On why I am loving Life A User’s Manual

Very much enjoying Life A User’s Manual by Georges Perec. This was Richard‘s pick for our nonstructured group read this month. I’ve finished the first part and was really impressed by Perec’s ability to create such interesting stories out of strictly constrained settings. Really, brilliant.

My initial reaction towards reading him was equal parts trepidation (that I wasn’t capable of understanding him) and delight — because of the familiarity. His style immediately brought to mind two authors I absolutely love. The technical and structural aspects of the novel echoed Calvino and the narrative voice and storytelling Bolaño. (I got flashbacks to 2666 while reading about  Crespi’s dream, and not just that.) I could tell right away this was going to be a treat; thus, made sure to save the best for last this month.

What’s really interesting is that Richard himself had previously mentioned both Bolaño and Calvino in relation to Perec. That Bolaño looked up to him and that he was friends with Calvino. (Later, I remembered Calvino and Perec were indeed, in fact, both members of Oulipo, a group of writers and mathematicians who use constrained techniques in their writing.)

Life A User’s Manual covers an entire apartment building and all its rooms and all its inhabitants (and then some). At first it seems too technical — Richard talks about the technique Perec used in maneuvering the story from room-to-room and Isabella frets over the precision of detail and geometry — and maybe it is, but then again I’m hoping there’re deeper things to be picked up here, as I go further in.

I confess there are way too many references to things (mostly literature) I am not even remotely familiar with. Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped me from thoroughly enjoying the book. Richard mentions Flaubert, Isabella mentions Borges, Bellezza mentions Jules Verne, and Frances and Isabella make the connection to Arthur Stanley Jefferson and Gertrude of Wyoming. You gotta love these shared reads. One thing’s for sure, I’m looking forward to reading Luigi Pirandello even more now (as he appears on p. 19).

[An aside, to my Filipino readers, I was delighted to see the Philippines appear twice. First, Manila. Then Puerto Princesa in Palawan, and Mindanao and Luzon. Forgive me this bit of indulgence but the Philippines rarely ever gets mentioned in literature.]

Anyway, some of my favourite moments in Part I include Winckler’s room (“what remains when there’s nothing left”) and Smautf’s travels with Bartlebooth (500 seascapes in watercolour; I might not tire of it even if he described each one).

Loved this passage:

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 a 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.

Geeky confession: I am crazy addicted to jigsaw puzzles (and most every other kind of puzzle, for that matter).

18 thoughts on “On why I am loving Life A User’s Manual

  1. I love jigsaw puzzle and any kind of puzzle too! Does it mean I may like the book? Maybe I will pick it up in the future when I’m brave enough and have grown a little bit more as a reader ;)

  2. I’m glad you’re enjoying it. I’m following a few of the people who’re reading it together with you and I’m eager to see how you all end up liking it.

  3. i ve got this from library so will be starting it in next few days ,be intrigue to see what i make of it and other people do as few people reading it at moment ,all the best stu

  4. I love puzzles too! And I love how this whole book feels like a whole pile of puzzles – one is how all the bits of the book fit together, another is how this book fits into the wider puzzle of the literary landscape, etc. So much fun – and I’m sure that this is a book that will only get richer (and crazier!) upon multiple reads. And yes, I intend to read it multiple times. :)

    • You got it, the whole book indeed seems like a puzzle in itself. I’m VERY excited to see what you all have caught.. such mysteries.

      I’ll read it again (and again..) for sure, too.

  5. After struggling to get into this novel, I am now loving it! (Another loose connection: The Elegance of The Hedgehog, simply due to the Parisian apartments.) I can’t wait to discuss it with everyone come April 30th.

    The photograph you posted of Perec is perfect!

  6. Claire, please add me to Sarah’s list as someone who intends to revisit this work multiple times! In fact, I’ve started already with selected stories. Also, please add me to Bellezza’s list for congratulating you on picking out a perfect Perec photo to post! Will have to reread the Crespi’s dream section you mention since there were so many high water moments, I sometimes lost track of the details. While I totally agree with what you say about Bolaño, Calvino, and Perec sharing sensibilities for all the reasons you mention, I think people who are scared off by the size of this novel should just think about as a 1001 Nights or Decameron that they can dip into from time whenever in need of a fun story. Glad you’re enjoying it!

    • You are right again, of course! Each chapter is a unique story in itself. I am so enjoying some of the stories, and then the others not as much. Again, like 2666, it’s like each part can be separated from the rest and you’d still have a coherent whole. Weird how alike they are (Perec and Bolaño). Especially the attention to detail.

  7. Think that we are all in for a re-read. Seems a necessity. Then we can start on that joint annotation project that Isabella brought up. :)

    Great post, Claire! Love diving in a bit at a time. Not sure how I would make this work otherwise. How would one contain this is a single blog post? In anything really? Still have a ways to go though…

  8. Me, too, I’m crazy for jigsaw puzzles! Plus the use of chess and mentions of go, both of which greatly intrigue me, makes this whole book a game for me.

    I’m not quite finished yet, but I’m not convinced there’s anything terribly deep going on in this book except for a lot of lovely, entertaining stories.

    (Why is the picture a puzzle that’s 11×9? Shouldn’t it be 10×10?)

    The Pirandello story is great, by the way (I wrote a bit about it yesterday).

    • Isabella, you’re too funny! I hadn’t even noticed! I don’t know how to play go but am also so intrigued.

      Just read your Romeo Daddi post.. I must read it! But will settle for The Late Mattia Pascal for now, I guess. It’s the one sitting on the tbr shelf.

      Reading through the book, I also felt it was more expansive than deep, more entertaining than profound. But then the ending really struck me. It was like all things, everything, converged, got sucked into that last chapter, the whirlpool. And then I felt it being both deep and profound. Will be very interested how you feel about the ending.

  9. I feel like a dolt for only getting around to commenting on this post now, Claire, but I share your enjoyment of the puzzle-like nature of this book & the exuberance of Perec’s style. There are so many narrative high points that I’m having trouble looking back on the novel as a whole and picking out which ones I loved above others, but certainly have a soft place in my heart for Smautf, among others.

    • No worries, my dear. I haven’t been a very good commenter myself of late, and you know why (time is against me.. us?).

      I only just finished the book a few hours ago and even now cannot pinpoint every story that I enjoyed the most too.. too many! But a few stick out more clearly than others, like the Carel van Loorens story, and Sven Ericsson plotting Elizabeth’s murder, and..

      I like Smautf, too, but my fave would have to be Valène.

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