Life: A User's Manual

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Life A User's Manual (the original title is La Vie mode d'emploi) is Georges Perec's most famous novel, published in 1978, first translated into English by David Bellos in 1987. Its title page describes it as "novels", in the plural, the reasons for which become apparent on reading. Some critics have cited the work as an example of postmodern fiction, though Perec himself preferred to avoid labels and his only long term affiliation with any movement was with the Oulipo or OUvroir de LIttérature POtentielle.

La Vie mode d'emploi is an immensely complex and rich work; a tapestry of interwoven stories and ideas and literary and historical allusions, based on the lives of the inhabitants of a fictitious Parisian apartment block, 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier (no such street exists, although the quadrangle Perec claims Simon-Crubellier cuts through does exist in Paris XVII). It was written according to a complex plan of writing constraints, and is primarily constructed from several elements, each adding a layer of complexity.

Contents

Elements

Bartlebooth

This is a story imagined by Perec when working on a large jigsaw puzzle, and is briefly this:

Between World War I and II, a tremendously wealthy Englishman, Bartlebooth (whose name combines two literary characters, Herman Melville's Bartleby and Valery Larbaud's Barnabooth), devises a plan that will both occupy the remainder of his life and spend his entire fortune. First, he spends 10 years learning to paint watercolors under the tutelage of Valene, who also becomes a resident of 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier. Then, he embarks on a 20-year trip around the world with his loyal servant Smautf (also a resident of 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier), painting a watercolor of a different port roughly every two weeks for a total of 500 watercolors.

Bartlebooth then sends each painting back to France, where the paper is glued to a support board, and a carefully selected craftsman named Gaspard Winckler (also a resident of 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier) cuts it into a jigsaw puzzle. Upon his return, Bartlebooth spends his time solving each jigsaw, re-creating the scene.

Each finished puzzle is treated to re-bind the paper with a special solution invented by Georges Morellet, another resident of 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier. After the solution is applied, the wooden support is removed, and the painting is sent to the port where it was painted. Exactly 20 years to the day after it was painted, the painting is placed in a detergent solution until the colors dissolve, and the paper, blank except for the faint marks where it was cut and re-joined, is returned to Bartlebooth.

Ultimately, there would be nothing to show for 50 years of work: the project would leave absolutely no mark on the world. Unfortunately for Bartlebooth, Winckler's puzzles become increasingly difficult and Bartlebooth himself becomes blind. A crazed art fanatic also intervenes in an attempt to stop Bartlebooth from destroying his art. By 1975, Bartlebooth is 16 months behind in his plans, and he dies while working on his 439th puzzle.

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