Life A User’s Manual by Georges Perec

Chapter Sixty-Eight

On The Stairs, 9

Draft inventory of some of the things found on the stairs over the years

a black shoe decorated with jewels…

  • A box of Geraudel cough pastilles…
  • a Russian-leather cigarette case…
  • Pride and Prejudice, a novel by Jane Austen, in the Tauschnitz edition…
  • a rectangular, 21cm x 27cm sheet of paper on which the geneological tree of the Romanov family had been carefully drawn and framed with a frieze of broken lines…
  • a travelling chess set, in synthetic leather, with magnetic pieces…
  • a carnival mask representing Mickey Mouse…
  • several paper flowers, paper hats and some confetti…(p. 327-328)

Life is made of little things. The little glimpses we have of one another often come from those items which surround us; the pieces of our lives fit together as intricately as puzzle pieces. Who assembles them: the puzzle maker, or the puzzle solver?

Reading this remarkable book by Georges Perec made me ask that question over and over. Am I a piece of the puzzle? Do I have a part in the placement of my piece? Perhaps that question is too existential. Perhaps Perec only meant to give us a glimpse into our lives because whether we live in an apartment building in Paris, or in the suburb of a great midwestern city, our lives create a fascinating picture.

Consider a few of the characters he has created:
Valene, the old painter; Morellet, a lab technician who works for Bartlebooth, the puzzle maker; Gaspard Winckler, the specialist craftsman who painstakingly creates the wooden puzzles of Bartlebooth’s watercolors so they can be reassembled by him; Madame Hourcade who worked in a cardboard factory before the war and has identical black boxes into which the puzzle pieces can be placed; Smautf who is Bartlebooth’s butler; these, amidst all the other individuals who inhabit the apartment.

Interwoven through their lives is the story of Bartlebooth who seeks to reassemble 500 puzzles in 20 years. At the end he is pictured blind, sitting before the 439th puzzle which has one piece missing in the shape of X, while the piece he is holding is in the shape of a W.

We cannot determine the pieces of our lives, nor the shape they will take; I think we have an empty place inside that can never quite be filled.

I loved the picture of France that this book reminded me of. It’s been so long since I’ve rebelliously smoked a pack of Gitanes, taken a trip to the ancient town of Aigues Mortes, or smelled the scent of a Parisian apartment building filled with the detritus of life.
It makes me want a cigarette real bad.

Find other thoughts from our host Richard, and other readers E.L. Fay, Claire, Emily, Frances, Isabella, and Julia.

22 thoughts on “Life A User’s Manual by Georges Perec”

  1. Jo, be sure to visit the other posts I listed because they give a much more indepth look at this marvelous book which by comparison I just scratched the very surface. I probably didn't get half of it, although I enjoyed all of it! 😉


  2. Bellezza, I love that this book brought back the scents and the sensations of France for you! And I think you're right that Perec offers up a warning about not trying to find or impose too much order on life's chaos (both the good and the bad things over which we have no control). Speaking of which, did you edit this post a little since last night? I only ask because I was too sleepy to comment at the time, but I thought I remembered you writing a line or two about what Perec's "message" might have been. Enjoyed what you wrote (or what I imagined you wrote!), but this version of the post works fine, too. Thanks for joining us!


  3. Ah, Richard, you weren't so sleepy afterall…what a reader you are! I did edit it a bit, afraid that I'd totally missed the mark in my review after perusing all the others. Essentially, I wondered if Perec's view couldn't have been that whether we create the puzzle, or put it together, there will always be a missing piece of some kind. It's just a personal point of view I have, that perhaps I'm inflicting on Perec, that on this earth we'll never be totally fufilled. I don't think I'll ever forget the irony, or the image, of blind Bartelbooth holding the wrong shaped piece for the remaining hole. So poignant! Even though I feel like a failure in this read-along, missing so much of what the others posted about in their literary eloquence, I did enjoy it very much. I loved the story for story's sake: so many vignettes made me laugh, or think, or dwell in possibility. As I said on someone else's blog (Julia's?) I loved the container for Jesus' blood being bought which turned out to be fake; yet the money paid for it was fake, too. I loved the cowrie shell collector whose wares were rendered useless at the influx of cowrie shells in the market. I loved the long lists of items in the character's homes; did he ever run out of imagination? I think not.Perec is a writer I have not read before, and I truly thank you for introducing me to him in the hosting of this read aloud. Plus, as a teacher, I give your comprehension score 100% 😉


  4. I love the visual pastiche you assembled! Really this book is an assault on the senses — so many pictures and sounds, etc. Hard to fathom that the story was all told in words.


  5. I had never heard much about Georges Perec until the last month or so when I kept running across references to him in articles on Czech writer Michal Ajvaz. I just finished reading Ajvaz' Other City, although I haven't had time to do a review. Life A User's Manual sounds like a book that I would really enjoy! I am always intrigued by those wacky Oulipo constraints. I will have to add it to my wish list. Thanks for the great review.


  6. Too me, the images that Perec listed were so very real! I wish I could have caught authentic pictures, but this collage is the best visual I could come up with…lacking dust, and use, but still indicative of the object. I think the poster for the cough pastilles is my favorite; I'd like one hanging in my home, even! It reminds me of Toulouse Lautrec's dancing girls.


  7. Darn, my library doesn't have a copy of this. I did, however, order it through interlibrary loan because it sounds so interesting. Fingers crossed that it will come in.


  8. Looove that collage you made. And love this bit you wrote: "We cannot determine the pieces of our lives, nor the shape they will take; I think we have an empty place inside that can never quite be filled."I think that, not counting the technicalities and allusions Perec has made, there's something to be found here that doesn't seem at all obvious on the surface, and that's indicative of the title. I missed so many things, too, if not for Richard and Isabella and the others, but even so the enjoyment of nibbling on the bits of stories never lacked.


  9. Bellezza, I enjoyed your posts! Please don't feel like a "failure" just because you took a different tack! I think that the missing puzzle piece you touch on and the comment about the title that Claire makes are both interesting and very important discussion points actually. For my part, I'm inclined to agree with Gabriel Josipovici's reading that time conquers all in Life A User's Manual and that this was part of Winckler's "warning" to Bartlebooth and Perec's "warning" to the readers: a bit of a downer considering how vital the stories were, no? P.S. Josipovici is an author the reading group will be reading next month, so I was very happy to find an article on Perec by him. And although it's entirely possible to enjoy Perec without going any deeper than the storytelling (as you and others have pointed out), I've become a little addicted to reading up on Perec's novel/writing games in my spare time. Not really a normal hobby, I know!


  10. Oh, so wonderful! Especially so because I took a nearly unplanned flyer and headed off into the swamps and bayous of Louisiana for a week with… Well. With a five-foot paper doll. And posted the journey anonymously on another site for people who knew the doll….. I will need to provide more explanation, won't I? ;-)Anyway, I'll be writing about all the experiences, and you'll see the paper doll. Now, I'm just glad to be back and reading your wonderful posts again!


  11. Georges Perec stood out for me because of his hair. Love it. But I've yet to read his book, I'm saving it for when I want some answers (kind of similar to Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet). I wonder whether there are any similarities.


  12. I've not read anything by, nor heard of ;), Pessoa. Thanks for leaving his name, though, because I love learning of new authors. Now I'll have to read The Book of Disquiet (what a great title!) to compare them.


  13. Hardly well versed! Never heard of Perec until a month ago and he died almost 3 decades ago. Calvino is the main Oulipo member I am familiar with (just finished Invisible Cities and loved it!). How does the first person come up with the idea to write a novel that excludes the letter e or only use one vowel for an entire poem? I just find it intriguing.


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