That Ephemeral Thing

Life A User’s Manual

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

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 He completed several unpublished novels before making a spectacular debut with the appearance in 1965 of Les Choses, the story of a young couple fascinated by luxurious visions of a consumer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 most notorious (and probably least read) novel, La Disparition.

During the next ten years Perec produced little fiction. His most interesting work of the period, W, ou le Souvenir d’enfance, is half autobiography and half fantasy: the book’s chapters alternate between Perec’s attempt to reconstitute his childhood and the fictitious description of a grotesquely utopian society, both lives converging on a common point, the historical reality of the Nazi extermination camps. In 1978 La Vie mode d’emploi was published, his bestknown and admired work.

Autobiography, or at least concern with autobiography, underlies much of Perec’s writing, even in those works in which it is least obvious. (The obvious instances—Perec was a public-opinion analyst like the young couple in Les Choses; tried to stop a friend’s transfer to Algeria like the gang in Quel petit vélo…?; became a total dropout like the protagonist of Un Homme qui dort—are at best examples of how a novelist transforms firsthand material into narratives.) While La Disparition and Life A User’s Manual are not overtly autobiographical, I think they can be read, among other ways, as products of Perec’s preoccupation with autobiography or, perhaps more accurately, of his obsession with the autobiography he felt he could never write.

Two passages in which Perec writes about himself may help to explain what I mean. The first, from W, describes how his lost and ever-present parents inform his writing:

I do not know if I have nothing to say; I know that I say nothing. I do not know if what I might have to say remains unsaid because it is unspeakable (the unspeakable is not ensconced in writing, it is what instigated it long before). I know that what I say is blank and neutral, a sign for all time of an annihilation for all time….

That is what I say, that is what I write, and nothing else is to be found in the words I inscribe…. It would do me no good to track down my slips (for example, I wrote “I committed” instead of “I made” concerning my mistakes in the transcription of my mother’s name) or to day-dream for two hours about the length of my father’s greatcoat…. I shall never find anything…besides the last reflection of a speech absent from the written word, the outrage of their silence and my silence. I do not write in order to say that I will say nothing, I do not write in order to say that I have nothing to say. I write. I write because we lived together, because I was one among them, a shadow among their shadows, a body next to their bodies. I write because they left in me their indelible mark, whose trace is writing. In writing their memory is dead. Writing is the remembrance of their death and the affirmation of my life.

Perec once said that he had been deprived not only of his mother and father but of their deaths. They had been taken away from him behind his back.

Perec considered his Jewishness as another condition of deprivation. In the commentary he wrote to the film Chronicles of Ellis Island, he contrasts his attitude with that of the director, Robert Bober, to whom being Jewish “means continuing to reaffirm one’s place in a tradition, a language, and a community”:

What I find present [on Ellis Island] can in no way be called references or roots or remnants, rather their opposite: something shapeless, on the outer edge of what is sayable, something that might be called closure, or cleavage, or severance, something which in my mind is linked in a most intimate and confused way with the very fact of being a Jew….

[Being a Jew] isn’t a sign of belonging…. It seems closer to a kind of silence, emptiness, to being a question, a questioning, a dubiousness, an uneasiness, an uneasy certainty, and looming beyond that, another certainty…: that of having been labeled a Jew, Jew therefore victim, and so beholden for being alive to exile and luck….

In some way I’m estranged from myself; in some way I’m “different”—not different from others but from “my own people”: I don’t speak the language my parents spoke, I don’t share whatever memories they had. Something that was theirs and made them what they are—their culture, their experience, their hope—was not handed down to me.

The pretexts of writing, for Perec, are “silence,” emptiness, and death: “I know that I do not say anything” means not “I have nothing to say” but rather “nothingness cannot be said.” But if silence and emptiness seem a reasonable response to the historical deprivation to which Perec found himself condemned, how then explain the abundance of his output? Why did he become a writer in the first place?

A partial answer to the last question can be found in another passage in W, in which he describes his experience as an adolescent reader. Speaking of Dumas’s Vingt ans après, he tells of reading it over and over again to make sure all its familiar details are still in place: “I not only felt that I had always known them but that they had almost provided me with my own story: [they were the] source of unfathomable memory, of perpetual renewal, of certainty.” As an adult, he finds in rereading the books he loves the joy of “complicity and, beyond even that, of kinship restored at last.”

Many of us who are not orphans have had the experience of literature as “family,” even if we can only guess at its intensity in Perec’s case. However, the experience suggests also one origin of Perec’s desire to write: since the sense of loss and of being lost is inexpressible, what can you say in its place? How can you say anything at all?

Instead of struggling to find an answer to these questions, Perec sidestepped them, by becoming what used to be called a formalist, ignoring history, looking for things to do inside language, inside writing. Instead of trying to find words to describe the world, he tried to invent interesting ways to use words in their own right. He set himself “precious” tasks. In Les Choses, for instance, he methodically explored Flaubert’s method of using syntax for stylistic purposes (Perec’s opening chapter is written entirely in the conditional tense, the final one in the future tense), using the advertising pages of glossy magazines as his subject matter. The book was read as a realistic commentary on the perils of the consumer society. There is no denying the vividness and authenticity of Les Choses; but it must also be said that the subject of the book became “real” as it was invented in the arbitrary tasks the author set himself, without which he might not have written the book at all.

Perec’s approach to writing was conveniently codified when, in the mid-Sixties, he became, as later did Italo Calvino and the present writer, a member of the Oulipo—the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature, a group of literary and mathematical persons founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François LeLionnais. The Oulipo’s original intention was to find out ways of using mathematical structures in writing; eventually the notion of mathematical structure was replaced by the more general one of “constrictive form.” By constrictive form is meant a structure or procedure that is precisely definable and rigorous, often dauntingly so. Albert Mobilio neatly described Oulipian activity in a recent article in The Village Voice:

Unabashedly arbitrary in conception, Oulipian constructions nontheless adhere to an internal logic. Formal constraints spur the imagination to thrive within strict limits similar to those of sonnets and sestinas. Of course, language presents its own brick wall of rules: grammar and available vocabulary. Self-contained and ingeniously coherent, Oulipian sub-systems derange the grid and impose a fresh, idiosyncratic order that mirrors language’s own arbitrary nature.

Perec distinguished himself at many levels of Oulipian experiment, which has ranged from the trivial (spoonerisms) to high art (Calvino’s reader-writer chapters in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler). Such difficult abstract procedures appealed to him as a writer of fiction because, I suggest, they take formalism to its extreme limit in providing ways of composing that are empty, autonomous, and self-propagating. Empty in that they presuppose no particular content, thus finessing the question of what to say, of how to deal with history; autonomous in that they require no justification beyond obedience to their rules; self-propagating in that, through a simple application of those rules, works are almost automatically generated. Oulipian procedures offer a clear escape from the paralysis of writer’s block, or, in Perec’s case, a deep sense of historical displacement. More positively, the procedures can become tasks as inspiring as the creation of any hero or heroine. Several years ago in another context the composer David Del Tredici declared: “For whatever reason, you emotionally embrace a technical process because it excites you, and the restriction really is a way of defining your personality. You have to fill the severity with a lot of passion.”

How Perec filled his “severities” is typically illustrated by La Disparition, his most purely Oulipian novel. The book is written without any word containing the letter e, a procedure even harder in French than in English, so hard that whenever I try it I have to glue an upturned thumbtack on the e key of my typewriter to keep the forbidden vowel at bay. Perec took this absurdly confining idea and made of it a way of creating incident, situation, and plot. Eggs (oeufs) are declared to be taboo because they sound like e. And so a barman drops dead when asked to concoct a porto flip, a cocktail requiring port wine and eggs:

Voix du gars, s’attablant (air bourru, sinon martial): Garçon!

Voix du barman (qui connaît son chaland): Bonjour, mon Commandant.

Voix du Commandant (satisfait qu’on l’ait compris, quoiqu’il soit pour l’instant civil): Bonjour, mon garçon, bonjour!

Voix du barman (qui jadis apprit l’anglais dans un cours du soir): What can I do for you?

Voix du Commandant (salivant): Fais-moi un porto-flip.

Voix du barman (soudain chagrin): Quoi? Un porto-flip!

Voix du Commandant (affirmatif): Mais oui, un porto-flip!

Voix du barman (qui paraît souffrir): On…n’a…pas…ça…ici…

Voix du Commandant (bondissant): Quoi! Mais j’ai bu trois portoflips ici il y a moins d’un an!

Voix du barman (tout à fait faiblard): Il n’y a plus…Il n’y a plus…

Voix du Commandant (furibond): Allons, tu as du porto, non?

Voix du barman (agonisant): Oui…mais…

Voix du Commandant (fulminant): Alors? Alors? Il y a aussi…

Voix du barman (mourant tout à fait): Aaaaaaah!! Chut!! Chut!!

Mort du barman.

Voix du Commandant (constantant): Rigor mortis.*

Since birds are born of eggs, they too are outlawed, or more exactly become dangerous outlaws; so does the number five (e is the fifth vowel); so does whiteness because of the blank (blanc) left by e’s disappearance; and so therefore does Moby-Dick (so also the three-pronged, e-shaped harpoon).

The central story tells of the disappearance one by one of all its main characters, victims of a nameless, terrible power that threatens at any moment to destroy everything in sight—a power that ultimately takes the shape of a bearded king that devours his offspring (resembling not only Saturn but the author himself) and that is at one point defined as an “enigma that will destroy us whether it is solved or not.” In the world of La Disparition, threatened by the absent but ever-menacing e, people can neither speak nor remain silent: it might be said that in this plot that combines elements of a detective story, a tale of adventure, and a Marx Brothers movie, Perec has also replicated his historical situation—the sense of historical loss—without even mentioning it.

No such simple procedure characterizes Life A User’s Manual. La Disparition wears its torn-out heart on its sleeve; Perec’s later and longer work depends on multiple artifices, some of them mathematically complex, all of them virtually invisible. The importance of abstract procedures nevertheless remains the same: they enable the author to choose and organize his material, and in this case to produce an almost Balzacian “world” teeming with characters and events. But I think the time has come to forget about Oulipian structures, and Perec would probably agree: he repeatedly compared the devices used in writing Life to the scaffolding of a building, something to be discarded once the work was completed. Life is not a puzzle, or else it is one that the author has already solved, leaving every piece in place. It presents with almost nonchalant transparency a prodigious variety of objects and of both ordinary and exotic characters.

The narrative conceit of Life A User’s Manual, originally suggested by a Saul Steinberg drawing, is to imagine a nine-story, turn-of-the-century Parisian apartment building from which the facade has been removed. Each chapter of the novel corresponds to one of the streetside rooms thus revealed and describes the objects it contains, the present occupants of the room or of the apartment to which it belongs, sometimes the former occupants. The conceit might seem likely to produce no more than a catalog of lives and things; and Life often seems to present such a catalog, replete with accounts of kitchen equipment, bric-a-brac, and undistinguished works of art, all detailed in meticulous and neutral terms. But this is only pretense, an elaborate display of hyperrealism veiling the reality of what we slowly and almost unwittingly learn as we wend our distractible way from room to room.

Among the thirty-odd characters whose stories are told at length, three are soon recognized as central: Bartlebooth, Winckler, and Valène. As his name implies, compounded as it is from Valéry Larbaud’s Barnabooth and Melville’s Bartleby, Percival Bartlebooth is an Englishman endowed with the virtually unlimited wealth of the first and with the second’s scarcely less limited conviction of the pointlessness of human existence. To fill up the vain time ahead of him, he conceives in his youth of a preposterously demanding and altogether gratuitous scheme that will require several decades to carry out. First, he will master the technique of painting watercolors. He will then travel around the world to paint views of five hundred widely scattered seaports, at the rate of two a month. The watercolors will then be transformed into jigsaw puzzles that Bartlebooth, once his travels are over, will reassemble, after which each will be dispatched to the place where it was painted, there to be destroyed. Gaspard Winckler, a craftsman of genius, is hired by Bartlebooth to turn the watercolors into puzzles. Serge Valène is a painter who teaches Bartlebooth the skills he needs.

At the start of the book, Bartlebooth’s scheme is nearing its conclusion. The watercolors have all been made into puzzles, and Bartlebooth has almost completed the 439th of them. Winckler has died after a life of disillusion and heartache; Valène and Bartlebooth by now are old men. Valène is engaged in a project of his own, which resembles that of Perec’s novel. He is painting the building in which he, Bartlebooth, and Winckler have lived, with the facade removed so that each room behind it lies open to view. An intensely compassionate man, Valène is obsessed by a sense of the transience of things and of human life. Bartlebooth, the kind and courteous if distant gentleman, has withdrawn into solitude, alone with the puzzles that Winckler has left him, each designed to baffle and frustrate him with their unpredictable and ever more difficult configurations.

As a background to these three lives we are told a multitude of stories about the other inhabitants of the building. One can hardly say that these lives remind us of the three principal ones, except in one respect. Like Bartlebooth with his insane scheme, Winckler with the revenge he has plotted against his employer through his five hundred puzzles, and Valène with his gigantic painting project, most of the secondary characters are dominated by some obsession. Henri Fresnel sacrifices his family and his career in his determination to become an actor. His wife devotes her life to waiting for him so that she can throw him out when he comes back. The ethnographer Appenzzell wastes away, haunted by the memory of an elusive primitive tribe. Bartlebooth’s uncle James Sherwood squanders a fortune because of his mania for collecting unica (one-of-a-kind objects). Sven Ericsson spends many years and most of his money in order to murder the accidental agent of his child’s death. The entire youth of Léon Marcia is consumed in a compulsive reading binge. Then there is the case of Cinoc,

who…pursued a curious profession. As he said himself, he was a “word-killer”: he worked at keeping Larousse dictionaries up to date. But whilst other compilers sought out new words and meanings, his job was to make room for them by eliminating all the words and meanings that had fallen into disuse.

When he retired in nineteen sixty-five, after fifty-three years of scrupulous service, he had disposed of hundreds and thousands of tools, techniques, customs, beliefs, sayings, dishes, games, nicknames, weights and measures; he had wiped dozens of islands, hundreds of cities and rivers, and thousands of townships off the map; he had returned to taxonomic anonymity hundreds of varieties of cattle, species of birds, insects, and snakes, rather special sorts of fish, kinds of crustaceans, slightly dissimilar plants and particular breeds of vegetables and fruit; and cohorts of geographers, missionaries, entomologists, Church Fathers, men of letters, generals, Gods & Demons had been swept by his hand into eternal obscurity.

The accumulation of such stories, together with that of the three main characters, produces an effect of inevitability, of fatality, almost of futility: less that these obsessive human lives allow no room for choice than that knowledge and self-knowledge not only do not modify fatality but confirm it. It is as if no possibility existed outside a single narrative possibility, as if human life was confined by a syntax as unyielding as language itself, as if life were the outcome of some arbitrary, abstract, formal constraint.

The relations of Bartlebooth, Winckler, and Valène underscore this sense of fatality. It is tempting to describe the three men in Marxist terms (Perec after all was a socialist): Bartlebooth the capitalist, the master; Winckler the exploited laborer condemned to work at the production of goods he will never use; Valène the sympathetic but expendable parasite, full of petit-bourgeois sensibility. While such an account would be absurdly reductive, it does suggest something of Perec’s view of fatality and choice, with respect to a particular form of production, that of the artist, especially the writer.

If we look at our triumvirate as a composite portrait of the artist, we can identify Bartlebooth as the passionless inventor of abstract and gratuitous formal procedures; Winckler as the rebellious agent who nevertheless submits to such procedures; Valène as the compassionate witness who freely invents his own forms. Each of the three depends on the others: Valène and Winckler are both employed by Bartlebooth, who of course cannot carry out his scheme without them. Naturally Valène’s position strikes us as the most enviable: if you have to adopt demanding forms, you are surely better off choosing your own. But the events of Life do not confirm our bias. Valène barely manages to begin his great painting. Bartlebooth will never solve the remaining puzzles. Only Winckler, bitter and resentful, succeeds, by creating (in a Proustian cork-lined room) his own unforeseen and hermetic strategy of revenge while executing the years-long task that has been imposed on him. So choice—at least the kind of choice that produces results—lies not in the unconstrained will but in the circumstances of fatality itself, as though choice and fatality were anything but opposites.

Life does not have a conclusion. It only comes to an end, with the disappearance of its two surviving protagonists. The final pages proceed toward a last image of the dying Bartlebooth bent over a puzzle of which every segment is in place but one. We realize that everything that has taken place so far is shown to be only a prelude to this moment, an elaborate and delusive preparation. The abundance of stories, the multiplicity of lives, have brought us to a conclusion empty of life and possibility; all we have read now collapses in a hopeless finality. The effect is of “something,” in Perec’s words, “that might be called closure, or cleavage, or severance.” We are left, as the author elsewhere remarked, with nothing “except this object you have shut, a few images, blank shadows or dark ghosts that have flitted through your head and mine.”

One of the transient inhabitants of Perec’s apartment building, Emilio Grifalconi, “a cabinet maker from Verona,” gives Valène an unusual object in appreciation of a family portrait the artist has painted for him. The object resembles “a large cluster of coral,” and it has been produced by the solidification of a liquid mixture Grifalconi once injected into the tangle of minute tunnels that termites had bored inside the base of an antique wooden table. Even reinforced, the base proves too fragile to support the table top and has to be replaced; but Grifalconi salvages

the fabulous arborescence within, this exact record of the worms’ life inside the wooden mass: a static, mineral accumulation of all the movements that had constituted their blind existence, their undeviating single-mindedness, their obstinate itineraries; the faithful materialisation of all they had eaten and digested as they forced from their dense surroundings the invisible elements needed for their survival, the explicit, visible, immeasurably disturbing image of the endless progressions that had reduced the hardest of woods to an impalpable network of crumbling galleries.

Since the object is referred to at one point as a réseau de vers, which can mean a network not only of worms but of verses, we can claim it for literature; most usefully, for this very book. The novel is certainly a “record of life” in all its “obstinate itineraries,” at least as it has manifested itself in a particular place during a longish time. The book’s pretext of methodically reviewing the inhabitants of a variously populated apartment house guarantees as much. But as I have suggested, this pretext does not necessarily correspond to what actually happens. Perec’s deliberate cataloging enables him to reinforce his personal narrative with an apparently authoritative objectivity. For example, when in chapter seventeen the logical sequence of his investigation lands him “On the Stairs,” we find there—not by chance and not by rote—the Perec-like Valène engaged in melancholy reflection:

The stairs, for him, were, on each floor, a memory, an emotion, something ancient and impalpable, something palpitating somewhere in the guttering flame of his memory: a gesture, a noise, a flicker, a young woman singing operatic arias to her own piano accompaniment, the clumsy clickety-clack of a typewriter…or, on the sixth floor right, the persistent droning hum of Gaspard Winckler’s jigsaw, to which, three floors lower, on the third floor left, there was now by way of response only a continuing, and intolerable, silence.

Here as elsewhere, Perec has used his systems to discover exactly what he needs to say as a novelist—in this case, to confront us through his counterpart with a vision of the evanescence of things past and present. Such visions recur throughout the novel, and they are what to me make Grifalconi’s salvaged arborescence such an appropriate emblem of the book: life, and lives, leave nothing behind them but a faint or ossified residue. Once gone, they “mean” no more than these traces. And writing, like Grifalconi’s sculpture, sometimes is such a trace.

I wrote that Life A User’s Manual might be read as part of Perec’s preoccupation with the autobiography he could never write since, in his case, the “historical” pretext of writing was a dumbfounding sense of emptiness and death. So the novel ends in the fatal, futile “closure” of its protagonists’ careers; but it achieves this by following one exceptionally bright strand across a varied universe of high and low life:

One day, well before his fatal hibernation had gripped him, [Grégoire Simpson] had told Morrelet how as a little boy he had played drum major with the Matagassiers on mid-Lent Sunday. His mother, a dressmaker, made the traditional costume herself: the red-and-white-squared trousers, the loose blue blouse, the white cotton bonnet with a tassel; and his father had bought him, in a fine circular box decorated with arabesques, the cardboard mask which looked like a cat’s head. As proud as Punch and as grave as a judge, he ran through the streets of the old town along with the procession, from Place du Château to Porte des Allinges, and from Porte de Rives to Rue Saint-Sébastien, before going up into the high town, to the Belvederes, to stuff himself with juniper-roast ham and to slake his thirst with great gulps of Ripaille, that white wine as light as glacier water, as dry as gunflint.

It hardly matters if this episode comes from observation, memory, or another book. Its value, that of a small item from a large repertory, can perhaps be best discerned through one of Perec’s definitions of his aims as a writer: “to pluck meticulous fragments from the deepening void, to leave somewhere or other a furrow, a trace.” Just as in the novel James Sherwood collects unica, Perec gathered many such fragments and assembled them into a replica of his most treasured unicum of all. Death may come first and last; in between we find life: Perec has embedded his account of decay and loss in a painstaking and generous rendering of “cette chose éphémère qu’est la vie.”

  1. *

    Man (sitting down, looking not only churlish but almost martial): Barman!

    Barman (who knows this guy): Good morning, Captain.

    Captain (happy, although in mufti, for this nod to his status): Good morning, my lad, good morning.

    Barman (who has had a flirtation with Italian at night school): Posso far qualcosa?

    Captain (licking his lips): How about a porto flip?

    Barman (downcast): What? A porto flip?

    Captain (insisting): What do you think I said? Naturally, a porto flip.

    Barman (visibly paling): No…such…thing…at this bar.

    Captain (irritably): What? I drank porto flips at this bar last January, May, and August.

    Barman (totally sunk): But not now…Not now…

    Captain (furious): You got port, right?

    Barman (actually dying): OK, but…

    Captain (fulminating): So? So? You also got—

    Barman (last gasp): Aaaargh! Stop! Stop! (Barman falls to floor, kaput).

    Captain (judiciously noting): Rigor mortis.