly qualified to talk about all of these constraints, but there are a couple very famous ones that we should know about before we start reading.
The first is The Knight’s Tour. The idea of this is that there are specific routes by which the chess figure known as a Knight can touch every square on a chessboard. Perec envisioned his apartment as something like a chessboard, making it a 10 x 10 grid (36 squares larger than a chessboard’s 8 x 8). In Life, the narrative voice is akin to the Knight in that it moves from square to square via the leap that only a chess Knight can make (i.e. two steps forward, one to the right; or two steps left, one forward). Note that the apartments in Perec’s building are not each only 1 square in size . . . many of them are built by combining adjacent units into one large unit, which Perec notes in their descriptions. Each of the 99 chapters in Life corresponds to one of the squares, meaning that for some characters we are in their apartments more than once (albeit in different rooms of the apartment). And yes, the math majors among us have already noticed that 10 x 10 = 100, not 99. We’ll talk about that missing 100th chapter later.
Knowing this, and watching the clues that Perec leaves (usually at the beginning of each chapter) you can, if you want, reconstruct a diagram of the apartment as we go along. (There’s also a completed diagram at the end of the book, but I heavily recommend you don’t look at it early.) In fact, doing so as we read is probably tantamount to accepting Perec’s implicit challenge to “put together” his puzzle, as Bartlebooth does with jigsaw puzzles in the book. This would make sense, as one of the themes that Perec elaborates throughout Life is that of a puzzle as a medium of communication between the puzzle designer and the puzzle doer.
The one other thing I’ll mention right now is that Perec famously placed quotes from favorite authors directly into the text of Life without any sort of indication whatsoever. Undoubtedly some of these quotes will be recognizable to you, and it is a thrilling moment to see, for instance, Borges suddenly emerge from the text as though popping out of a pool of water. Probably, though, many of these quotes will go completely unnoticed, a further testament to Perec’s skill as a writer.
There is, I think, very much of a point to jigsawing in these quotes from other texts, as we’ll soon see that Life is very much concerned with ideas of appropriation and the global web of international culture (one wishes Perec had lived to see the Internet).
That’s enough for a first post. Enjoy this week’s reading, be on the lookout for more posts, and share any discoveries or thoughts in the comments section!