Through The Keyhole.
(Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec ,Vintage, 579pp, RRP £9.99)
Ever looked at a building and wondered what goes on in there? Ever looked at a lit window across the street and wanted to know what the person inside was thinking or reading? Ever seen an old lady, dressed in vintage mink on a sunny day, slowly pulling her shopping cart up the front steps of a grand town house and tried to work out what her life has been like? All the things she has seen and done, her lost loves and the laughter, echoing down the years? Perec’s masterpiece takes you inside one particular Parisian apartment block and takes you round every single room at just before 8pm on 23rd June 1975, explaining some of the back-story either to the scene presented, or the participants, or the previous occupants of the room. This is heady stuff, full of that voyeuristic thrill of seeing into the cupboards and nic-nacs of complete strangers, spying on them as they lie on sofas, half asleep, or watch them as they read on the stairs. The back stories are wonderful and fantastical, sometimes just stretching to the point of incredulity, but never quite beyond, because life is genuinely full of such weird and bizarre stories. The level of invention here is magnificent, the narrative eye swoops and whirls from one fantastic plot to another, picking up one finely woven tapestry to examine in detail; before dropping it – in order to flourish another beneath the startled nose of the reader.
If Life can be said to have a plot line it is one that involves an eccentric English millionaire, Percival Bartlebooth, who has devised a way to waste his money and his life. He spends ten years taking watercolour lessons from Serge Valene, an artist and fellow resident at the apartment block (and narrator of the novel), then spends 20 years travelling round the world, doing 500 watercolours in various ports, posting them back to the same building to be turned into jigsaws. He then spends the next 20 years completing the jigsaws, posting the watercolours back to the place they were created, the paper to be washed free of pigment in the very port they depict. Leaving behind… nothing. A whole life lived with the intention of leaving nothing to show for itself.
The theme, or structure, of jigsaws is woven into the nature of Life: each chapter is a depiction of a single room, but the order of the chapters is geographically and historically muddled up, leaving the reader certain of there being a wider picture, a greater scene, but only by going through and re-sequencing the chapters can they achieve a form of order. And how is that order to be achieved? Do you go by the order of rooms? Or do you knit it together through particular individuals? Chronological order? Various events overlap and interact with others, making Life more of a montage than a formal portrait.
We can also analogise Bartlebooth’s method as well, making Perec appear to be saying that, in life, all your effort to create something of lasting value will ultimately be washed away by the impermanence of the universe. All of us are but tiny ants running round a warren of other lives, our own stories will glitter for a brief moment before blinking out and the eye will move onto something else. Our sneeze of an existence is part of a greater cacophony, one which can be beautiful and fascinating, if a little hard to decipher.
Of course the problem with the act of describing 100 rooms is that there is an excess of descriptive narration, which in this instance appears to mean lists: long, long lists. At some point around the 20th chapter or so you will realise this and start skipping whole paragraphs because you can see they are made entirely of an inventory of the room in question, especially when you get into some of the basement storage rooms. These lists can be fascinating; they can, and I underline the ‘can’. But more often than not they are tedious and dull and reveal very little about the occupants of the room. When something does, Perec seizes upon it and drags significance from it, but these are set outside of the lists, further confining the interminable lists as repetitive filler, there as surface decoration or for Perec to show off his encyclopaedic knowledge of the possibilities of consumerism in 1970’s France.
Perec’s seeming addiction to lists spills over into the extra-textual material, some of which is genuinely useful. There is a map of the building, placing each apartment with the names of current and previous owners, a timeline, an index and an alphabetical list of the various stories. The latter reads like Friends episodes as told by the Brothers Grimm. The extra material only goes to show how bewilderingly complex and wide ranging this novel is, covering nearly 150 years and countless scores of characters: the index alone is 70 pages long.
The methodology for Life is from the Oulipo, or OUvroir de LIttérature POtentielle (roughly translated as ‘workshop of potential literature’), school of literature. This movement sought to create works by using constrained writing: the writer would work within a set of self-prescribed restraints in order to generate ideas. Life has an intricate system of restrictions which are, of course, bound up with lists and tables. He created 42 lists of 10 objects each which were then paired up using a mathematical equation called the Graeco-Latin square whereby two sets of lists are paired up so as to avoid repeated pairings. All this is based on the 10 by 10 grid which is the plan of the building – 10 floors, including basements, and 10 rooms across each floor with 2 for stairways. The system is much more complicated than this, however, since two of the lists involved are on the subjects ‘missing’ and ‘false’, indicating that something of the prescribed lists must be missed out or lied about. This element of the pattern directly refers to the jigsaw-like construction of the novel, and the annoyance one feels at a missing piece, or an intruder piece from another jigsaw.
If this sounds complex and unwieldy, spare a thought for Perec’s other great work, A Void which he wrote without using the letter ‘e’. Or his ‘Grand Palindrome’ which is a 5,556 letter long palindrome and, presumably, a story. Both of which are restricted linguistically, constraining the means of communication with the reader, limiting the ability of the author to tell his story, muffling him, muting him. Life: A Users Manual frees up the language by merely restricting the content of the stories themselves.
Perec referred to the system he invented as ‘a story-making machine’, creating a myriad of delightfully outlandish tales through its bizarre combinations of objects, positions, names, events, etc. found in each of the 42 lists. Keep this book by the side of your bed and dip in and out of it when you like. Flick to a random chapter and start reading, it will not take long before you start obsessing about it, finding your curiosity tickled and wanting to work out the jigsaw.
And while you are reading one night, remember that there may well be a passerby in the street below who, on looking up at your lit window, wonders what you are reading and what your life is like, what you have on display and what your life has consisted of.