Welcome to the Life A User’s Manual Big Read


Okay everyone, the Life A User’s Manual Big Read starts today. Welcome! If you need a refresher on the schedule of reading, have a look here.

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!

Recent Posts

Criticism Isn't Free

CR is dedicated to thoughtful, in-depth criticism without regard to what's commercially appealing. It takes tens of hours each month to provide this. Please help make this sort of writing sustainable, either with a subscription or a one-time donation. Thank you!


Got Something To Say:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Scott: Thank you so much for the great intro post. Your description of the Knight’s Tour constraint is excellent and clear. I’m so excited we are doing this book at the Spring read!

Even more exciting, for me, is that I’m going to be traveling to Europe this Sunday for the first time in my life. I’ll be in Paris at one point for four days (the whole trip is two weeks). I don’t know how well I’ll keep up with the reading schedule, or how often I’ll be able to comment here, but I’m fully planning on taking Life A User’s Manual as my traveling companion/user’s manual, and very much look forward to reading it at one of the cafes described in Perec’s An Attempt To Exhaust a Place in Paris, which I also recently read…

Happy reading, everyone. Let the games begin!

At first I thought this was going to be a Pynchonesque experience (being wowed by a ployglot and trivia obsessed personality). To my delight I got into the rhythm after about 40 pages or so and actually laughed out loud a few times at some of the more bizarre characters and their behaviors/history. the obscure chessboard info is nice to know I suppose but I don’t see such convoluted, behind the scenes architecture making me actually enjoy reading the book more. We’ll see I suppose.

My main thought, 40 pages in– I’ve really got to let loose, I know– is that I really need to read the chapter on Bartlebooth as soon as possible, and until I do I’m on the edge of my seat. The puzzles I put together as a child–at least I knew what they were supposed to be of, even in a vague idea. But I grew up with industrial, machine-made puzzles. I wonder if the ones Perec is thinking of/employing came in boxes that advertised what they were? I never remembered being so nervous when putting together a puzzle before.

[…] 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 […]

The Latin American Mixtape

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.

Shop though these links = Support this site

Copyright © 2015. Powered by WordPress & Romangie Theme.