That Ephemeral Thing

Life A User's Manual

by Georges Perec, translated by David Bellos
Godine, 581 pp., $24.95

Georges Perec
Georges Perec; drawing by David Levine

Nearly ten years after its publication in Paris, Georges Perec’s monumental La Vie mode d’emploi has at last been published in this country as Life A User’s Manual in David Bellos’s elegant translation. Where for the French the novel came as the culmination of a distinguished twenty-year career, for most Americans it coincides with their discovery of its author. They could hardly pick a better place to start; although I must, at the outset, declare my opinions in this matter altogether partial. Two chapters of this translation of Life are my doing; Perec and I were close friends—I am biased in favor of his work simply because it is his. I hope that the familiarity underlying this bias will make it possible for me to provide useful information for Perec’s English-speaking readers.

Georges Perec was born in 1936 of Polish Jews who emigrated to Paris in the Twenties. By the age of six he had lost both his parents. His father died during the fall of France in June 1940. Arrested in 1942, his mother was deported to an unidentified death camp. Perec spent the occupation years with relatives who had taken refuge in the Vercors, a mountain region south of Grenoble. He became the ward of his father’s sister and brother-in-law and returned with them to Paris after the war. In the mid-Fifties he sporadically attended the Sorbonne, then worked for a time as a public-opinion analyst. In 1962 he was hired by the Centre national de la Recherche scientifique as a research librarian specializing in neurophysiology, a job he held until 1979, when the success of La Vie mode d’emploi led him to try earning his living exclusively as a writer. He died of lung cancer on March 4, 1982, three days before his forty-seventh birthday.

By the time he was twenty, Perec was publishing reviews and commentaries in literary journals, including the NRF. He completed several unpublished novels before making a spectacular debut with the appearance in 1965 of Les Choses, the story of a young couple fascinated by luxurious visions of a consumer paradise but incapable of committing themselves to the routine of money-making careers. The novel earned Perec a reputation as a kind of sociologist, which he did his best to debunk the following year with his second book, Quel petit vélo à guidon chromé au fond de la cour? (“Which little bicycle with chrome handlebars at the back of the courtyard?”), an impudent novella describing the efforts of a group of young Parisians to keep a friend from being shipped out to Algeria. In the same year appeared Un Homme qui dort, a hallucinatory account of the ultimate dropout, a student who attempts to give up not only school but the entire world. In 1967, shortly after his election to the Oulipo, a group of writers and mathematicians (about which more later), Perec published his…

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