My non-structured reading group is reading one of Richard's selections this month - Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec. The original intention was to post this Friday, the last day of April, but several of us have decided it will be easier to write a few smaller posts through the week. Given the depth and complexity of the work. Was a little wary at first given its size coupled with that frequently attributed description of "experimental novel." One or the other - fine. The two tags together suggest a greater demand of my gray matter than I have to spare this month. But all has turned out better than imagined.
Life A User's Manual tells the stories of the inhabitants of an apartment building at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, a fictional Parisian address (but check out this humorous video of a search for that building and then a second video too).One occupant of the building, an English man named Bartlebooth, launches an obsessive mission of the construction and deconstruction of a jigsaw puzzle. A quest that occupies many years and becomes the focus of the work from a conceptual point of view.
The level of detail in the book about all of the physical spaces as well as it's inhabitants is astounding. Not a surprise that Perec worked at least for a time as a librarian for this kind of attention to minutiae is common among many good librarians I know. The thing that stands out to me though is that most professional book guardians fall more to one side of his talents or another - they wish to know where an object or idea is going or they wish to know where it came from. Proper classification in the stacks or provenance. Of course both are important but most tend to prioritize one or the other. Not Perec.
His fascination with place and movement has been well touched upon by both Richard and Isabella who both featured this diagram of the building, and the almost chess like movements by which the book progresses.
Direction. Where are these people going, what place do they inhabit, and how does that physical placement signify meaning, purpose. Chance or a game?
The book is also full of allusions too though. Beyond full. The often remarked upon prankster streak in the author coming through in this way. These allusions to real and fictional characters create both multiple levels of meaning and ambiguity as they reach backward to provenance to enlighten. And it would be simply impossible to catch them all. Without research. Or a huge storehouse of arcane info in your head. (I know there are some of you out there.) Critical footnotes for this text (if ever written)could cover as many pages as the book itself. So we (bloggers) must rely upon shared knowledge creating another network, series of associations that mirror but exist outside the movements of the text. For example, Richard has shared with us the possible link between Perec's Gouttman and Flaubert's Goutman. Bellezza has posted the Jules Verne connection she made. And Paul Auster, in his analysis for the New York Times when the original English translation was released, informs us that Arthur Stanley Jefferson was the real name of Stan Laurel. Maybe we should establish some type of collective list of all that we catch?
What the reader can be sure of here is that everything counts. Perec does not make unintentional moves or the novel does not make unintentional moves (depending upon your viewpoint) as he hints here at the end of the preamble.
"From this, one can make a deduction which is quite certainly the ultimate truth of jigsaw puzzles: despite appearances, puzzling is not a solitary game: every move the puzzler makes, the puzzlemaker has made before; every piece the puzzler picks up, and picks up again, and studies and strokes, every combination he tries, and tries a second time, every blunder and every insight, each hope and each discouragement have all been designed, calculated, and decided by the other."
Just love this. And notice the clarity of the prose. The points at which one can feel lost are not so much in the language but in the puzzle created. In fact, one could read straight through this very readable novel, and not bother with these slippery points of where are we going or where have we been. In the world of experimental novels this is tres accessible. Really. Playful. Wacky. Lots of fun.