Posted by: Sally Ingraham | May 4, 2010

Life A User’s Manual

Life a User's Manualby Georges Perec
translated by David Bellos

While typing out the title of this post I had a sudden horrible thought: “Cripes, have I been spelling ‘manual’ as ‘manuel’ this whole time? And nobody TOLD me?? Bahhhhh…..!” I can picture you all standing around in pained embarrassment, discussing who should point out my spelling error in whispers behind cupped hands… I can imagine the sighs of relief when you see that I’ve finally gotten it right!

This incident brings to my mind the character of Cinoc, in Life A User’s ManuAl, and the difficult problem of how to pronounce his name. “Cinosh”, “Chinoch”, “Sinots”, “Chinoss”, “Tsinoc”, but certainly not “Sinok” which means “Nutcase”. Cinoc admitted that his surname had started out as Kleinhof, years and years ago, but due to repeated misspellings on passport renewals and carelessness on the part of Austrian or German officials, it had generated into Cinoc, and it wasn’t really important how you pronounced it.

Not that my own misspelling can be treated as lightly, but to move on…:

It seems fitting that I have spent a fair bit of time today more thoroughly categorizing my blog entries (see my sidebar for the evidence…). The organization of things is an important exploration in Life A User’s Manual, and since Perec at one point in his life was an archivist/librarian, I think he would understand my compulsion to catalogue. However, organization is open to interpretation and no one way is best, according to Perec.

This book is a celebration of all the stuff of life – the objects that surround and pretend to define us, the events that seem to shape us, the people who impact or bounce off us, the spaces that we occupy and leave quickly vanishing impressions upon. In laying out in detail the floor plan of an apartment building in Paris, introducing the past and present occupants, and describing the objects around them, Perec flings a puzzle at us and begs us, gleefully, to try and put back together the nearly complete picture of a moment in time.

Going back to the beginning, it is apparent to me that Perec embarks upon the plot of the novel almost immediately. Woven throughout the completely enthralling sup-plots and incidental stories, the lists of objects, the on hands and knees explorations to the very corners of each room, there is an all encompassing story. Reading through it for the first time it took me a little while to pick out the more important threads, but the tale of Bartlebooth and his puzzles and the mysterious revenge of Winkler soon began drawing me through the maze of 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier.

Totally fascinating as this part of the tale is – the rich British eccentric Bartlebooth traveling the world and painting watercolors that are sent to Winkler, who makes puzzles out of them so that Bartlebooth, on his return, can put them together and then send them back to the place where they were painted, so that they can be destroyed; a whole life ‘organised around a single project, an arbitrarily constrained programme with no purpose outside its own completion’ but which somehow flies in the face of ‘the inextricable incoherence of things’ – it encounters tough competition from the dozens of other stories that make up this 568 page book.

I have salmon colored post-it’s stuck all through it, marking things that tickled my fancy: “The trapeze artist” – “Rorschach and the cowries” – “The Altamont’s siege provisions” – “The broken lift” – “The Polish Beauty” – “Hutting’s 24 paintings” – “Cinoc’s dictionary” – “Carel van Loorens” – “Cyrille Altamont’s letter” – etc.

I was mesmerized by the perusal of the items owned by various people in the building, and how these objects could launch a story. Never dull, these lists were as vibrant as the people who had collected the objects. I couldn’t help looking up from the book and gazing around at my stuff, and thinking about how I got it all, and what it means to me. Could I throw it all away, as Winkler did with his wife’s possessions? Or would I pinch pennies and work double shifts and come to the brink of financial disaster in order to keep it, like the Reol’s and their bedroom suite?

The book appeals to me on so many levels – on top of the brilliant writing and joyous storytelling, there is an overwhelmingly awesome amount of literary references, allusions, and creative plagiarism, as well as chess problems and riddles and mathematical formulae. The book is a labyrinth, and you can delve as deep and as wide as you want and still find room to wiggle. It’s a puzzle, a game, and you’re allowed to cheat. It’s way, way too much fun.

I am on the brink of just gushing ridiculously delighted nonsense, so great is my pent up excitement about this book. I can’t articulate anymore! The best thing to do at this point is direct you to Richard’s post on the book. Aside from a stellar review of it, he’s compiled a list of links to all of the other great posts that have been published recently by our little non-structured reading group. This is the beginning of an annotation project, I believe. Too many of us are gung-ho about Life A User’s Manual – we can’t let it go yet! Watch these spaces for more on the wonder that is Perec and the love affair that has blossomed between us and him. 🙂

And do join us this month for our next group read, Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan – we’ll be posting about it around the 28th (although if my example is being followed, ‘around the 28th’ can be interpreted very loosely!) Also, fittingly (since he is a writer that Perec alluded too) we will be reading some short stories by Borges on the side. See another of Richard’s posts for details and feel free to jump in.


  1. You’re on a regular blog-o-thon, Sarah! So glad to read your enthusiastic words about Perec – there’s so much there, you’ve reminded me of several more favorite moments that nobody else mentioned. The broken lift! Hutting’s portraits! Brilliant.

    One does think of the stories contained within objects while reading this, doesn’t one? All the stories we see in them and the other stories we don’t even know about! Makes me wonder about the former occupants of my dresses, and antique binoculars, and weird music box of a cat tap-dancing on a piano played by a little girl. Oh, the list-making, the list-making! 🙂

    • Oh man, just trying to get caught up with my blogging!

      I’ve loved the lists that people have come up with, inspired by Perec. I read them with as much fascination as I read his!

  2. Ooh Sarah, like Emily, love your enthusiasm here! Love what you wrote: “you can delve as deep and as wide as you want and still find room to wiggle. It’s a puzzle, a game, and you’re allowed to cheat.” YES! Super fun to reread. I will do it by random, as in going back to fave stories like Van Loorens’s and Appenzzell’s and skipping some of the others I didn’t like as much.

    (I never noticed you spelled it Manuel.)

    • I think I’ll be dipping back into this for awhile, keeping it handy as I journey around the book world since I’m sure to come across things that will remind me of stories in Perec, and I have plenty of references from the book itself that I want to follow up on.

  3. “Brilliant writing and joyous storytelling” indeed, Sarah! Like you, I’m happy just to keep reading about this book and revisiting fave passages (so many of them, though…) from time to time. And like you, I’m kind of hoping for a wacky annotation project to take form in some shape at some time. In the meantime, the upcoming slate of shared reads continues to make me enthusiastic about the next read each month. Happy reading!

    • I’m really excited about Moo Pak, for sure. I’m still wary of the Lanagan, but that’s just because I’ve been drifting further and further from that type of literature. And after a book like Life a User’s Manual, most other things pale in comparison! These non-structured group reads have been a total blast so far though. Thanks for suggesting the whole idea! 🙂

  4. Based on all the wonderful reviews of this book you lot have written, I’m definitely going to give it a go! Of course my local library doesn’t have a copy, but thankfully my university library does (and has a 3-month lending period, which will probably be important for me… 😉 )!

    • Haha, you probably won’t need 3 months! Once you get into the swing of things it’s a fast and fascinating read. Can’t wait to see what you think of it. 🙂

  5. The whole Cinoc thing is pretty interesting. I wonder how much of that is inspired by people having difficulty pronouncing Perec’s name.

    • Oh crap, I’ve been pronouncing Perec as Pear-ek, in my completely American English… How does one really say it? *resigned sigh/really must learn another language someday sigh*

      I loved Cinoc’s occupation too – the word-killer – and his hobby of rescuing into his own dictionary all the words he had edited out of published ones. So great.

  6. His parents, Polish Jews, went by Peretz — Perec is a Polish spelling of Peretz, so instinctively I’ve been pronouncing it that way, but I did wonder about the name’s orgin and how a French person would pronounce it. If you guess that he’s Eastern European, you might also guess Perech.

    Yeah, I loved that story too.

  7. […] what else to examine in 2010? Favorite newly discovered author? Georges Perec, without a doubt. And Life, A User’s Manual could probably be called my favorite book of 2010. I’m still get giddy when I think about it. […]

  8. […] why you should read The Dodecahedron that it is as much a puzzle as it is a book. Fresh off the sheer delight of reading Life A User’s Manual (which is very much a bookish puzzle) and hungry for more, I […]

  9. […] haphazardly pursuing. It is the richness of the details that I am seeing as a common thread between Perec, Queneau, and Calvino thus far. That, and startling bits of beauty amidst playful (even seemingly […]

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