I first came across Georges Perec’s work at university through his first novel ‘Things: A Story of the Sixties’ which was by far the most interesting book I had to read for one of my French literature modules focusing on consumerism. I’ve had ‘Life: A User’s Manual’ on my TBR list ever since which is probably Perec’s best known novel published in 1978 and translated from the French by David Bellos in 1987.
The narrator guides the reader from room to room in an eight-storey apartment block at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, a fictional street in the 17th arrondissement of Paris. This microcosm contains several bizarre characters and long descriptions of the objects they own and meandering digressions about how they came to own them. Set across a single day, 23rd June 1975, the novel also relies on flashbacks to explain the back stories of the inhabitants of 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier.
The closest thing to a central character is probably Bartlebooth, a wealthy Englishman who is completing a lifelong project which involves learning to paint watercolour landscapes, producing seaside landscapes in 500 locations across the world and then having his neighbour Gaspard Winckler turn them into 750-piece jigsaw puzzles before reassembling them again and reversing the process. He is just one of many eccentric characters which populate the rest of the book who are constrained by arbitrary structures. Even the order in which the rooms are described is based on a mathematical equation which determines how a knight can move on a chessboard – something I only discovered after finishing the book. Perec’s strict focus on structure contrasts heavily with the novel’s overall message of life being imperfect and incomplete. However, if you are the kind of the reader who enjoys lists, then you may find the book is also weirdly uplifting in its obsessive detail.
Through Bartlebooth’s project, it becomes apparent that ‘Life: A User’s Manual’ is best read in the manner of piecing together an intricate jigsaw puzzle from which a large portrait slowly emerges from a large number of stories and themes. With relatively few connections between the apartment’s occupants, each of the 99 chapters can be read as a short story, yet the whole effect is equally as great as the individual parts. Inevitably, I suspect some of Perec’s wordplay and more complex puzzles may have been slightly lost in translation but the English text still remains faithful to the spirit of his prose.
‘Life: A User’s Manual’ is far from being a practical self-help guide as its title suggests. Experimental in form yet based on a relatively accessible concept, it is one of the most fascinating works of 20th century French literature.