Life A User's Manual: An Introduction

Converses75 Books Challenge for 2011

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Life A User's Manual: An Introduction

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jul. 19, 2011, 3:38pm

This thread is the first one for the group read of Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec that will begin in August, and will serve as an introduction to the book and its author, and a place for general comments, advice from anyone who has already read it, and opinions from those who are planning to or thinking of reading it. Any and all comments are welcome, and anyone from LT is encouraged to participate.

I would like to start the group read in early August, and I plan to start reading it on August 1st. BTW, I haven't read it yet, although I have read several of Perec's books.

Life A User's Manual is considered to be Perec's best novel, and is recognized as one of the great novels of the 20th century. It was originally written in French in 1978, after Perec spent nine years writing it, and it was first translated into English by David Bellos in 1987. Bellos retranslated the novel 20 years later, to correct errors made in his first effort, and the new edition was published by Vintage Books (UK), and by David R. Godine, Publisher (US), both in 2008:

Participants will be encouraged, but not required, to read the new Bellos translation, or any publication of it in French. I bought the Vintage Books edition in London last year, so that's the copy I'll be reading from. The only difference in the two English language editions is the number of pages; my copy has 501 pages of text, along with additional material that add another 85-90 pages, and the Godine edition tops out at 680 pages total. It's divided into six roughly equal parts, so I would propose that we read one or two parts a week, over a four to six week span, to allow everyone to get a copy of the book if they don't already have it.

I just checked to see how readily available the book is for purchase, from Amazon US, AbeBooks, Amazon UK and The Book Depository. Apparently the new Godine edition is rarer than hen's teeth, as Amazon US has three new copies available from private sellers, starting at $150 (!), with one seller offering a "like new" copy for $15.00. Several copies of the Vintage paperback, with the same cover as mine, are available from Amazon's affiliates for less than $15, not including shipping, but Amazon indicates that the publication date is 2003, which would make it a reprint of the 1987 Bellos translation (and that's fine with me). AbeBooks has several reasonably priced copies of the older translation, as well. UK readers should have no trouble locating a copy; I paid £8.99 for my copy, and Amazon sells it for £6.99. I can't see the price that The Book Depository is selling it to non-US customers, but I assume it would be similar to Amazon UK.

I'll post some background information about the book and its author later today.

jul. 19, 2011, 5:50pm

This thread is now in the Group Read section of the wiki.

jul. 19, 2011, 7:19pm

Thanks, Jim!

jul. 19, 2011, 7:28pm

I'm keen to join this, I need to locate my copy of the book.

jul. 19, 2011, 7:56pm

Great! I'm glad that you'll be joining us, Kerry.

jul. 19, 2011, 8:00pm

I've got a translation around here somewhere; it will be an older one as I think I've had it about a decade. I don't have the budget for a new copy, alas. Assuming I can find the book, I'll be joining in.

jul. 19, 2011, 8:05pm

Welcome, Suz! I'm glad that you're on board.

jul. 19, 2011, 8:08pm

I'm in! I've got a French copy of La vie: mode d'emploi I bought last year, and I've been meaning to read it for a while. Now seems like as good a time as any! I'll look forward to it, and hope I can keep up.

jul. 19, 2011, 8:08pm

I wish I could join in, but my local library does not carry the book. I hope you all enjoy it!

Editat: jul. 19, 2011, 8:14pm

>7 kidzdoc: Excellent! Welcome to the group, Matt.

>8 msjohns615: I'm sorry that you won't be joining us, Stasia. This wouldn't be an easy book to find in a public library, although a major university library might have it in stock (Emory's main library does have a copy of the older translation).

ETA: Although it's probably obvious, I should have mentioned that there are no electronic versions of the book.

Editat: jul. 19, 2011, 10:55pm

I've just reserved two versions of this book at the library, en français of course. There's the mass-market paperback version from Le Livre de poche, 2006, c1978 (641 pages) and the paperback Hachette, 2000, c1978 (657 pages). Since I don't usually like reading MMPs, I'll decide when I get them which to read from, though I've long been accustomed to reading from MMPs in French since it's hard to find many French classics in any other format.

jul. 19, 2011, 2:37am

#10: I checked both the local college university libraries too, Darryl, and neither one of them carried the book either. *sigh*

jul. 20, 2011, 5:33am

Located my copy and it is the Bellos translation.

jul. 21, 2011, 4:03pm

I'll just be reading my old copy, which I assume is the Bellos translation.

I recommend keeping notes as you read this book, as people and things end up being connected in many, many ways (and there's a lot to keep track of, especially in the beginning). Needless to say, this is a book that can be read multiple times.

jul. 25, 2011, 4:52pm

How fortuitous, as I have planned to begin reading this today. I will delay for a few days, and join in the festivities. My copy is the first Bellos/Godine edition.

jul. 25, 2011, 6:07pm

>15 PeterKein: Great! I'm glad that you'll be joining us, Peter.

jul. 28, 2011, 3:54pm

I'm going to go ahead and start reading, because I have a pretty busy August ahead of me and may not be able to keep up. I'm excited! This book looks really, really cool. Wikipedia has decent resources on Perec, his most famous work, and Oulipo:

Georges Perec

Life: A User's Manual

Ouvroir de littérature potentielle

This whole school of constraint-based writing is new to me, and I'm hoping some fellow readers can bring our attention to ways in which Perec's book relates to other books written by Oulipo members and others writing with similar motivations. As some might know, I'm a big fan of Julio Cortázar, and I sense some possible points of connection between books like Rayuela and 62: modelo para armar and this book. I also seem to remember Cortázar being a big fan of this book...

After reading the prologue and the first few chapters of Perec's book, I was also reminded of another author/puzzle enthusiast who wrote a book I really enjoyed as a teenager: Douglas Hofstadter, author of Gödel, Escher, Bach. He teaches at my hometown university, and as I was getting into math late in high school (it's a good thing I was getting into math back then and not meth, which is sadly popular around these parts, maybe moreso than math), I was introduced to his book by some friends and fellow math enthusiasts. It's full of puzzles and dialogues written under a series of constraints. In the words of Wikipedia:

"Through illustration and analysis, the book discusses how self-reference and formal rules allow systems to acquire meaning despite being made of "meaningless" elements. It also discusses what it means to communicate, how knowledge can be represented and stored, the methods and limitations of symbolic representation, and even the fundamental notion of "meaning" itself."

It provided me a lasting appreciation for the amazing incompleteness theorems of Kurt Gödel. Maybe if one considered the repercussions of Gödel's work in modern life, books like Perec's could be related back to the Austrian logician.

There's also a LT group entitled Oulipo's Virtual Headquarters. There've been some discussions there about constraints and Georges Perec that might be of interest for this read:

Oulipo's Virtual Headquarters

ag. 1, 2011, 12:05pm

Thanks for these great links and information about Perec and Oulipo, Matt! I completely missed this message, so I apologize for not commenting on it sooner.

It's August 1, so I'll start reading Life A User's Manual today. In addition to Matt's links, I'd also refer you to the Conversational Reading blog, which hosted a group read of this book in the spring, which includes additional information about the book, Perec, and the other Oulipo authors:

Life A User’s Manual Big Read Schedule

Scott Esposito, the creator of the Conversational Reading blog, also posted a reading schedule that extends over 8 weeks. I'm inclined to do the same, as I'll have a lot on my plate this month and would rather read the book slowly and thoughtfully, rather than rushing through it. I would ideally like to read more about Perec as I'm reading it, and I'll plan to read Georges Perec: A Life in Words, the biography by David Bellos, the translator of Life A User's Manual while I'm reading the novel, but I doubt that I'll get to it before the end of August.

So, with that in mind, I propose the following reading schedule, taken directly from Mr Esposito's page. The page numbers are based on the latest editions of the Godine book (US) and the Vintage book (UK), which is the one I'll be reading from.

Week 1: 1-7 Aug: Preamble plus Part 1 (Chapters 1-21) (pp. XV-89 (Godine), pp. XVII-78 (Vintage))
Week 2: 8-14 Aug: First half of Part 2 (Chapters 22-33) (pp. 93-173 (Godine), pp. 81-157 (Vintage))
Week 3: 14-21 Aug: Second half of Part 2 and First half of Part 3 (Chapters 34-54) (pp. 173-273 (Godine), pp. 157-253 (Vintage))
Week 4: 22-28 Aug: Second half of Part 3 (Chapters 55-64) (pp. 274-344 (Godine), pp. 254-303 (Vintage))
Week 5: 29 Aug-4 Sep: Part 4 (Chapters 65-83) (pp. 347-459 (Godine), pp. 307-406 (Vintage))
Week 6: 5-11 Sep: Part 5 (Chapters 84-92) (pp. 463-521 (Godine), pp. 409-460 (Vintage))
Week 7: 12-18 Sep: Part 6 (Chapters 93-99) + Epilogue (pp. 525-569 (Godine), pp. 463-501 (Vintage))
Week 8: 19-25: Concluding thoughts & discussions

Please feel free to follow your own schedule, and to comment about the one I've proposed (too long? too short? just right?). I'll create threads for each week, which will be spoiler threads, along with a general non-spoiler thread.

Any and all comments and critiques are welcome.

ag. 1, 2011, 12:08pm

Whats interesting to me, in the prologue , is his discussion of Gestalt alongside his discussion of the art of puzzle-making.

As Perec points out, the main principle behind Gestalt theory is that 'the whole is greater than the sum of its parts' - that is, that a holistic, rather than an analytic, approach is necessary in order to understand an object (used as broadly as possible). This approach is necessary since there are principles of organization than do not exist within the pieces that make up the whole, but rather emerge as a consequence of being part of an organized whole, and impose themselves upon the elements themselves ("for the parts do not determine the pattern, but the pattern determines the parts"). Max Wertheimer's Productive Thinking went to great lengths to argue that, at core, creative thinking requires that one grasps the complete structure of a situation...

And yet, what is interesting to me is how much this work (perhaps by definition more than others) was built from the primacy of its elements/parts- viz. the constraints used by Perec- when constructing the novel. In this sense, the elements surely preceded the existence of the whole - even if, now, once it stands as fully constructed it is as Perec has it that "the element's existence does not precede the existence of the whole, it come neither before nor after it..."

This then ties into Perec's discussion about puzzle-making. What a puzzle-solver has is *only* the elements- out of which she must attempt to rebuild the whole. Given the discussion about Gestalt theory - this would seem impossible as the dissolution of the whole into elements (an analytic chemistry) only leaves, at best, "inert, formless elements containing little information or signifying power". Not only this, but there may be numerous local relations that any two pieces have to each other- all false for the purpose of reconstructing the whole.

And the puzzle-maker makes use of this as she determines the contours of the individual pieces, creating "falsified elements, carrying false information" by for instance, making complementary, two pieces that share some relation (color perhaps) that will mislead the puzzle-solve to assume they are to be conjoined.

At the end of the prologue we are told "puzzling is not a solitary game: every move the puzzler makes, the puzzle-maker has made before... all have been designed, calculated, and decided by the other". It is too easy to assume that we are the puzzlers and Perec, the puzzle-maker since in some aspect this is true.

And so we will certainly be asking ourselves- where has Perec made pieces fit which do not go together but only seem to (but in the world of semantics what does this distinction really mean?).

However to the extent that Gestalt's organizing principles dictate the final 'whole' and Perec's constraints, in part, dictated the elements used in the construction of the work - then while the Qualitaten of the novel we have before us are to be attributed to Perec, the novel- the Gestalten, was not constructed by Perec but by the self-organizing principles of Gestalt.

I wonder here if there is not a connection between this and Hutting's 'haze period' in that the 'elements' are ultimate obscured by the whole.

Editat: ag. 1, 2011, 12:56pm


The best account of Perec's use of the 'Knight's Tour' that I have come across- although I do remember reading somewhere (ah! found it) that the 'move' between 65-66 is implicit but the chapter is omitted (giving us 99 rather than 100 chapters)

""It will be noticed," Perec said, "that the book has 99, not 100 chapters. The little girl who appears on pages 231 and 318 is entirely responsible for this."(5) Obviously, the little girl mentioned in line 106 of the "Compendium" before cropping up at the end of chapter 65 on the lid of a biscuit tin, where she is depicted munching the corner of a petit-beurre, is not so much responsible as a metaphor for the clinamen which subtracts from the apartment house its bottom left-hand cellar room, which is never seen and never described." from 'Transformations of Constraint' - Bernard Magne; Review of Contemporary Fiction, 1993.

Also, is anyone fortunate enough to be reading/ or have access to Cahier des charges de la vie mode d'emploi?

Editat: ag. 1, 2011, 3:37am

Darryl, I find your schedule perfectly reasonable and have to agree also that it's probably best to give ourselves the time to savour the writing over eight weeks rather than trying to cram it all in in a shorter period.

So far, I've read the first five chapters and have enjoyed them tremendously. There are so many wonderful details to take in, and I'm not quite sure what I should be paying attention to or trying to retain most, but have decided to just enjoy myself without trying to work things out or anticipate where Perec is taking us. I may borrow an English version of the novel as a simple reference tool, because there are some parts that are so very French that I can't imagine how they would have been translated.

eta: have reserved the Bellos translation.

Editat: ag. 2, 2011, 4:08am

Gulp. I'm joining in. I bought the book a couple months ago and it's been sitting there on my TBR shelf, saying (I swear it's been saying) "So, are you going to read me? Can you read me??"
This is the perfect opportunity to read with support and insight from others. Thanks, kidzdoc, for setting up a group read on this one.

ag. 4, 2011, 6:40pm

19: thanks for your thoughts, Peter, and thanks for the Knight's Tour! I wonder if you couldn't ask a chicken-or-the-egg sort of question here: did Perec begin with the whole (the apartment building) then slowly fill it with all the thousands upon thousands of parts enclosed in it? Or did he slowly compile little bits and pieces, eventually deciding on a vessel (the building) that could contain them all?

I'd like to think of it as if somebody were painting an image on wood to later cut it into a puzzle. He has the picture he's going to be working with, and he's recreating it on the wood with thousands of brushstrokes. Then he saws it into pieces, with the puzzle assembler later putting them back together and in the end seeing the original image.

I finished the first part this morning. If I were putting together a puzzle, I'd certainly feel like I was still in the "sorting pieces" phase, with little understanding of how they're eventually going to fit together. I'm assuming (hoping) that the major characters will slowly start coming together. It's slow going at this point, but I'm figuring that things'll get easier as the stories start intersecting in more ways.

I think I'll need a second go-round with most of the characters before I really start to see who they are and what their roles will be. Bartlebooth seems to be the most important fellow of them all, and I enjoyed the account of his port-painting odyssey quite a lot.

And, as you mentioned Peter, I'm also anticipating that in many instances, the pieces will only appear to fit together, but upon closer inspection, they won't. Like when you're doing a puzzle and you've been hunting for an odd-shaped piece, and you think you've got it, but you find it's just a nearly-identical odd-shaped piece.

On another note, this book is really testing my French! Usually a book has a vocabulary, more or less, and within the first hundred pages, the words I've made flash cards for and studied will start reappearing. Victor Hugo has been like that for me: learn a lot of words, but then feel a measure of fulfillment when they reappear and you know them. This book, on the other hand, has an immense variety of words. I've already transferred a few hundred to flash cards, but they just keep coming and coming.

ag. 5, 2011, 12:52pm

>23 msjohns615: Bartlebooth and his 'tour' already seems to be the center of the narrative (I don't have my copy here but hints have been dropped including that of the swindle, and also the 'beginnings of the problems' or something like that- I will edit this when I get home)...

To answer your first thoughtful question- I found the following helpful. And I take it all to still suggest that what is operating above these constraints are the inherent Gestaltist principles that make 'wholes' out of 'parts'-provided the necessary parts are given.

...Perec remained true to his favourite themes of classifying and schematising places and objects (such as alternative methods for the ‘art and manner of arranging one’s books’) - and he compiled lists. These ranged from a catalogue of all the different beds in which he had slept, to a detailed description of the evolution of the Rue Vilin over a 12 year period, and his notorious Attempt at an Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-Four (1976) - ‘one thrush paté... fourteen cucumber salads… seven pigs’ trotters… one chicken kebab… two guava sorbets… one Saint-Emilion ‘61… four Guinness’. 5 Another member of the Oulipo, Claude Berge, had proposed that a novel could be built around a theoretical mathematical structure known as a ten by ten Graeco-Latin bi-square, and Perec realised that by using this structure as a reference to a series of lists, such a novel would almost write itself. The bi-square and the lists would provide a starting point, but other criteria would be required in order to give the novel the structure and narrative necessary to be readable. Perec decided that four factors would be required:

1. The ten by ten Graeco-Latin bi-square.

2. The Knight’s Tour. (Perec plotted the course that a knight would take around all the squares of a chess board without landing more than once on any one square. For the purposes of the novel he used a ten by ten chessboard.)

3. An architect’s drawing depicting the front elevation of a Parisian townhouse

‘I imagine a Parisian apartment building whose façade has been removed ... so that all the rooms in the front, from the ground floor up to the attics, are instantly and simultaneously visible.’ 6

4. A ‘schedule of obligations’ - the lists

This was the recipe that Perec used to create the great La Vie mode d’emploi (1978, translated as Life: a User’s Manual).

(definitely read the rest of Matthew Gidley's article 'Georges Perec: A User’s Manual' in Frieze Magazine

ag. 5, 2011, 3:10pm

24: Thanks, that was a very informative article! This right here is pretty sweet:

Le Grande Palindrome

I've always enjoyed a good palindrome, and this one is simply mind-boggling. I've read some biographies of famous mathematicians, and they always seem so different from the rest of us, like their brains are just wired differently. Perec, as I read about some of his literary endeavors, reminds me a lot of those men (Kurt Gödel, Paul Erdos and Ramanajan are the three mathematicians I'm thinking of, whose biographies I've read)...people capable of thinking in ways that most of us cannot. It is fascinating to read a book written by one such person (genius doesn't seem to go far enough, Super-Genius maybe).

Anyway, I read the swindle yesterday and it was an awesome, awesome story. I was struggling a bit early on with this book, but I'm hoping I've turned some sort of corner.

ag. 5, 2011, 8:40pm

he certainly looks the role as well

Editat: ag. 12, 2011, 11:21pm

Edit: moved comments to week 1 thread.....

ag. 7, 2011, 10:08pm

I have never tried to be part of a (the) 75 book challenge. But when I happened to see hwat I would get if I looked at the subsection of Talk: Book Discussions--Your Books, this thread popped up on top. I read Life: a users manual when it first came out in English in 1987, and it was a 'five' for me. I've unfortunately misplaced the book, so I am ordering one from a close-by library.

Earlier this year, I read a small book by George Perec, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, where Perec tries to recor everyhting of note going on a street from a vantage point in a cafe. This is not a masterpiece, but one can see Perec developing his sense of full observation in a work written about four years earlier than "Life".