First edition provenance: Georges Perec, La Vie mode d’emploi (Paris: Hachette Littératures, 1978).
Excerpt provenance: Georges Perec, Life A User’s Manual, trans. David Bellos (Boston: David R. Godine, 2009).
Introductory analysis by Amber Harding:
Georges Perec’s (1936-1982) familial and linguistic origins are surprisingly complex, as is the brief yet broad span of his life and work. Born in Paris to Jewish immigrant parents from Poland, Perec had only four years to grow into the family name before the start of the German occupation. Though it looks and sounds like any typical Breton surname, “Perec” is in fact simply “a Hebrew word spelt in Polish, which, when pronounced in French, sounds Breton,” as David Bellos puts it in his rather exhaustive biography of Georges Perec.1 Bellos goes on to chart the many permutations of Perec from its Hebrew root word, meaning to “break forth,” and gives an account of all the various spellings and transformations. For any other writer, that might be simply a trifling detail; for Perec, whose career led him to have tremendous concern for language on the base level, at the scale of the syllable or even the letter, the fact that his own name should seem to have symbolic resonance must be noted. In 1939 Perec’s father Icek enlisted in the French foreign legion, and in 1940 was hit by shrapnel while fighting along the Seine; he died shortly thereafter. Perec’s mother Cyrla was deported to Germany in 1943 and most likely died in Auschwitz; by the time it was liberated in 1945, she was not among the survivors. Perec spent his childhood with relatives in the French Alps—relatives who took pains to adopt more French names and baptise the young Georges as the son of parents André and Cécile, providing both documentation and a false history for protection in a time of German occupation—and only returned to Paris only after the war, in 1945. As a young man he spent several years travelling throughout Europe, attempting a variety of failed jobs. Until Perec’s 1967 association with the group OuLiPo, his literary life was productive but uneventful, and garnered him no real success.
OuLiPo, as Perec preferred to style it, short for Ouvrir de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature), was founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, a joint venture in literature and mathematics. Invested in formal design processes that would allow for a broader exploration of the prevailing definition of “literature,” OuLiPo gave Perec the grounding he needed in order to fully establish himself as a French writer. Through the use of constraints and limiting exercises, Perec worked towards a theory of a story-making machine. His first Oulipian text, a 300-page novel from 1969 titled La Disparition, does not include a single instance of the letter E. This presents a new range of problems for translation; Gilbert Adair, in 1995, published his translation titled A Void, under the same constraints. 1969 was also the year in which Perec began the project that would become La Vie mode d’emploi. Dedicated to the memory of his Oulipian friend and founder Queneau, La Vie is Perec’s best-known and, arguably, best-constructed work. A 650-page tour de force, the novel presents a single apartment block with its façade cut away: 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, in the XVIIth arrondissement of Paris, at 8:00pm on June 23, 1975. The French edition title page notes particularly that it is La Vie mode d’emploi: Romans; the plural Romans (novels) doesn’t translate to the English edition, but is important nonetheless. Using the chess puzzle of a Knight’s Tour, in which the knight makes its way around the chessboard touching each square only once, expanded to a 10 x 10 grid, Perec takes the reader through 99 chapters:
One chapter for each room and one left untouched, because La Vie, at its heart, is an incomplete catalogue, a compendium of stories endlessly, relentlessly obsessed with projects left undone and objects that don’t endure. Under the triangulation of three chief characters—Bartlebooth, painter and jigsaw puzzle connoisseur; Gaspard Winckler, puzzle maker; Serge Valène, painter and would-be chronicler—the inhabitants of 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier are drawn out through vignettes, sometimes self-contained, sometimes spanning rooms and chapters. For Perec, as for his puzzlers, everything must be connected. The novel(s) open with a meditation on the nature of jigsaw puzzles, excerpted below (and later repeated, word for word, in chapter forty-four).
1. David Bellos, Georges Perec: A Life in Words: A Biography (Boston: D.R. Godine, 1993), 3. If you find yourself wanting to read beyond Bellos’s 802-page tome, a bibliography of further readings can be found here.
Look with all your eyes, look
(Jules Verne, Michael Strogoff)
The eye follows the paths that have been laid down for it in the work.
(Paul Klee, Pädagogisches Skizzenbuch)
To begin with, the art of jigsaw puzzles seems of little substance, easily exhausted, wholly dealt with by a basic introduction to Gestalt: the perceived object—we may be dealing with a perceptual act, the acquisition of a skill, a physiological system, or, as in the present case, a wooden jigsaw puzzle—is not a sum of elements to be distinguished from each other and analysed discretely, but a pattern, that is to say a form, a structure: the element’s existence does not precede the existence of the whole, it comes neither before nor after it, for the parts do not determine the pattern, but the pattern determines the parts: knowledge of the pattern and of its laws, of the set and its structure, could not possibly be derived from discrete knowledge of the elements that compose it. That means that you can look at a piece of a puzzle for three whole days, you can believe that you know all there is to know about its colouring and shape, and be no further on than when you started. The only thing that counts is the ability to link this piece to other pieces, and in that sense the art of the jigsaw puzzle has something in common with the art of gō. The pieces are readable, take on a sense, only when assembled; in isolation, a puzzle piece means nothing—just an impossible question, an opaque challenge. But as soon as you have succeeded, after minutes of trial and error, or after a prodigious half-second flash of inspiration, in fitting it into one of its neighbours, the piece disappears, ceases to exist as a piece. The intense difficulty preceding this link-up—which the English word puzzle indicates so well—not only loses its raison d’être, it seems never to have had any reason, so obvious does the solution appear. The two pieces so miraculously conjoined are henceforth one, which in its turn will be a source of error, hesitation, dismay, and expectation.
The role of the puzzle-maker is hard to define. In most cases—and in particular in all cardboard jigsaws—the puzzles are machine-made, and the lines of cutting are entirely arbitrary: a blanking die, set up once and for all, cuts the sheets of cardboard along identical lines every time. But such jigsaws are eschewed by the true puzzle-lover, not just because they are made of cardboard instead of wood, nor because the solutions are printed on the boxes they come in, but because this type of cut destroys the specific nature of jigsaw puzzles. Contrary to a widely and firmly held belief, it does not really matter whether the initial image is easy (or something taken to be easy—a genre scene in the style of Vermeer, for example, or a colour photography of an Austrian castle) or difficult (a Jackson Pollock, a Pissarro, or the poor paradox of a blank puzzle). It’s not the subject of the picture, or the painter’s technique, which makes a puzzle more or less difficult, but the greater or lesser subtlety of the way it has been cut; and an arbitrary cutting pattern will necessary produce an arbitrary degree of difficulty, ranging from the extreme of easiness—for edge pieces, patches of light, well-defined objects, lines, transitions—to the tiresome awkwardness of all the other pieces (cloudless skies, sand, meadow, ploughed land, shaded areas, etc.). . . .
The art of jigsaw puzzling begins with wooden puzzles cut by hand, whose maker undertakes to ask himself all the questions the player will have to solve, and, instead of allowing chance to cover his tracks, aims to replace it with cunning, trickery, and subterfuge. All the elements occurring in the image to be reassembled—this armchair covered in gold brocade, that three-pointed black hat with its rather ruined black plume, or that silver-braided bright yellow livery—serve by design as points of departure for trails that lead to false information. The organised, coherent, structured signifying space of the picture is cut up not only into inert, formless elements containing little information or signifying power, but also into falsified elements, carrying false information; two fragments of cornice made to fit each other perfectly when they belong in fact to two quite separate sections of the ceiling, the belt buckle of a uniform which turns out in extremis to be a metal clasp holding the chandelier, several almost identically cut pieces belonging, for one part, to a dwarf orange tree placed on a mantelpiece and, for the other part, to its scarcely attenuated reflections in a mirror, are classic examples of the types of traps puzzle-lovers come across.
From this, one can make a deduction which is quite certainly the ultimate truth of jigsaw puzzles: despite appearances, puzzling is not a solitary game: every move the puzzler makes, the puzzle-maker has made before; every piece the puzzler picks up, and picks up again, and studies and strokes, every combination he tries, and tries a second time, every blunder and every insight, each hope and each discouragement have all been designed, calculated, and decided by the other. (xiii-xviii)
Much has been written in efforts to dissect Perec’s composition process, to study and chart the limits he imposed on himself.1 He himself wrote countless articles or discussed in interviews the wide range of puzzles operating within the text, and some (but not all) solutions; Perec seems to have enjoyed revealing the difficulty of his own work, and who can blame him? Oulipian projects are fascinating both for the constructor and the audience. There is less—far less—that has been said concerning the resulting text itself as a novel, or a series of novels. Though the diagrams and schematics in Perec’s notebooks are visually and technically interesting, though the text is incontestably a feat of Oulipian engineering, La Vie is also a poetic culmination of Perec’s meditations on the nature of space and, even more expansively, the nature of human life. One of Perec’s primary approaches to a definition—any definition, of any object—was to compile an inventory. Inventory is almost the entire basis for his first novel, Les Choses: Une histoire des années soixante (1965). Speaking in Warsaw in 1982, Perec explained, “I prefer books in which characters are described by their surroundings. [. . .] It’s something that belongs to the great tradition of realism in the English and German novel of the nineteenth century, which I’ve exaggerated a little, almost taking it to hyperrealism.”2 The generic placement (realism, hyperrealism, surrealism) of Perec’s work is understandably difficult to pin down. C. Burgelin describes La Vie as “Le roman total. Celui qui dirait tout. Un roman qui, tel une boîte, contiendrait une multitude de romans . . . une sorte de polylogue où s’entremêleraient tous les genres narratifs d’aujourd’hui.”3 Burgelin also notes the importance of a single, confined space for this kind of project, “un espace privilégié pour laisser partir, revenir, repartie, en une sorte de fort/da, l’imagination et ses contes.”4 La Vie is concerned with possibilities rather than actualities; it presents situations and stories seemingly out of order, never pausing to acknowledge the confusion it generates in its wake, continuing inexorably on to the final chapter in pursuit of a single, perfect, distilled life. The fact that the novel ends with Valène’s nearly blank portrait, when the goal had been to represent, as accurately as possible, the entirety of 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, holds a touch of irony alongside acknowledgement of its own defeat. What matters, ultimately, for Perec, is precisely how a life was lived, in what places, in what company, rather than to what end. This is particularly important when you consider that one of the central characters, Bartlebooth, has devoted his life to a project which deliberately has nothing as its end; it’s not that there is no end, but that the end goal itself is a complete eradication of all that has come before it. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
“Life is lived forwards and understood backwards, if it can ever be understood at all. That is the simple basis of all storytelling, and Perec’s challenge to narrative exploits the ancient procedure of ‘deferred release’ to the maximum, on a grand scale,” writes David Bellos, placing Perec within a long-running tradition of philosophers (Jean-Paul Sartre, and Hannah Arendt, among others) who theorise that a life can be defined, can be narrated, only after it has ended.5 Nevertheless, the quest for understanding drove much of Perec’s literary career. As Paul Schwartz notes, “In all of his works . . . Perec creates characters bearing his curse who seek to create a present which is whole and meaningful and which carries their imprint. His various alter-egos will try to shape time and space to their will, will try to leave a permanent trace of their passage as a compensation for the broken strands of Perec’s lost past.”6 The concept of a “trace” is another thing Perec holds in common with fellow European philosophers and theorists; Walter Benjamin, in his essay “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” (1939) takes up the term from Sigmund Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), in a discussion of memory and experience, of engagement in a modern urban existence. Situated thus within a network of conjectures on the nature of human life, Perec’s work, though it may be an outlying case in literature, makes a great deal of sense as an abstract how-to guide, a “user’s manual” for moving through the world. Bellos, making the case for Perec as a realist author, suggests that we read the genre of realism as “[a]n attempt not simply to represent reality but also to enrich and heighten it, an attempt to make reality denser, and to make it mean.”7 It is that denser reality which Perec attempts to navigate, taking his 10 x 10 grid and projecting it into three dimensions, expanding his Parisian apartment building outwards to become a national allegory, France circa 1970. This was a project which Perec predicted would “finally extend to something like four hundred pages,” one which he seems to have approached with little knowledge that it would become, at least for the international audience, the definitive work of his career.8
In a strange little book entitled Espèces d’espaces (1974), filled with anecdotes, direct addresses to the reader, and chapter headings such as, “Things we ought to do systematically, from time to time,” Perec explores the concept of space on an increasingly-larger scale. “What does it mean, to live in a room? Is to live in a place to take possession of it? What does taking possession of a place mean? As from when does somewhere become truly yours?” he asks at the outset.9 Without ever answering his own questions, Perec carries this thread all the way to the final chapter: “The world is big. . . . What can we know of the world? What quantity of space can our eyes hope to take in between our birth and our death?”10 Fully immersed in questions of psychogeography and the mundane, operating alongside but against the aimless dérive of the Situationist International, Perec’s investigation into the residues of human lives in specific spaces reaches its fictional apex in La Vie mode d’emploi. The following five excerpts (if the selection seems expansive, it is only because the primary text is even more so), along with some brief remarks, will give just a small glimpse of Perec’s work, the barest fraction of the lifting of the façade.
1. See endnotes for a list of references.
2. Bellos, 573.
3. C. Burgelin, Georges Perec (Seuil: Éditions du Seuil, 1988), 173. A rough translation: “The total novel. The one which would say everything. A novel that, like a box, contains a multitude of novels . . . a sort of polylogue [dialogue from multiple persons] where he would interweave all the narrative genres of today.”
4. Burgelin, 173. A rough translation: “a privileged space to let go, to come back, to restart, in a sort of fort/da, the imagination and its storytelling,” fort/da being Freud’s terminology from Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) for a child’s game in which a toy is “gone” (fort) and “there” (da) again as he plays, a game of perpetual disappearance and return.
5. Bellos, 626.
6. Paul Schwartz, Georges Perec: Traces of His Passage (Birmingham, Alabama: Summa Publications, Inc., 1988), 4.
7. Bellos, 212.
8. Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, ed. and trans. John Sturrock (New York: Penguin, 1997), 40.
9. Ibid., 24.
10. Ibid., 77-78.
La Vie mode d’emploi tells an impressively wide variety of stories within its pages. Perec, ever helpful, has compiled an index at the end of the novel, five pages of “an alphabetical checklist of some of the stories narrated in this manual,” in addition to the itemised list of 179 people offered in “The Fifty-First Chapter” (which, curiously, defies the style of all 98 other chapter headings by not reading “Chapter Fifty-one”) in the context of Valène’s vision for his painting of the entire apartment block. Neither of these lists exhausts the novel; indeed, it is impossible to reduce La Vie to a simple summary. With multiple concurrent plots, surrounding not only the ostensibly central cycle of Bartlebooth’s watercolour puzzles, but also three separate instances of art theft and professional forgery, several family histories, a trapeze artist, a young single mother, quite a few old single mothers, elaborate parties, and a frankly startling number of suicides, murders, ordinary deaths, and unexplained disappearances woven through with recipes, advertisements, receipts, plus a 64-page index of people, places, and things referenced within the text, to attempt a representation of La Vie is to fall into its own stylistic trap. Much of the novel is told in page-long sentences, long strings of semi-colons and commas, not leading up to any grandiose conclusion or cathartic moment—simply enduring, moving forward at an unpredictable pace. Parts of the text read as stage-directions to a play, others as a series of letters; long conversations are few and far between. Many of these characters are shut-ins, and Perec makes a point of noting who has not left their rooms, and for how long, focused as he is on the accumulation of time, goods, experiences. Major plot events are presented out of sequence, occurring in a faster manner than the reader is privy to seeing; characters appear, act, and disappear, only to be properly introduced several chapters later. The single unifying date—June 23, 1975—is not given in writing until the very last chapter, at which point all the characters come together, doing whatever they happen to be doing at about 8 o’clock in the evening, in 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, as Bartlebooth, blindly sitting at his incomplete puzzle, dies.
In its beginning, though, La Vie is a story of fracturing, opening on the building’s staircase, a space that “represents a breakdown of the aforementioned collective existence,” as Stefanie Elisabeth Sobelle puts it in her essay on Perec and architecture.1 The novel opens with a glimpse of all the people we don’t yet know, spread out as abstractions across a staircase. “We don’t think enough about staircases. Nothing was more beautiful in old houses than the staircases. Nothing is uglier, colder, more hostile, meaner, in today’s apartment buildings. We should learn to live more in staircases. But how?” Perec asks, in Species.2
1. Stefanie Elisabeth Sobelle, “The novel architecture of Georges Perec,” Writing the Modern City: Literature, architecture, modernity, ed. Sarah Edwards and Jonathan Charley (New York: Routledge, 2012), 187.
2. Perec, Species, 38.
On the Stairs, 1
Yes, it could begin this way, right here, just like that, in a rather slow and ponderous way, in this neutral place that belongs to all and to none, where people pass by almost without seeing each other, where the life of the building regularly and distantly resounds. What happens behind the flats’ heavy doors can most often be perceived only through those fragmented echoes, those splinters, remnants, shadows, those first moves or incidents of accidents that happen in what are called the “common areas”, soft little sounds damped by the red woolen carpet, embryos of communal life which never go further than the landing. The inhabitants of a single building live a few inches from each other, they are separated by a mere partition wall, they share the same spaces repeated alone each corridor, they perform the same movements at the same times, turning on a tap, flushing the water closet, switching on a light, laying the table, a few dozen simultaneous existences repeated from storey to storey, from building to building, from street to street. They entrench themselves in their domestic dwelling space—since that is what it is called—and they would prefer nothing to emerge from it; but the little that they do let out—the dog on a lead, the child off to fetch the bread, someone brought back, someone sent away—comes out by way of the landing. For all that passes, passes by the stairs, and all that comes, comes by the stairs: letters, announcements of births, marriages, and deaths, furniture brought in or taken out by removers, the doctor called in an emergency, the traveller returning from a long voyage. It’s because of that that that the staircase remains an anonymous, cold, and almost hostile place. In old buildings there used to be stone steps, wrought-iron handrails, sculptures, lamp-holders, sometimes a bench to allow old folk to rest between floors. In modern buildings there are lifts with walls covered in would-be obscene graffiti, and so-called “emergency” staircases in unrendered concrete, dirty and echoing. In this block of flats, where there is an old lift almost always out of order, the staircase is an old-fashioned place of questionable cleanliness, which declines in terms of middle-class respectability as it rises from floor to floor: two thicknesses of carpet as far as the third floor, thereafter only one, and none at all for the two attic floors.
Yes, it will begin here: between the third and fourth storey at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier. A woman of about forty is climbing the stairs . . . The woman is looking at a plan held in her left hand. It’s just a sheet of paper, whose still visible creases attest to its having been folded in four, fixed by a paperclip to a thick cyclostyled volume—the terms of co-ownership relating to the flat this woman is about to visit. on the sheet there are in fact not one but three sketchplans: the first, at the top right-hand corner, shows where the building is, roughly halfway along Rue Simon-Crubellier, which cuts at an angle across the quadrilateral formed by Rue Médéric, Rue Jadin, Rue de Chazelles, and Rue Léon Jost, in the Plaine Monceau district of the XVIIth arrondissement of Paris; the second, at the top-left corner, is a vertical cross-section of the building giving a diagrammatic picture of the layout of the flats and the names of some of the residents: Madame Nochère, concierge; Madame de Beaumont, second floor right; Bartlebooth, third floor left; Rémi Rorschach, television producer, fourth floor left; Dr Dinteville, sixth floor left, as well as the empty flat, sixth floor right, occupied by Gaspard Winckler, craftsman, until his death; the third plan, in the lower half of the sheet, is of Winckler’s flat: three rooms facing the street, kitchen and bathroom on the courtyard side, and a boxroom without natural light. (3-5)
On the Stairs, 2
On the stairs the furtive shadows pass of all those who were there one day.
He remembered Marguerite, and Paul Hébert and Laetizia, and Emilio, and the saddler, and Marcel Appenzzell (with two z’s, unlike the canton or the cheese); he remembered Grégoire Simpson, and the mysterious American girl, and the not at all nice Madame Araña; he remembered the man in yellow shoes with a pink in his buttonhole and his malachite-handled stick who came every day for ten years to see Dr Dinteville; he remembered Monsieur Jérôme, the history teacher whose Dictionary of the Spanish Church in the Seventeenth Century had been turned down by 46 publishers; he remembered the young student who lived for a few months in the room now occupied by Jane Sutton and who had been kicked out of a vegetarian restaurant where he worked in the evenings after being caught pouring a big bottle of beef extract into the pot of simmering vegetable soup; he remembered Troyan, the secondhand book dealer whose shop was in Rue Lepic and who found one day in a pile of detective novels three letters from Victor Hugo to Henri Samuel, his Belgian publisher, about the publication of Les Châtiments; he remembered Berloux, the air-raid warden, a fumbling cretin in a grey smock and a beret, who lived two houses up the road and who, one morning in 1941, in the virtue of God knows what ARP regulation, had had put in the hallway and in the back yard, where the rubbish bins were kept, barrels of sand which never had any use at all; he remembered the time when Jude Danglars gave grand receptions for his Appeal Court colleagues: on these occasions, two Republican Guards in full regalia would stand sentry at the door of the building, the porch would be decorated with big pots of aspidistra and philodendron, and a cloakroom was set up to the left of the lift: it was a long tube mounted on casters and fitted with coat hangers which the concierge draped as required with minks, sables, broadtails, astrakhans, and big cloaks with otter-skin collars. On those days Madame Claveau wore her black, lace-collared dress and sat on a Regency chair (hired from the same caterers as the coat hangers and the indoor plants) beside a marble-topped sideboard on which she put her box of tokens, a square metal box decorated with little cupids armed with bows and arrows, a yellow ashtray praising the virtues of Cusenier Bleach (white or green), and a saucer equipped in advance with five-franc coins.
He had lived in the building longer than anyone else. He had been there longer than Gratiolet, whose family had formerly owned the whole house, but who only came to live here during the war, a few years before inheriting what was left, four or five flats which he’d got rid of one by one, keeping in the end only his own little two-roomed dwelling on the seventh floor; longer than Madame Marquiseaux, whose parents had already had the flat and who was practically born there when he had lived there for almost thirty years already; longer than old Mademoiselle Crespi, than old Madame Moreau, than the Beaumonts, the Marcias, and the Altamonts. Longer even than Bartlebooth; he remembered very precisely the day in nineteen twenty-nine when the young man—for he was a young man at the time, he wasn’t yet thirty—told him at the end of his daily watercolour lesson:” I say, it seems that the big flat on the third floor is vacant. I think I’ll buy it. I’ll waste less time coming to see you.”
And he had bought it, that same day, without arguing over the price, of course.
At this time Valène had lived there for ten years already. He had rented his room one day in October nineteen nineteen when he came up from his native town of Etampes, which he’d practically never left before, to enrol at the Fine Art School. He was just nineteen. It was supposed to be a temporary lodging provided by a friend of the family, to tide him over. Later he would marry and become famous, or return to Etampes. He didn’t wed or go back to Etampes. Fame didn’t come after fifteen years, he acquired at best a modest reputation: some steady customers, some work as an illustrator of collections of folk tales, some teaching allowed him to live relatively comfortably, to paint without hurrying, to travel a little. Even later, when the opportunity arose of finding a larger flat or even a real studio, he realised he was too attached to his room, to his house, to his street, to leave them.
There were of course people he knew almost nothing about, whom he wasn’t even sure of having identified properly, people he passed from time to time on the stairs and of whom he wasn’t certain whether they lived in the building or only had friends there; there were people he couldn’t manage to remember anymore, others of whom only a single derisory image remained: Madame Appenzzell’s lorgnette, the cork figurines that Monsieur Troquet used to get into bottles and sell on the Champs-Elysées on Sundays, the blue enameled coffee pot always kept hot on a corner of Madame Fresnel’s cooker.
He tried to resuscitate those imperceptible details which over the course of fifty-five years had woven the life of this house and which the years had unpicked one by one: the impeccably polished linoleum floors on which you were only allowed to walk in felt undershoes, the oiled canvas tablecloths with red and green stripes on which mother and daughter shelled peas; the dish-stands that clipped together, the white porcelain counterpoise light that you could flick back up with one finger at the end of dinner; evenings by the wireless set, with the man in a flannel jacket, the woman in a flowery apron, and the slumbering cat rolled up in a ball by the fireplace; children in clogs going down for the milk with dented cans; the big old wood-stoves of which you would collect up the ashes in spread-out sheets of old newspaper . . .
Where were they now, the Van Houten cocoa tins, the Banania cartons with the laughing infantryman, the turned-wood boxes of Madeleine biscuits from Commercy? Where were they gone, the larders you used to have beneath the window-ledge, the packets of Saponite, that good old washing powder with its famous Madame Don’t-Mind-If-I-Do, the boxes of thermogene wool with the firespitting devil drawn by Cappiello, and the sachets of Dr Gustin’s lithium tablets?
The years had flowed past, the removal men had brought down pianos and trunks, rolled carpets and boxes of crockery, standard lamps and fish tanks, birdcages, hundred-year-old clocks, sootblackened cookers, tables with their flaps, the six chairs, the icemakers, the large family portraits.
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, the clinging smell of cresyl disinfectant, a noise of people, a shout, a hubbub, a rustling of silks and furs, a plaintive miaow behind a closed door, knocks on partition walls, hackneyed tangos on hissing gramophones, 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. (66-69)
At last, 130 pages into the book, we meet the man who is arguably the most central character, Bartlebooth himself. Tasking himself with a lifelong project that is essentially an exercise in turning nothing into nothing, Bartlebooth should be a figure of futility, an easy target for mockery. In Perec’s understated prose, however, Bartlebooth is not difficult to read as an analogue for oneself. He is, after all, a man attempting to find his purpose in life; he simply determines that that purpose should end in nothing. Valène teaches Bartlebooth to paint; accompanied by his personal assistant Smautf, Bartlebooth travels abroad and visits 500 seascapes, painting each one and mailing the paintings back to 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier; the boxes and packing materials are supplied by another of the building’s residents, as Bartlebooth strives to keep his entire project within a single space; Gaspard Winckler receives the paintings and turns them into jigsaw puzzles; Bartlebooth, upon his return home, assembles the puzzles; a fellow tenant called Morellet paints them with a special glue that seals the jigsaw cracks and removes the paintings from their wooden backings; the restored paintings are shipped back to their original locales and destroyed. That is the master plan. Bartlebooth’s crucial question, here “what should I do?” is, in the original French, “que faire?” with faire being “to do” but also “to make.” The answer remains the same in both languages, but the dual-connotation of the French is important. You can make nothing while still doing something; you cannot make anything while simultaneously doing nothing. Bartlebooth’s goals are presented in the excerpt below. They eventually come to naught, as his lifespan outruns his ability to put puzzles together; he loses his sight, and dies while trying to complete puzzle 439 out of 500. The last missing piece is in the shape of an X, Perec tells us; “But the ironical thing, which could have been foreseen long ago, is that the piece the dead man holds between his fingers is shaped like a W.”1 W, as in Gaspard Winckler, the one who glued all 500 watercolours onto wooden boards and cut them into jigsaw puzzles in the first place. Our first introduction to Winckler tells us that “Gaspard Winckler is dead, but the long and meticulous, patiently laid plot of his revenge is not finished yet.”2 Winckler, who has already wiped out all the traces of his own history following the death of his wife, here prevents Bartlebooth from doing the same thing: the project, whether hypothetically possible in the given timespan or not, cannot come to (non-)fruition. Several critics suggest reading Winckler, along with the novel’s other foremost painter Valène, as a stand-in for Perec himself, implying that the novelist has the last laugh. Since none of Perec’s characters hold nearly as much personality as their surroundings, it is difficult to say who you would rather side with.
1. Perec, La Vie, 565.
2. Ibid., 6.
Let us imagine a man whose wealth is equalled only by his indifference to what wealth generally brings, a man of exceptional arrogance who wishes to fix, to describe, and to exhaust not the whole world—merely to state such an ambition is enough to invalidate it—but a constituted fragment of the world: in the face of the inextricable incoherence of things, he will set out to execute a (necessarily limited) programme right the way through, in all its irreducible, intact entirety.
In other words, Bartlebooth resolved one day that his whole life would be organised around a single project, an arbitrarily constrained programme with no purpose outside its own completion.
The idea occurred to him when he was twenty. At first it was only a vague idea, a question looming—what should I do?—with an answer taking shape: nothing. Money, power, art, women did not interest Bartlebooth. Nor did science, nor even gambling. There were only neckties and horses that just about did, or, to put it another way, beneath these futile illustrations (but thousands of people do order their lives effectively around their ties, and far greater numbers do so around their weekend horse-riding) there stirred, dimly, a certain idea of perfection.
It grew over the following months and came to rest on three guiding principles.
The first was moral: the plan should not have to do with an exploit or record, it would be neither a peak to scale nor an ocean floor to reach. What Bartlebooth would do would not be heroic, or spectacular; it would be something simple and discreet, difficult of course but not impossibly so, controlled from start to finish and conversely controlling every detail of the life of the man engaged upon it.
The second was logical: all recourse to chance would be ruled out, and the project would make time and space serve as the abstract coordinates plotting the ineluctable recursion of identical events occurring inexorably in their allotted places, on their allotted dates.
The third was aesthetic: the plan would be useless, since gratuitousness was the sole guarantor of its rigour, and would destroy itself as it proceeded; its perfection would be circular: a series of events which when concatenated nullify each other: starting from nothing, passing through precise operations on finished objects, Bartlebooth would end with nothing.
Thus a concrete programme was designed, which can be stated succinctly as follows.
For ten years, from 1925 to 1935, Bartlebooth would acquire the art of painting watercolours.
For twenty years, from 1935 to 1955, he would travel the world, painting, at a rate of one watercolour each fortnight, five hundred seascapes of identical format (royal, 65 cm x 50 cm) depicting seaports. When each view was done, he would dispatch it to a specialist craftsman (Gaspard Winckler), who would glue it to a thin wooden backing board and cut it into a jigsaw puzzle of seven hundred and fifty pieces.
For twenty years, from 1955 to 1975, Bartlebooth, on his return to France, would reassemble the jigsaw puzzles in order, at a rate, once again, of one puzzle a fortnight. As each puzzle was finished, the seascape would be “retexturised” so that it could be removed from its backing, returned to the place where it had been painted—twenty years before—and dipped in a detergent solution whence would emerge a clean and unmarked sheet of Whatman paper.
Thus no trace would remain of an operation which would have been, throughout a period of fifty years, the sole motivation and unique activity of its author. (133-135)
Paul Schwartz describes La Vie as Perec’s effort “to reconstitute as an artistic whole the fragmented space and life of the building.”1 The longer you read La Vie, the more apparent the connections become, and the less fragmented things seem. As a result, the few but pervasive instances of breakdown—character-centric, structural, narrative—are so noticeable. The staircase (escaliers on the floor plan below) returns twelve times through the course of the novel, the most frequent recurrence of place. Refer back to the earlier diagram of the Knight’s Tour, the path it takes through 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, and you will see the necessity of all those returns.
1. Schwartz, 100.
On the Stairs, 3
Sometimes Valène had the feeling that time had been stopped, suspended, frozen around he didn’t know what expectation. The very idea of the picture he planned to do and whose laid-out, broken-up images had begun to haunt every second of his life, furnishing his dreams, squeezing his memories, the very idea of this shattered building laying bare the cracks of its past, the crumbling of its present, this unordered amassing of stories grandiose and trivial, frivolous and pathetic, gave him the impression of a grotesque mausoleum raised in the memory of companions petrified in terminal postures as insignificant in their solemnity as they were in their ordinariness, as if he had wanted both to warn of and to delay these slow or quick deaths which seemed to be engulfing the entire building storey by storey: Monsieur Marcia, Madame Moreau, Madame de Beaumont, Bartlebooth, Rorschach, Mademoiselle Crespi, Madame Albin, Smautf. And himself, of course, Valène himself, the longest inhabitant of the house. (144)
Also of interest are the two chapters that take place in the lifts. Perec frequently introduces a character in a chapter using only pronouns; the character is usually named within the next paragraph. Here, our second time on the lift, the character remains nameless. It seems likely that we are following Valène, planning out his painting, but you cannot be sure. Like the staircases, perhaps because of the shared verticality, the lift machinery carries with it a sense of anonymity, a glimpse into a long history that is never fully explained; Perec’s language, for once vatic rather than the dry tones of a chronicler, mixes with a catalogue of the machinations and effects of modern industry to produce a sense of gradually swelling urban dread. The original French of this excerpt uses slightly different punctuation (commas instead of semicolons, often), as fits the language, to an even more breathless end result. The translation also erases the word et from the start of several paragraphs; in the French, the continued repetition acts as a pseudo-poetic anaphora: Et plus loin encore des montagnes de sable . . . et des docks grouillant de passerelles . . . et plus bas encore des systèmes d’écluses et de bassins . . . et plus bas encore des galeries de mine . . . et, tout en bas, un monde de cavernes aux parois couvertes de suie.”
Lift Machinery, 2
Sometimes he imagined the building as an iceberg whose visible tip included the main floors and eaves and whose submerged mass began below the first level of cellars: stairs with resounding steps going down in spirals; long tiled corridors, their luminous globes encased in wire netting, their iron doors stencilled with warnings and skulls; goods lifts with riveted walls; air vents equipped with huge, motionless fans; metal-lined canvas fire hoses as thick as tree trunks, connected to yellow stopcocks a yard in diameter; cylindrical wells drilled into solid rock; concrete tunnels capped with regularly spaces skylights of frosted glass; recesses; storerooms; bunkers; strongrooms with armour-plated doors.
Lower down there would come a gasping of machinery, in depths momentarily glimmering with red light. Narrow conduits would debouch on vast enclosed spaces, on subterranean halls high as cathedrals, their vaults clustered with chains, pulleys, cables, pipes, conduits, joists, with movable platforms attached to jacks bright with grease, with frames of tubing and steel sections that formed gigantic scaffoldings, at whose summits men clad in asbestos, their faces shielded by trapezial visors, filled the air with the vivid flashes of arc lamps.
Lower still would come silos and sheds; cold-storage rooms; ripening rooms; mail-sorting offices; shunting stations with their switching posts; steam locomotives pulling railway trucks, flat wagons, sealed cars, container cars, tank cars; platforms stacked high with goods—cords of tropical wood, bales of tea, bags of rice, pyramids of brick and through-stone, rolls of barbed wire, extruded steel wire, angle irons, ingots, bags of cement, drums, hogsheads, cordage, jerry cans, tanks of butane.
And still further down: mountains of sand, gravel, coke, slag, and track ballast; concrete mixers; ash heaps; mine shafts glowing with orange light; reservoirs; gasworks; steam generators; derricks; pumps; high-tension pylons; transformers; vats; boilers bristling with nozzles, levers, and dials;
dockyards crowded with gangways, gantries, and cranes, with winches winding ropes taut as tendons, displacing stacks of veneer, aeroplane engines, concert grands, bags of fertiliser, bushels of feed, billiard tables, combine harvesters, ball bearings, cases of soap, tubs of asphalt, office furniture, typewriters, bicycles;
still lower: systems of lock and docking basins; canals lined with strings of barges loaded with wheat and cotton; highway terminals crisscrossed by trailer trucks; corrals full of black horses pawing the ground; pens of bleating sheep and fattened cattle; hills of crates overflowing with fruits and vegetables; columns of cheese wheels, hard and soft; perspectives of glassy-eyed animals split in two and slung from butcher hooks; piles of vases, pots, and wicker-covered flasks; cargoes of watermelons; cans of olive oil; tubs of fish in brine; giant bakeries where bare-chested baker boys in white trousers withdraw from their ovens burning-hot trays lined with thousands of raisin buns; interminable kitchens where out of cauldrons as big as steam turbines hundreds of portions of greasy stew are ladled into giant rectangular pans;
and lower still, mine galleries with blind ageing horses drawing carts filled with ore and slow processions of helmeted miners; and oozing passageways, reinforced with waterlogged timbers, that lead down glistening steps to slapping blackish water; flint-bottomed boats, punts weighted with empty barrels sailing across a lightless lake, bestridden by phosphorescent creatures shuffling indefatigably from shore to shore with hampers of dirty laundry, complete sets of dishware, knapsacks, cardboard boxes fastened with bits of string; wherries filled with sickly indoor plants, alabaster bas-reliefs, plaster casts of Beethoven, Neo-Gothic armchairs, Chinese vases, tapestry cartoons depicting Henri III and his minions playing cup-and-ball, counterpoise lamps still trailing lengths of flypaper, garden furniture, baskets of oranges, empty birdcages, bedspreads, thermos flasks;
further down, another maze of ducts, pipes, and flues; drains winding among main and lateral sewers; narrow canals edged with black stone parapets; unrailinged stairs above precipitous voids; a whole inextricable geography of stalls, backyards, porches, pavements, blind alleys, and arcades, a whole subterranean city organised vertically into neighbourhoods, districts, and zones: the tanners’ quarter with its unbearable stench, its faltering machines fitted with sagging drive belts, its stacks of pelts and leathers, its vats brimming with brownish substances; the scrapyards littered with mantelpieces of marble and stucco, with bidets, bathtubs, rusty radiators, statues of startled nymphs, standing lamps, and park benches; the quarter of those who deal in waste metal, the quarter of ragpickers and flea merchants, with its jumbles of old clothes, its stripped-down baby carriages, its bales of surplus fatigues, worn shirts, army belts and Ranger boots, its dentist’s chairs, its provisions of old newspapers, lensless glasses, key rings, braces, musical table mats, light bulbs, laryngoscopes, retorts, flasks with lateral nozzles, and various types of glassware; the wine market and its mountains of demi-johns and broken bottles, its staved-in tuns, its cisterns, vats, and racks; the streetcleaners’ quarter full of overturned dustbins spilling out cheese rinds, wax paper, fish bones, dishwater, leftover spaghetti, used bandages, its heaps of refuse endlessly shoved from one place to the next by slimy bulldozers, its unhinged dishwashers, its hydraulic pumps, cathode-ray tubes, old radios, its sofas losing their stuffing; and the quarter of government offices, whose staff headquarters swarms with military personnel in impeccably ironed shirts moving little flags across maps of the world, its tiled morgues peopled with nostalgic hoods and the open-eyed bodies of the doomed, its record offices filled with bureaucrats in grey smocks who day after day look up birth, marriage, and death certificates, its telephone exchanges and their mile-long rows of polyglot operators, its machine room full of crackling telexes and computers that spew forth by the second reams of statistics, payrolls, inventories, balance sheets, receipts, and no-information statements, its paper-shredders and incinerators endlessly devouring quantities of out-of-date forms, brown folders stuffed with press clippings, account books bound in black linen with pages covered in delicate violet handwriting;
and at the very bottom, a world of caverns whose walls are black with soot, a world of cesspools and sloughs, a world of grubs and beasts, of eyeless beings who drag animal carcasses behind them, of demoniacal monsters with bodies of birds, swine, and fish, of dried-out corpses and yellow-skinned skeletons arrayed in attitudes of the living of forges manned by dazed Cyclopses in black leather aprons, their singe eyes shielded by metal-rimmed blue glass, hammering their brazen masses into dazzling shields. (405-408)
In closing, I leave you with Perec’s final words from Species of Spaces: “I would like there to exist places that are stable, unmoving, intangible, untouched and almost untouchable, unchanging, deep-rooted; places that might be points of reference, of departure, of origin . . . Such places don’t exist, and it’s because they don’t exist that space becomes a question, ceases to be self-evident, ceases to be incorporated, ceases to be appropriated. Space is a doubt: I have constantly to mark it, to designate it. It’s never mine, never given to me, I have to conquer it. My spaces are fragile: time is going to wear them away, to destroy them. . . . Space melts like sand running through one’s fingers. Time bears it away and leaves me only shapeless shreds: To write: to try meticulously to retain something, to cause something to survive; to wrest a few precise scraps from the void as it grows, to leave somewhere a furrow, a trace, a mark or a few signs.”1
1. Perec, Species, 90-91.
Text sources & references:
1. David Bellos, Georges Perec: A Life in Words: A Biography (Boston: D.R. Godine, 1993).
2. C. Burgelin, Georges Perec (Seuil: Éditions du Seuil, 1988).
3. Peter Consenstein, Literary Memory, Consciousness, and the Group Oulipo (New York: Rodopi, 2002).
4. Stefanie Elisabeth Sobelle, “The novel architecture of Georges Perec,” Writing the Modern City: Literature, architecture, modernity, ed. Sarah Edwards and Jonathan Charley (New York: Routledge, 2012).
5. Georges Perec, La Vie mode d’emploi (Paris: Hachette Littératures, 1978).
6. —, Life A User’s Manual, trans. David Bellos (Boston: David R. Godine, 2009).
7. —, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, ed. and trans. John Sturrock (New York: Penguin, 1997).
8. Paul Schwartz, Georges Perec: Traces of His Passage (Birmingham, Alabama: Summa Publications, Inc., 1988).
Image sources (excepting scans from Bellos, Burgelin, Perec):
1. Steinberg’s apartment
2. Georges Perec, the man himself
3. Knight’s Tour (also useful here, perhaps, is a gif showing the movement of a possible Knight’s Tour–though not the one Perec followed)
4. cover design