Life: A User’s Manual – A Reading by Souva Chattopadhyay

Seldom you come across a book which is so magnificent in its scope, so disarmingly rich in style and variation, that after finishing it, you feel quite numb and dull. And later, when you try to reflect on the book, you are desperately short of words and expressions. Common examples include James Joyce’s “Ulysses” or Dostoyevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov”.

Recently, I’ve finished reading Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec and without hesitation, I’ve placed it in the aforementioned category.

I’m supposed to call “Life: A User’s Manual” a book, or a novel, but I prefer the word ‘tapestry’, and indeed, it is an ingenuous one. The title page describes it as “Novels”, in plural, and we’ll understand its significance a little later. The central character of the narrative is a wealthy Englishman called Bartlebooth (recently I’ve come to know that this is a cross between Herman Melville’s Bartleby and Valery Larbaud’s Barnabooth; such tongue-in-cheek references are abundant in this piece of work) living in a Parisian apartment at 11, Rue Simon-Crubellier. Not knowing what to do with his time or his fortune, he contrives an extensive plan which will keep him busy for the rest of his life. His plan goes as follows—

  • In the first 10 years he devotes himself learning the techniques of water-colour under the guidance of Valene, who also comes to live at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier.
  • Then, he starts his voyage spanning a period of 20 years around the world, accompanied by his faithful butler Smautf (an obvious reference to Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days”, bringing back the sweet memories of my childhood days) and painting 500 landscapes in different ports in different countries.
  • As soon as he finishes each of these canvases, it is sent to Gaspard Winckler, a clever and ingenuous craftsman (another resident of 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier) who converts it into a jigsaw puzzle, increasingly difficult in nature, and stores them for future.
  • After returning from his voyage, Bartlebooth solves those jigsaw puzzles.
  • Each of the solved puzzles is then transferred to Georges Morellet (still another resident of the same building) who then rebinds the paper with a special glue and restores the original painting, removing the support of the pasteboard.
  • This painting, which is in almost the identical state when Bartlebooth painted it, is then sent to the port where it was painted, exactly 20 years after the day of its creation.
  • The painting is then placed into seawater until the colour dissolves, leaving a plain virgin sheet of paper.
  • This blank sheet is then returned to Bartlebooth.
  • The whole process is repeated for all the 500 paintings.

Now, as the narrative progresses, it dawns upon the readers that the novel is set not only on the day of Bartlebooth’s death, but also, at the precise moment of his death. All the characters and objects, living in the microcosm of this Parisian apartment, are frozen in time and space by the author as he goes on painstakingly describing each of them, in each of the flats in the building, where they are and what they have been doing at that fateful moment, with elaborate references to their past, present and future. And this act of describing them is actually what the novel consists of. Probably now, the word “novels” makes some sense, because in the course of this narrative, we’ve come across more than 100 main stories (concerning all the residents and their lives), spanning almost 142 years (1833-1975).

But, what is the point of telling such a convoluted array of stories? And, moreover, what is the point of indulging oneself into such a tedious and futile endeavour like Bartlebooth? The answers are the same—NOTHING!

The most striking characteristic of this tapestry is its capability of referring to itself and its elements. The book itself is in the fashion of a vast jigsaw puzzle, similar to the ones Bartlebooth has been solving throughout his life. All the different stories and characters are the random pieces of the puzzle. As you are going through them, you engage yourself in joining them together, groping around in dark, unsure of yourself. Eventually, at the end, this tapestry emerges with full splendour.

The quixotic effort of Bartlebooth and that of the author touch upon yet another theme. However hard a person tries to attribute a meaning to an act, ultimately it is devoid of any significance, or rather, if it has any significance at all, that is purely random (remember Sassure’s “Signifier – Signified” duo which is random). We are nothing but preys of an illusory meaningfulness which we pursue till the end of our lives. The effort of both Bartlebooth and Perec is a mockery of this illusion. At the end, Bartlebooth dies without finishing the project, in the process of becoming aware of the impossibility of such a task.

While Bartlebooth’s bizarre project provides the central theme, 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier gives the book its structure. Supposedly, the narrative moves like a Knight in a chess game, one chapter for each room (thus, the more rooms an apartment has the more chapters are devoted to them). Perec haults in each room and tells us about the residents of the room, or the past residents of the room, or about some of their acquaintances. Perec devises the elevation of the building as a 10×10 grid: 10 storeys, including basements and attics and 10 rooms across, including 2 for the stairwell (the plan is given at the end of the book, along with a 58 pages long Index!). Each room is assigned to a chapter, and the order of the chapters is given by the knight’s moves on the grid.

George Perec was a member of the OuLiPo (“Ouvroir de littérature potentielle”, which translates roughly as “workshop of potential literature”) group. The members of the group were devoted to “constrained writing” techniques (Perec himself wrote an entire book without using the vowel e for once). In this novel also, there are certain constraints that he subjects himself to, like the number of lists in each chapter, number of objects etc. Unfortunately, as an uninitiated reader, I couldn’t delve deep into such numerological nitty-gritty.

The book swarms with numerous references to other authors, books and characters, including Jules Verne, Captain Nemo, Passepartout, Kafka, Nabokov, Gaston Leroux, Cheri-Bibi, Marcel Proust and so on. As a novice reader it is an unpardonable audacity to even think of uncovering all those subtle nuances, but if you can, at least, sneak a peek at some of them, you will be justly rewarded. But be careful, there are plenty of red herrings, which may soon thwart you off the track.

Another nasty twist at the end of this post! It is not Perec, who is describing all these disparate elements of a story. Rather, he is just describing the concept behind an unfinished sketch by Valene (the art teacher of our old friend Bartlebooth), aspiring to depict the building and its residents in fullest possible details (yes, along with the incidents from their past lives). Valene stops working on this painting precisely at the moment of Bartlebooth’s death!

What should be said about this one-of-its-kind book, if not diabolic?

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Souva Chattopadhyay
Souva Chattopadhyay 2 posts

A bibliomaniac, trying to reconstruct his memory bit by bit.

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