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Georges Perec: La Vie mode d’emploi (Life: A User’s Manual)

This is one of the great books of the twentieth century and is worth learning French for. It’s a jigsaw puzzle and a massive painting. It’s an Oulipean conundrum and a microcosm of the world. It’s a clever game and a philosophical investigation. It’s all the things that literature should be and, in particular, it shows that, in the end, life does not fit together in a nice, neat pattern.

Perec himself said he saw a Paris block of flats with the front stripped off so that you could peer into all of the flats and watch the inhabitants go about their daily business. And, to a great extent, that is what this novel is about. He takes a (fictitious) block of flats at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier and looks at each flat, in seemingly random order (though he uses, like Nabokov, the move of a knight in chess to move through the flats), and their inhabitants, 179 in all. The story is told by Serge Valène, who has lived in the building for fifty-five years and who is a painter who, towards the end of his life, plans on creating a painting summing up all of his life (which, of course, he does not complete).

Valène has another role to play. He teaches the very rich Percival Bartlebooth to paint in watercolours. Bartlebooth then travels the world and, every two weeks, paints a watercolour of a port and sends it to Gaspard Winckler, another inhabitant of 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, whose job it is to turn the paintings into jigsaw puzzles. When Bartlebooth returns from his twenty year journey, he will reassemble the jigsaws and restore the watercolour to its original form. It will then be sent back to the port where it was painted and the paint removed by detergent, leaving everything as it was before Bartlebooth started. Unfortunately, Winckler makes the puzzles very difficult and Bartlebooth dies before he can complete them, left with a piece in the shape of a W to go where there should be a piece in the shape of an X. Life doesn’t always fit.

Like Bartlebooth, many of the inhabitants find that life does not fit. They don’t complete their projects, things don’t work out, they get swindled, just as in real life. But Perec tells the story with great humour, using all sorts of games, puns and tricks. There are links and connections with both other characters in the book and characters, real and fictitious, outside the book (a detailed index is provided). But, as with any great work, a summary cannot begin to do justice to the work for the whole is truly a magnificent work.

Publishing history

First published in French 1978 by Hachette
First published in English 1987 by the Harvill Press
Translated by David Bellos