I read Georges Perec's book Life: A User's manual when I was a master's student of physics. I toiled and floundered about the books and lectures on classical and quantum mechanics, basically for a degree. The LaGrangian and Hamiltonian equations, the particle theories, its graduation to quantum physics and further, Schrödinger and Heisenberg's equations went past me in a haze.
I was grappling with the concept of constraints in LaGrangian Mechanics when I read the preface of Perec's book which forewarned the reader of the games and artifacts he employed in his novel. Perec although wrote the book to be eminently readable, made no bones about the underlying vehemence of his forays into constraints and order in its construction - the sequence of chapters to follow the algorithm of a chess game, jigsaw puzzles, crosswords, complex mathematical probabilistic algorithms to organize the literary elements (objects, characters, situations, literary allusions and quotations, etc) in a certain order and even the indexing of the ninety nine chapters modeled after Dewey: all would give you a glimpse of an architect's mind focused at work. He was non-committal on its grandeur and stoic about its futility, acutely aware of the opus of life and immeasurably dispassionate observant of its goings on, so that he had another way of explaining the inexplicable.
La Grange essentially said, imposing constraints on a system is simply another way of stating that there are forces present in the (physical) problem that cannot be specified directly, but are known in terms of their effect on the motion of the system - Perec adopted this application of constraints as an empirical approach to the process of writing and its eventual reading.
Perec was part of the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Oulipo) group, devoted to the study of literary form. Under the benevolent leadership of Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, the Oulipo worked--and works still, today--to identify and re-invigorate forms that literary history had cast aside. With equal fervor, they postulated new ones, based on systems of rigorous formal constraint, leading one member of the group to propose a definition, tongue firmly in cheek: "Oulipians: Rats who must build the labyrinth from which they propose to escape." Georges Perec found a home in the Oulipo, in the company of other writers such as Jacques Roubaud, Harry Mathews, Italo Calvino, and Marcel Bénabou.
Life A User's Manual tells the story of a ten storied building, in the fictional 11, rue Simon-Crubellier, in Paris, minutely describing its interior and how it relates to the lives of those who lived there, but most of all it tells the stories, 179 in total, of its inhabitants. The order, in which the different stories are told, is determined by a famous chess problem: how to visit every spot on the board using only the knight’s move. Once the constraints are set, you would find Perec as anybody but a formalist. His deep affection and feel for the characters and their lives, with all its idiosyncrasies and synchronicities. Each of the stories would make you react in different ways and in many ways brings forth one's own personal history of reading and literary forms ever known. You wonder, laugh, ponder, worry and mystify over those stories just like any other book. However they are all told in reinvented genres: romance, drama, detective, adventure and murder mystery about what is experienced, read about or dreamed up by an array of restaurateurs, mediums, cyclists, antique dealers and pious widows. Here is the summary of some of the stories:
- A trapeze artist's swansong at the circus to execute the perfect and impossible feat that led to his death.
- An Archeologist at the Nile tries to rescue a beautiful German girl from a harem.
A judge's wife, whose sexually thrilling thefts result in a sentence of hard labor, ends as a bag lady on a park bench.
- A murder mystery where the protagonist seeks to avenge the unknown and obscure person for the murder of his wife and daughter. Having lost all hopes to solve the mystery, he adopts the Monte Carlo theory of probability to find the perpetrator at an arbitrary location, i.e. the opera house. Finally you get a suggested account of the perpetrator's efforts to dodge him and the eventual acknowledgement after he realized that they barely missed each other.
- Story of a tragedy stricken family for generations and a prophecy on the fate of the present inheritor in near future. All you find is a slice of time when she visits the empty apartment, in the book.
The stories hardly leave a doubt in one's mind on the amazing story telling ability of Perec while he negotiates the premises with the reader, thereby keeping the big picture firmly in the backdrop and establishes multiple channels of communication with the reader. That is where Perec brings in his central character Bartlebooth, the millionaire maverick painter, Gaspard Winckler, his cohort and Valene, the concierge of the apartment complex and narrator of the crosswords of stories.
Bartlebooth sets out on a journey around the world to paint watercolors of 500 different harbors and seaports, a journey which would take him another 20 years. Every other week he visits another town and every other week he sends a watercolor to his assistant Gaspard Winckler, who glues the paintings on a wooden board and makes them into a jigsaw puzzle of 750 pieces each. In 1955, having finished all 500 watercolors, Bartlebooth returns home and begins to solve the puzzles. Once put together the puzzles are to be resolved from their backing and taken to where they were painted, where they are to be erased with some detergent. Bartlebooth will thus be left with what he started with, an empty sheet of paper. Beginning and end would coincide. But things don’t go as planned.
To revenge himself for 20 years of pointless work, Gaspard Winckler has made the jigsaw puzzles ever more difficult. Almost blind Bartlebooth dies as he haphazardly attempts to finish the 439th puzzle. As Perec writes in the last paragraph of the 99th chapter:
"It is the twenty-third of June nineteen seventy-five, and it is eight o'clock in the evening. Seated at his jigsaw puzzle, Bartlebooth has just died. On the tablecloth, somewhere in the crepuscular sky of the four hundred and thirty-ninth puzzle, the black hole of the sole piece not yet filled in has the almost perfect shape of an X. 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."
Gaspard Winckler who died two years earlier has triumphed, but it has been a meaningless triumph.
In a paragraph, Perec described the grand project of life, the inherent meaninglessness and latency of human efforts to circumvent the inevitable realization and finally the intervention of chances to thwart every scheme ever to be conceived. Our lives are built around innumerable social, ethical, moral, physical, biological and other constraints. Some we accept and some we don’t, hardly ever noticing the perceived chaos and order influenced by how those constraints are applied. For someone who wrote a novel devoid of the letter "e" and the frontrunner of literature forms and OULIPO movement, this is the summit, where you ride past the literary subcultures of such writers as Joyce, Borges, Calvino, Flaubert and Kafka.
For now I am speechless to say anything more. Go read it, because the book belongs to you, my dear reader.