on October 2, 2001
If you read the first few pages of this book after seeing all the glowing reviews on Amazon, you may wonder what we are so excited about. However, you will be rewarded if you persevere. In an ice-cold literary voice, Perec systematically describes the inhabitants and contents of a Paris apartment building. His style is at first totally uninvolving, yet somehow, amazingly, his monotonous descriptions come together like the tiles of a mosaic (or, to use Perec's image, the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle) to create a living, exciting picture. Even if you know nothing about the philosophical and aesthetic theories that gave this book its structure, you will find it enthralling.
on June 29, 2003
Perec would properly be regarded as an experimentalist and this novel, like his others, was written under self-imposed constraints.
The novel takes as its plan a block of flats in a Parisian suburb, a 10 x 10 grid, over which the narrator must proceed by way of the moves of the Knight in chess, never landing on the same flat twice(this, like other formalities, were allowed to be bent but let's not get too complicated...) with a whole system for information, knowledge and learning to be allocated to each chapter.
'So far, so what' might be the natural response to this were it not for the majesty of the finished novel.
Read in translation the writing is formal yet intimate and seems to proceed at its own leisurely pace as it moves through the block of flats, through life. Numerous 'Tales' are recounted as the novel progresses, each rich in feeling and poignancy though sometimes disturbing, the key of which, indeed the key to the novel, is 'The Tale of the Man who painted watercolours and had puzzles made out of them'. To go into detail would spoil the effect for other readers but this is about life, about a plan for life and ultimately a metaphor for life. And the making of this book.
I have to confess to a love for French literature generally. It seems possible to trace an organic progression and tradition (the blanket phrase that readily comes to mind is 'intellectual pessimism'...)through its history which is then disrupted every once in a while by an individual who rebels against that tradition (Rimbaud) or subverts it (Mallarme or Aragon). Perec, arguably, both is and is not of this tradition.
He is however, in the wider tradition of great literature. And seems to recognise this. 'Life...' is crammed with literary puns ( an advertisement in a shop for 'Souvenirs' by Madeleine Proust anyone...) and what Perec refers to as 'unacknowledged quotations'. Which is how the novel manages to begin exactly where 'Ulysses' ends (with the symbolic word 'Yes'...) and how 'The Tale of the Acrobat who did not want to get off his trapeze ever again' manages to have its origins in Kafka's short story 'First Sorrow'. And so on...Perec provides a list of authors used at the end.
And an Index of the individual stories. Which is really what you must read this for. For the stories. Because they will excite, depress, frustrate and elate. Because Perec was not kidding with that title. All of life is here. In all of its wonder and sadness. It is not a 'User's Manual' in that it gives pat answers to complex problems, what it does do is far more difficult. And brave. It suggests over and over why life is worth living and how beauty and wonder surround not only the everyday but the tragic too.
Yes, it really is that good...
on August 9, 2004
Although this is certainly an experimental novel, it is absolutely readable and fun. The layout is supposed to be taken from chess, with a knight jumping up on some squares which represent the appartments on the building map. Frankly, although ingenious, the scheme is not all that important to me. What truly fascinated me were the stories themselves, the full development of characters, situations, histories and sceneries. In every chapter, Perec gives us an introduction about how the appartment / room looks like. The descriptions may be long sometimes, but they are essential to the whole point of the book: to bring to life real people living in comprehensible, complete surroundings, and to make these easy to visualize. Some of the descriptions, in particular Mme. Moreau's dining room, are simply beautiful and innovative.
The book was completed in 1978 and the action of the stories ranges from mid-XIX Century until June 23, 1975. The final chapter, which gives us a photograph of what each inhabitant is doing at that precise moment (8 pm), is also very beautiful and moving. The book projects a humanity so rich and vivid, hard to find in most fiction. The stories intertwine while being totally independent, and the cast of characters is wide-ranging and believable even in the most outrageous ones.
The central story, which forms the backbone of the book, is about a rich young man, Bartlebooth, a typically eccentric Englishman who decides to devote his life to a single, useless, morally neutral and highly aesthetical project: along with his faithful servant Smautf, he will visit 500 seaports to paint acquarelles of them, and every 15 days he will send the pictures to Winckler, an artisan also residing in the building. Winckler will make puzzles attaching the paintings to a wood panel and then cutting the pieces, not in the mechanical proceeding common to commercial puzzles, but in an artistic one. Then, after 20 years of wandering the world, Bartlebooth will come back to Paris and dedicate the following 20 years to put the puzzles back together, then sending them back to the place where they were painted, to be chemically cleaned up: destroyed.
It would be too long to mention here all the stories that caught my attention, but suffice it to say that they are incredibly different in content and style. Supposedly, the styles mimic those of distinguished writers like Poe, Joyce, Borges, Calvino, Flaubert, Kafka and others.
It is truly a fascinating, delightful book and I think that every taste will find some unforgettable stories here.
on June 4, 2014
Of course Perec’s masterpiece needs no further praise, but I thought I might write a “letter of welcome” for anyone approaching the book for the first time, for those who are curious and perhaps wary. It is, after all, hundreds of pages of fine print. The labels “experimental” and “postmodern” can be off-putting, as they have often been applied to work that is portentous or opaque or overly self-involved. How could a book with a title like “LIFE A User’s Manual” not be a little intimidating? Anyway, that is how I felt. This note is for others who might feel the same way.
Several people I respect very much loved this book, and it sounded like the sort of thing that I would like, so I sat down to it with high expectations, read thirty pages and said, “Huh?” It seemed so dry -- twenty percent story, twenty percent goofball theory, sixty percent catalog. Dry as dust, I thought. Just wasn’t making it into my head.
Assuming this to be simply my problem, I started again from page one, and the second time was a little better, though I wasn’t really hooked until Chapter Thirteen and the story of the acrobat who refused to come down. From then on I read in a slow and patient rapture, like a man unexpectedly caught in an ecstatic trance while cruising the subterranean stacks of a library.
In other words, be a little patient with Perec and with yourself. This is a book unlike any other and it may take a little while to get the hang of reading it. If all else fails: proceed directly to Chapter Thirteen!
I found that it helped a great deal to take notes. I got myself a little notebook and filled it with the names of characters, vocabulary I didn’t know, bizarre theories as well as sentences I loved and copied out. This helped me keep track of who was who and what was going on. Just as important, it allowed me to keep alert amid the thundering crash of people, ideas, events and objects the book presents. Maybe the vocabulary list didn’t really matter (though don’t you want to remember what a pyx is and what is a cubic pouf?); maybe I just needed the illusion of control.
(I admit that taking detailed notes is my idea of a good time. I prefer books that are dense or even slightly difficult -- they afford me fewer opportunities to contemplate the condition of my own life. If a book is too easy I sit before it daydreaming, wondering how I will ever be able to afford orthodontics.)
Since the word “experimental” is sometimes a synonym for work that is not competent at story-telling or is overly pleased with its own mechanics, I think the most important thing to say about this book is that it is crammed full of fabulously good yarns. This book has more murders and love affairs and weird obsessions than a ten foot stack of pulp fiction.
Like the Bible, it is an anthology that’s also full of rules, and genealogies and household stuff. These are the kind of stories your drunk uncle might tell at the fireside with a drink in his hand -- assuming that your uncle is prone to black humor and melodrama and more than slightly obsessed with fine details.
Who are the allies and cousins of this book? I thought of Melville and his adventure tales packed with encyclopedic information. I thought of Borges, of all his rules and mysteries welded so smoothly to old-fashioned story-telling. Above all, I thought of Roberto Bolano, because only in Bolano have I found this capacity for boundless non-stop invention.
For most writers, I reckon, it is a big deal when a story or a character arrives, but, for Perec as for Bolano, there is a profusion of people, ideas, and events that seems effortless and unending. The book pours out. In one paragraph Perec or Bolano can afford to dispense with an idea or situation that might keep another writer busy for a decade. Because there always seems to be more where that came from. This book bestows its stories as liberally as a billionaire might give away dimes. (If I were in charge of the universe, neither Bolano nor Perec would have died young. They would have both lived to be 97 at least and been great friends.)
If you possess a powerful intellect, or are staggeringly well read, or possess an encyclopedic mind, you will find recondite references everywhere, as well as evidence of the structures and restraints Perec created for himself in order to create the book. Unfortunately my intelligence is no better than standard-issue and so all of this went totally over my head. And I still had an incredibly good time reading the book.
As for the endless catalogs of objects, so meticulously chosen and described, please keep in mind that, if you are NOT a dedicated literature nerd, or if you work at a time-intensive job highly valued by society, SKIMMING, while looked down upon, is legal all over the world. If you do not need to know every bottle of wine in the Altamount’s basement, or every etching on the walls of Madame Marcia’s, then you are free to hurry on to the bizarre over-the-top meticulous yarns with which this book teams like a nest full of ants, ants doomed in ways that are beguiling, and funny, and mathematically precise.
on January 28, 2013
I ordered this novel from Amazon by virtue of its near unanimous five star review status. After having read the work in its entirety, I must admit to being somewhat mystified by the accolades showered upon it. Don't get me wrong, I didn't hate it or find it unreadable, but neither would I include it on my list of 500 greatest books either.
The book consists of many very short chapters, each such chapter taking as its theme a room or location in an apartment building in Paris. Each chapter begins with a detailed description of the furniture, the wall coverings, the floor coverings, fabrics, knick-knacks, curios, paintings, inhabitants, what they are wearing and what they had for lunch. These descriptions sometimes extend for pages at a time. One involved the entire contents of a pantry, describing each can of food, its color, cover design and contents. Really?
Periodically, after "setting the stage", a fascinating story ensues. Sometimes it doesn't. Over the course of the novel, many of the key players are reintroduced, but it may be difficult to remember a minor character introduced 75 pages ago in a four page chapter. One reviewer confessed to keeping a notebook in order to remember the characters. I didn't keep a notebook, hence my failure to maintain any continuity with some of the inhabitants of the building.
There are many fine and well told tales contained in this novel, however, the sometimes mind numbing level of descriptive detail, which make up a significant portion of the book, dilutes the effect of the tales, both with respect to the word count as well as the impact of the prose.
If forced to read every word of this novel, I would likely have ditched it mid-way through. However, the paragraphs of seemingly never ending picayune descriptions are easily identified and usually occur at the beginning of each chapter. When confronted with three paragraphs of detailed descriptions of every carving contained in a curio case, I simply scanned forward to the conclusion of the exercise and was often rewarded with captivating reading for the remainder of the chapter. Again, sometimes not.
I feel the need to point out that I am not by nature a contrarian. I don't seek out universally well beloved works and trash them as a matter of course. However, I cannot, for the life of me, imagine what it is about this collection of minutia that has garnered such near unanimous accolades.
on April 10, 2000
I'd like to add a little comment to those of the 11 reviewers. I do share the rating of 5-stars with them.
Georges Perec became a revelation for me for I thought I was about to read a thriller (in the sense of suspense). Certainly, suspense is but one of so many ingredients in Life..., but there is much more in this book;it is impossible for me to classify it. In fact it doesn't need classification.
Perec's chapters, devised as pieces of a gigantic puzzle, are chapters of life itself. He has created a gallery of the most memorable characters ever found in a novella (he shares this with León Tostoy). Who can forget Mme Altamont, or Mr Bartlebooth, or Valene, or the concierge? They are extracted from life and one can only believe that there is a Mme Altamont around the corner.
The parisian apartment building acquires life by the life of its inhabitants. Perec is a ironic, cultivated, encyclopedic, amusing, and a semiotician of writers. He is a masterly story-teller. Life, in his view, is that reality which is sad, hopeless, absurd, with no essence at all. He is deeply rooted in French existentialism.
This book made me understand many things, but mainly not to lose time in non-value added activities. Life is so short, says Perec. Time is a constant and a systematic in the book. Time, time, time. Actually it ends: IT IS THE TWENTY-THIRD OF JUNE NINETEEN SEVENTY-FIVE AND IT IS EIGHT O'CLOCK IN THE EVENING.
And then, one learns that he died at 46. Life was ephemeral for him as he forsaw it in his novella. I have the feeling that he wrote as a possesed, said to the world what he had to say and said good-bye
on May 11, 2005
I feel like a lot of people posting about this book are clearly extreme lit nerds. I read this book as a high school student and still thought it was breathtaking. For me, I didn't really understand that there was any underlying literary theory behind it - what I liked about it was that, like Moby-Dick, it seems like several times it starts meandering and turning in on itself and you begin to question its relevance and quality, and then in the last few pages it comes together and hits you in the face with exactly how much it means. There's so much there to understand and uncover.
If I gave any advice to someone reading this book for the first time, it's to stick it out. It started to get pretty exasperating for me - so long, so many details - but ultimately it's the immersion in a foreign, detailed, and physically constrained environment that allows the book to pack such a wallop. The ending is worth waiting for.
on January 19, 2002
Perec switches dimensions: In an ordinary novel, the main dimension of movement is time - all movement in space and detail are derived from this movement in time. In Perec's "Life, A User's Manual" the main dimensions of movement are space, and not the least - detail. Any movement back or forth in time is merely derived from this primary movement.
This peculiar mode of movement gives rise to a peculiar writing style where the writer can not mention an object without at the same time mentioning its details. It is a very contagious writing style, and so while reading this book, something I mainly did on the train to and from work - usually between 7AM and 9AM in the morning and between 4PM and 7PM in the evening on weekdays, except for tuesdays when I would either leave early or arrive late due to work-outs - I found myself digressing in details (moving in the dimension of detail) as I wrote email to friends or participated in other exchanges. It might remind you of Arabian Nights, except that it is the objects and not the people who tell the stories within the stories.
A warning for you who wish to read this book: Just as with "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", you will find yourself wondering through the first 100 pages or so if this book is ever going to go anywhere. As opposed to the case of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you will find it doesn't. But by that time, you won't care that it doesn't. It is a wonderfully self-contained universe that starts and ends with nothing.
on June 28, 2006
[This book still ranks as one of the greatest novels I've read, so I'm re-publishing the review I put on this site nearly ten years ago. The bracketed text has been added to the original review.] This is the second most fascinating novel I've ever read [my favorite was The Possessed by Dostoyevsky], the best one I've read in twenty [now thirty] years. If you revel in complexity, this book is for you. [Check out the edition of Perec's sketches for this book, published by the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.] Perec prompts introspection on many levels. The plot(s) are some of the most intriguing anywhere. The human condition is probed to the greatest possible depth. Despite certain minor [really minor] infelicities, Bellos has done an excellent job translating, consistently capturing the atmosphere (and there is a lot of atmosphere) of the original. (The title is one of the few translating gaffes. The original French does not convey the image of a computer manual and the term "user's manual" was not in general use in English until after the novel was written.) Once you've read it you will be on the constant look-out for others who know Perec. [Read all of Perec and try Harry Mathews.]
on December 15, 2005
It is possible to fall in love with this book. As an intellectual exercise it is a triumph as it is never stuffy and self important but infinitely compassionate, humourous and inclusive. Little touchs like the index of all the different stories contained in the book are delightful and enable you to dip back into a particular moment.
Life a User's Manual is a description of one moment in time. Perec takes you through all the rooms of an apartment block, leads you to scenarios and objects and then into their histories back through other stories and objects as if you were a ghost moving through time and space.
If you enjoy quirky eccentric characters that have been created with a rich original imagination this is the book for you. I would also recommend The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potoki for further enjoyment.