Life a User’s Manual

George Perec’s novel was published in French in 1978 and first published in English in 1987. This could not have been an easy assignment for the translator.

The opening quotation, ‘Look with all your eyes, look.’ — quoting Jules Verne — is both an allusion to the wonder of both deciphering how we see the world and how we remember what we have seen. Or think we have seen…

This glorious, delectable visual feast of a novel, is constructed in the manner of an elaborate jigsaw puzzle. Perec’s canvas and construct is a single Parisian apartment building and across 99 episodic chapters he describes in meticulous and often intricate detail each and every room. And we the viewer are transplanted from apartment-to-apartment (if one were to view the building front on like a Chess board) via a single knight’s move.

A knight moves two squares parallel to one side of the board and one square parallel to the other side. Any such move always takes the knight to a square of the opposite colour. In 99 moves the knight can move across every square on the board…

Ostensibly, as we traverse the building and the matrix of descriptive details within, we are watching the creation of a painting by Serge Valene, an old artist who has lived in the building for 55 years.

A novel of such intense descriptive writing, you might think, would collapse in on itself under relentless documenting of detail. The opposite is true, for Perec also expresses the humanity in the heartfelt life stories — through the ages — of every inhabitant of the building. This array of ornate detail serves to amplify each person’s story. The macro details lead us down into the elliptical narratives of each inhabitant in sweeping cinematic style: through elaborate vintage keyholes, ascending up into antique chandeliers to look down upon classical sheet music atop a rare Steinway piano to traverse the musical staves and begin learning of the history of each note’s inscription and the hand that wrote them; and the train they were on; and the train passenger’s neighbour’s hat… and the story behind the hat maker… and on, and up and diagonally across… through time and memory… from apartment-to-apartment… piece-by-piece… the jigsaw… the picture…

Life: A User’s Manual can be read as a parable about the efforts of the human mind to impose an arbitrary order on the world. Or a meditation on memory… even the act of writing itself. This is a glorious book in both its inventive structure and its rich visual descriptions.

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