by 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.