It was my birthday recently and I woke to a big dump of snow together with the information that I smell like poo. This news was sung to me over the phone by a gleeful Amy. It made my snowbound day.
So wrapped in layers of clothing and huddled around a candle - there's no heating in my flat - I spent the day reading Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec.
Perec, who died aged 46 in 1982, was a French novelist, filmmaker and essayist, as well as a member of the Oulipo group.
Founded in 1960, Oulipo, Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, continues to bring together intellectuals and masochists who enjoy making the art of writing even more difficult than it already is. They bind themselves with constraints so tight their vowels bleed. For instance, in a lipogram, the writer will deliberately exclude using a number of predetermined letters; in one variation, the prisoner's constraint, the writer will not use any letter with a descender or ascender, the letters b, d, f, g, etc.
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Perec, who among his many accomplishments compiled exacting crosswords for Le Point, once wrote a univocalic novella, Les Revenentes, in which 'e' was the only vowel he permitted himself. In contrast, his novel, La Disparition, was written without once using the letter 'e'.
You could say he was an eccentric. Or an ccntric.
La Vie Mode D'Emploi, or Life: A User's Manual, is his best known and most admired work. Needless to say, Perec did not make the work of writing his novel simple but an exercise in lexical acrobatics
I read somewhere the claim that Perec was a structuralist. Having studied the subject, I am less than sure, unless the writer is referring to the structure of the novel in which case Perec is less a structuralist and more an architect.
In Life: A User's Manual, Perec takes as his starting point the imaginary elevation of a building with rooms, including the stairwells, that form a ten by ten grid. The whole is imagined as existing in a single moment, as if a painting. The book travels around the building in a series of chess moves known as the Knight's Tour with one chapter devoted to each room. The stories relating to each are constructed by the use of a mathematical device: over the ten by ten grid of the building Perec lays a Graeco-Latin bisquare. From the little I understand, Graeco-Latin bisquare is an instrument whereby from a given number of elements or themes all possible combinations are revealed on the different squares without any repetition. To quote from Frieze:
Each box in which the knight landed gave coordinates referring to the ‘schedule of obligations’. These lists provided the objects, emotions, places and periods in time which would feature within each chapter.
In a scholarly paper, Memory and Oulipian Constraits, Peter Consenstein identifies '42 themes [that] were divided into ten groupings of four each, leaving room for two extra "themes." He goes on to suggest that Perec employs the constraints he imposes as the means to create the themes, 'In essence, the constraint determines the novel's themes; the theoretical consequences of working under constraint are such that the novel is "constraint-driven" not "theme-driven."
This may make the Life: A User's Handbook sound as joyous to read as John Harrison's Principles of Mr. Harrison's Time-Keeper, but joyous it is. To quote Paul Auster, who reviewed the book for The New York Times shortly after its English publication:
To read Georges Perec one must be ready to abandon oneself to a spirit of play. His books are studded with intellectual traps, allusions and secret systems, and if they are not necessarily profound (in the sense that Tolstoy and Mann are profound), they are prodigiously entertaining (in the sense that Lewis Carroll and Laurence Sterne are entertaining).