No 556 Life A User’s Manual by Georges Perec #20booksofsummer

Prior to reading Life A User’s Manual, I did a bit of research on Georges Perec.

Now that I’ve read this undoubted masterpiece of a novel, it’s no surprise to learn that he was a keen member of Oulipo, a literary society founded by Raymond Queneau and mathematician Francois le Lionnais. Coined the Workshop for Potential Literature, members experimented with peculiar approaches to writing, such as the rewriting of famous poems by replacing each word with the seventh word that follows it in the dictionary and the Lipogram – removing the use of one or more letters in a complete text – which led to Perec writing an entire novel without using the letter ‘e’.

Games, puzzles and mysteries loom large in Life A User’s Manual so it is again unsurprising to know that Perec created a famously difficult weekly crossword puzzle for the magazine Le Point.

He may have omitted the letter ‘e’ for an entire novel, but here, Perec omits nothing. In fact, one could suspect that he was attempting to use not only every letter, but every word possible in the French language.

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Set in a single apartment building in Paris, the novel comprises 99 chapters which detail each room in the building in meticulous, intricate detail, along with the history of the inhabitants of each room. The loose premise of the novel relates to the construction of a painting by an old artist Serge Valene a resident in the building who wanted to create his life’s work.

It was in the final months of his life that the artist Serge Valene conceived the idea of a painting that would reassemble his entire existence: everything his memory had recorded, all the sensations that had swept over him, all his fantasies, his passions, his hates would be recorded on canvas, a compendium of minute parts of which the sum would be his life.

Add to this another resident, Bartlebooth, a painter taught by Valene, who has painted 500 watercolours of different ports around the world. He sends these paintings to Gaspard Winckler, you guessed it, another resident, who turns them into elaborate jigsaw puzzles. Once Bartlebooth has solved the puzzle, he re-binds the puzzle, returns the painting to the port of its origin and has the image dissolved and the plain board returned. A folly then, years of work with nothing to show at the end.

If you think that sounds complicated, it is only the framing device for a raft of other inter-connected stories about the inhabitants of 11 rue Simon-Crubellier. Through descriptions of every room and every object in the apartment building, Perec, with an ironic wit, details the bizarre lives of inhabitants past and present.

Each short tale could be a novel in its own right, featuring murder, revenge, obsession and romance. There are tales of eccentric millionaires, amateur chemists, artistic con men, devoted collectors and failed explorers. The stories feature people searching for their own personal Holy Grail and inevitably falling short.

The writing itself is intricate, detailed, playful and ultimately incredibly entertaining. It’s probably best to go with the flow of Life A User’s Manual, because passages like this occur in every chapter.

Olivier Gratiolet has undertaken an exhaustive inventory of all the imperfections and inadequacies to which the human organism is heir: vertical posture, for example, gives man only a precarious balance: muscular tension alone keeps him upright, thus causing constant fatigue and discomfort in the spinal column, which, although sixteen times stronger than it would have been were it straight, does not allow man to carry a meaningful weight on his back; feet ought to be broader, more spread out, more specifically suited to locomotion, whereas what he has are only atrophied hands deprived of prehensile ability; legs are not sturdy enough to bear the body’s weight, which makes them bend, and moreover they are a strain on the heart, which has to pump blood about three feet up, whence come swollen feet, varicose veins, etc.; hip joints are fragile and constantly prone to arthrosis or serious fractures; arms are atrophied and too slender; hands are frail, especially the little finger, which has no use, the stomach has no protection whatsoever, no more than the genitals do; the neck is rigid and limits rotation of the head, the teeth do not allow food to be grasped from the sides, the sense of smell is virtually nil, night vision is less than mediocre, hearing is very inadequate; man’s hairless and unfurred body affords no protection against cold, and, in sum, of all the animals of creation, man, who is generally considered the ultimate fruit of evolution, is the most naked of all.

There are pages dedicated to the detail in the oil paintings on the wall, the carpets on the floor and the items on a shelf. The sheer volume of detail can, particularly at the beginning of the novel, be overwhelming, but when you sink down into it, its pace and structure are perfect.

As is to be expected with such a dense book, there are allusions and references to other writers, theories and philosophies. I doubt I caught a tenth of them, but I also doubt that it makes much difference to my enjoyment of the book.

It is an incredibly entertaining novel which ultimately seems to suggest that no matter how much passion and determination we have for what we aim to do with our lives, we will most probably fail. And that in itself is not a bad thing.

Life A User’s Manual must have been a daunting prospect for a translator. To maintain this level of detail and reference and still make it readable is a really admirable thing and David Bellos has risen to the occasion. Undoubtedly in a book like this, something must be lost in translation, some of the pieces missing, but that does not detract from this dazzling and dizzying puzzle of a book.

Image: Shutterstock

Life A User’s Manual was the final book in my 20 Books of Summer Challenge and was also read as part of my Novels in Translation challenge. Thanks to Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Jacqui at Jacqui Wine’s Journal for bringing this one to my attention in the first place – I have a few more books by Perec in the 746 and I’m really looking forward to them now.

Read on: iBooks

Number Read: 191

Number Remaining: 555

20 Books of Summer: 20/20


A 20 Books of Summer round up will follow later this evening!

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20 Books of Summer novels in translation The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

22 Comments Leave a comment

  1. This is a book I’m absolutely determined to read this year, so it’s great to hear how much you enjoyed it. I’m emerging from a reading slump so once I’m back in my stride I’ll definitely head for this, it sounds wonderful!


  2. I’ve been meaning to read this for a few years but still haven’t got round to it. I’m glad to see you liked it as that should encourage me to start it. I must admit that sometimes I flick through it and wonder if I’d like it. From what you say I feel it’s not one to be rushed.


  3. This sounds like a perfect book for someone who likes to wonder about what goes on behind closed doors (but surely we all do that?) and someone who likes puzzles. That’s me! Thanks for the great review!


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