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4 Gentle Persuasions: An Annotated List of 4 Quotations from the Works of Georges Perec (4)

By Laird Hunt

4) “Grifalconi shook his head.  In one of the attics in Château de la Muette he had found the remains of a table.  Its oval top, wonderfully inlaid with mother-of-pearl, was exceptionally well preserved; but its base, a massive, spindle-shaped column of grained wood, turned out to be completely worm-eaten.  The worms had done their work in covert, subterranean fashion, creating innumerable ducts and microscopic channels now filled with pulverized wood.  No sign of this insidious labor showed on the surface.  Grifalconi saw that the only way of preserving the original base—hollowed out as it was, it could no longer support the weight of the top—was to reinforce it from within; so once he had completely emptied the canals of their wood dust by suction, he set about injecting them with an almost liquid mixture of lead, alum, and asbestos fiber.  The operation was successful; but it quickly became apparent that, even thus strengthened, the base was too weak, and Grifalconi had to resign himself to replacing it.  It was after he had done this that he thought of dissolving what was left of the original wood so as to disclose the fabulous arborescence within, this exact record of the worms’ life inside the wooden mass: a static, mineral accumulation of all the movements that had constituted their blind existence, their undeviating single-mindedness, their obstinate itineraries; the faithful materialization of all they had eaten and digested as they forced from their dense surroundings the invisible elements needed for their survival, the explicit, visible, immeasurably disturbing image of the endless progressions that had reduced the hardest of woods to an impalpable network of crumbling galleries. (Life A User’s Manual, Chapter 27)


Perec’s day job for many years was designing, updating and overseeing a substantial scientific database attached to what came to be called the Laboratoire de Physiologie at the Centre Hospitalier et Universitaire Saint-Antoine.  Although his only real qualification when he took the position in the early 60s was a reputed talent for filing and sorting, which was bolstered by an interest in information analysis, storage and retrieval, he devised consecutive filing systems that eventually allowed for the effective management of some 100,000 cards, each of which contained multiple cross-referenced entries. These systems, known as “Flambo” and “Peekaboo”, were much admired and reputedly much imitated by other labs, and Perec seems to have enjoyed a measure of respect for his efforts. Still, because he lacked any official scientific or medical credentials, it was impossible for him to advance through the Lab’s rigid hierarchy, so that while he was winning the Renaudot Prize, becoming a celebrated member of the Oulipo, and writing the majority of the poems, plays, radio dramas, film scripts, crossword puzzles, essays, articles and books that would, near the end of his life, make him famous, he was occupying one of the lowest possible rungs on the bureaucratic ladder. For various reasons, including a steady paycheck and the freedom it allowed him to write what he wanted to on his own time, he seems to have accepted his position with equanimity and kept at it for some 17 years. This philosophical attitude did not, however, prevent him from indulging in numerous pranks, including inserting specious cards into the filing system, retyping documents with deliberate, punning spelling mistakes, amending bibliographies he was asked to assemble with fictional attributions, and including not always flattering Lab-inspired scenarios in many of his own works. Irregardless of these episodes – and given the perpetrator such interventions are surely more a sign of affection than sabotage — the creation and management of Flambo and Peekaboo must have been a point of pride for an intellect as fond of constructing complex systems as Perec was. It is probably not a stretch then to imagine that he had a hard time accepting that the two systems had to be tossed into the trash with the rise of computers in the mid- to late-70s.

Aside from the added biographical interest this précis of Perec’s career as a scientific archivist may hold, it bears including here because in broad outline it is very much the sort of story that can be found, multiplied many times over, in Life A User’s Manual. An individual, either directing the course of events or buffeted by circumstance, finds him or herself engaged in a lengthy, possibly complicated endeavor for which it turns out he or she possesses some skill. Invariably, for different reasons – a shift in the economy, a misjudgment, a mental collapse, etc. — the work is halted or destroyed, the gain is drastically reduced and the individual is back at square one. Or even square zero. For one of the underlying motifs of this grand exploration of what lies beneath the placid surface of an instant in the existence of a Parisian apartment building is that life, no matter how rich, is inevitably, often brutally undercut by time and its legion of unravellers. The result is that individuals are likely to end up, not so much with their hands empty, but — and the protagonist of A Man Asleep, whose story is retold here in haunting miniature, is an extreme example — with little desire to use them.

There is no shortage of commentary on Life A User’s Manual, and Perec himself offered exegesis on its construction[15] and implications. We know, for example — from sources including Perec’s own “Four Figures for Life A User’s Manual” — that the novel makes use of 1) several major constraints, including the graeco-latin bi-square of order 10 and the knight’s tour 2) many minor constraints, including an obligatory reference in each chapter to one of Perec’s other works and to something Perec has done during the composition of the chapter in question and 3) the principle of the “clinamen”, that swerving of the atoms described by Lucretius in De Rerum Natura, which allows Perec to strategically bend his own rules[16]. We know too that this vast architecture composed of 99 chapters in each of which 40 pre-selected elements are supposed[17] to appear and certain of those elements recur according to the strictures of another constraint, an adapted sestina formula created by Raymond Queneau[18], emits only the faintest murmur of being so extravagantly controlled, and that it is consequently quite possible to read without being aware of its rules. We also know that Perec makes skillful use of the representational powers of realism throughout a text that tells so many different stories that Perec rightly thought it would be useful to include a partial but still lengthy listing of them in the substantial appendices. At the same time we know that Perec was so deeply committed to the surface textures of his novel, to steady bursts of meta-textual intervention, to a Russian-doll-like series of mises en abyme[19], to the importance of the accompanying paratextual apparatus, to, in other words, a great deal of funny business, that the term realism must either be discarded in his case or made more expansive.

We know these things and more, but great works tend to shed givens like roof tiles do rain drops, and Life A User’s Manual glistens all the more mysteriously even in the face of close scrutiny. So that while one does not necessarily have the feeling of coming up on the blank wall of enigma when cracking open its covers, it is likely that each fresh encounter will elicit its own set of interrogatives — about the novel, the enterprise of reading in general, the role of literature, and life itself[20]. What, for example, to make of a work that underscores with such authority the overwhelming richness of life on the one hand and its utter pointlessness on the other. One that, indeed, makes of its central character, Bartlebooth — whose decades-long, ultimately failed effort at self-erasure is brought to a halt at book’s end when time slips forward into the moment of his death — a paradigm for this perturbing state of affairs. One might argue that part of the triumph of Perec’s work — and with Life A User’s Manual he takes his place among the great spelunkers in the caverns of the human optic — was to imbue even this conundrum with meaning. Time and again he offers us powerful indications that both the latent intricacies of the human mind and the material symptoms of those intricacies bear repeated exploration and that the “fabulous arborescence within” should at all costs be disclosed. 

             Life A User’s Manual opens with a quote from Jules Verne’s Michael Strogoff: “Look with all your eyes, look.”  If this work, which Italo Calvino called “the last real ‘event’ in the history of the novel so far,”[21] ultimately fails as a “user’s manual,” it emphatically succeeds as an examination of our “obstinate itineraries” and “endless progressions,” as well as our inexplicable ability — and there is no better example than that of its creator — to look square in the face of darkness and, with a resolute gleam in our eyes, call it light.

Works Consulted

Georges Perec, A Life In Words, David Bellos, David R. Godine, Boston, 1993.
Pereckonings: Reading Georges Perec, Warren Motte and Jean-Jacques Poucel, eds., Yale University Press, New Haven, 2004.
Georges Perec: écrire pour ne pas dire, Stella Béhar, Peter Lang, New York etc., 1995.
Cahier des charges de La Vie mode d'emploi, Hans Hartje, Bernard Magné et Jacques Neef, eds., C.N.R.S./Zulma, Paris/Cadeilhan, 1993.
The Oulipo Compendium, Alistair Brotchie and Harry Mathews, eds., Atlas Press, London, 1998.
Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino, Vintage, New York, 1993.
Species of Spaces and other Pieces, Georges Perec, John Sturrock (editor), Penguin, London, 1997.
“Reading Georges Perec”, Warren Motte, Context, Issue 11, Normal.
“Three by Perec”, Martin Riker, Rain Taxi Review of Books, Spring 2005, Minneapolis.
W, or the Memory of Childhood, Georges Perec, trans. by David Bellos, Harvill, London, 1988.
Life A User's Manual, Georges Perec, trans. by David Bellos, David R. Godine, Boston, 1988.


[15] See for example theCahier des charges de La Vie mode d'emploi, Hans Hartje, Bernard Magné et Jacques Neef, C.N.R.S./Zulma, Paris/Cadeilhan, 1993, which collects Perec’s notebooks, charts and commentary on the composition ofLife A User’s Manual, along with a very useful introduction by the editors.

[16] Because of its heavy use of constraints, Life A User’s Manual is generally thought to be among the most highly constructed novels in existence. The omnipresence of the clinamen, however, which everywhere eats away at the sharp edges of its constraints, both renders problematic — by the wrench it constantly throws into the machinery — and reinforces — by its almost systematic usage — this perception.

[17] Typical of Perec’s use of the clinamen is his lack of adherence to this particular rule.

[18] The Quenina.

[19] We learn over the course of the novel that Life A User’s Manual is arguably a description of a painting of 11 rue Simon-Crubellier, which one of the principal characters, the painter Serge Valène, is contemplating. Within that painting Serge Valène himself, contemplating, would necessarily appear, and so on. It is hard not to think here of the Irish writer Flann O’Brien, who also delighted in trompe l’oeil effects and whose series of chests within chests within chests in The Third Policeman Perec might have admired.

[20] In “Reading Georges Perec”, published in Context (No. 11), Warren Motte addresses the inherently invigorating nature of reading Perec’s work, while formulating a series of questions it prompts us to pose: “He encourages us to ask questions about the way literature comes tobe in the world: how it is produced, how it is received; how it survives in culture or how it fails to survive; what it means to us and how we construct that meaning; what its uses may be in a world where its uses are no longer taken as given, but rather must be constantly argued anew.”

[21] In “Multiplicity”, Six Memos for the next Millennium, Italo Calvino, Vintage, New York, 1993.

"4 Gentle Pursuasions" was originally published in French in the magazine Inculte. It is reprinted here with the author's permission. Part 1, "I Write...", was published at Words Without Borders January 20th, part 2, "We Should Learn to Live More on Staircases, but how?", on January 25th, part 3, "For years I put off telling the tale to my voyage to W.", on January 27th.

Published Jan 28, 2010   Copyright 2010 Laird Hunt

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