Life a User’s Manual
by Georges Perec
(1978, Tr. 1987)
Georges Perec’s Life a User’s Manual, a marvelous specimen of the Oulipean style itself, is a work which not only confirms that the writing still has it, but also exemplifies the unquenchable thirst for the unknown to burst straight out of it like
September 6, 2017
In a vast realm of anecdotes, being nothing more than just another floor of a multi-story edifice called “Life” (not necessarily the top one, neither the floor per se – it is probably more like an alcove so obvious in its presence, that we no longer pay attention to it, a not-so-heart-stopping crawlspace supplied only with an insignificant ‘cargo’ of chilling mysteries and thrilling miseries, etc.), there is a seemingly dull one about Karl Popper, who once allegedly asked his students during a lecture: “What do scientists do?”. When being answered ”They make observations.”, he replied: “Well then, observe.”. The slightly disoriented students inquired: “What shall we observe?”. This “what” was the focal point of Popper’s argument he wanted to clinch – we cannot get involved in any kind of scientific activity (e.g., assembling a device which is then applied to make our experiment work, developing the most efficient and the least time-consuming data gathering method, choosing the adequate mode of mathematical calculation for the corresponding phenomenon and its hidden, elusive essence we hope to eventually unveil one day, etc.), unless we, for lack of a better expression, ‘obey the rules’ of the theory, which we are struggling to prove with all our scientific actions and machinations. Avoiding further philosophical babble, Austrian-born thinker claims that the theory consisting of hypotheses comes first and it is only afterwards that it ‘tells’ us an approximate way of what we shall do to falsify and reject it or to corroborate and leave it be just for the next ‘cannonade’ of falsifying experiments. Cutting to the chase: cannot do anything without a theory.
But then again what would happen, were we to lay our hands on something, which would enable us to eat a cake and have it too? What would we do, if we crossed our paths with results of visual investigations performed regardless of each and every “what” of the theory, executed without any necessity to relate to the latter, yet somehow being totally dependent upon it? How would we react whether the effects of our heedful peeps, irrespective of their parallel existence alongside theoretical assumptions, dwindled our capacity to pin down which one precedes the other, let alone immobilized our ability to tell which is which? Should not some sort of user’s manual help us out of this stubborn, quite paradoxical cul-de-sac of questions? You bet it should. If only it weren’t the thing which corroborates our ‘ouliply’ astounding doubts…
Before we focus on the aforesaid notions, let me disentangle in a bit wikipedic fashion the enigmatically sounding adverb from the previous sentence. Oulipo or, if one prefers the alternate spelling, OuLiPo, which stands for a phrase that could be roughly translated as “A Workroom For Potential Literature”, was a group of French writers and mathematicians, who aimed at paving new ways for the development of literature by implementing a highly complex set of restrictions, based on advanced mathematics, logic, topology, game theory and some skillful wordplay (lipograms, palindromes, tautograms, and so on) as a regulatory groundwork and scaffolding for the ongoing writing process. Back in the 60’s, its founding fathers – Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais – wished to impose this intellectual bondage on letters in order to show that they (the letters, not them) had not had the last word yet on their already known tendency as well as genuinely trailblazing potency to express and impress, to provoke and evoke, to baffle, shuffle, scuffle, muffle, and so on. Georges Perec’s Life a User’s Manual, a marvelous specimen of the Oulipean style itself, is a work which not only confirms that the writing still has it, but also exemplifies the unquenchable thirst for the unknown to burst straight out of it like an ink geyser, spraying out new sentences, paragraphs and passages in the wildest specters of colors, forms and shapes yet to be recognized, named and wondered upon.
Scowling skeptically at Popper’s revelations myself, it would be very unwise of me to engage in giving you hinting winks exclusively about the theory which formed Perec’s novel. It would mean that I somehow neglect the remaining ‘dimensionality’, the observable space from under the ‘surface’ of the book. On the other hand, all I should write here, which would be sufficient enough to hold back the surplus words that beg to get penned, is just one quote, a very significant one though: “Look with all your eyes, look”. Unfortunately, this sentence sounds like neglecting the theoretical negligence above. And that would be like giving a slap in the face of mathematics: multiplying two negatives does not give a positive (I don’t mind smacking it here and there from time to time, but as far as Oulipean inclination for math is concerned, it would not do any good here). Frankly, the easiest way to cut this unforeseen Gordian knot is to imagine yourself being left on a frozen lake. All you have is a pair of ice skates. Suddenly, out of the blue, an opportunity arises. Ice diving. Not beneath the frozen surface of the lake (although you have to pierce right through it), but somewhere else. You don’t know squat about it, but you can already feel the chills of excitement down your spine… So pick your skates and come with me to drill some ‘ice holes’ we can dive into. Oh, and never mind the scuba gear and other indispensable equipment. I will bring some for you. And Georgie will fetch user’s manuals, of course…
Pages. Five hundred. Their quantity controlled. Their quality breathtakingly absorbing. The ‘narrative eye’ fades in. A townhouse in cross section appears. Chapter by chapter, we move along, watching. We slide up and down the revealed interior. We glance at rooms, halls, cellars and servants’ quarters. We glimpse at the staircase and inside the boiler room. We even snoop around the lift machinery and the service entrance. Our jumps are smooth; might there be a hidden pattern to recognize? It takes a while to spot it – an auxiliary sketch is in demand. Just a brief outline, a couple of shaky lines… oh, it is a knight! So here we go: left, left and up – the staircase, second floor on the right. A prepubescent grandson of a piano tuner is sitting in front of Madame de Beaumont’s apartment. He is reading a novel about a polymath who lived at the turn of the 19th century. Splash! – we are being immediately sunken by an adventurously oneiric short story of an exceptionally exquisite literary craftsmanship. A couple of dozen pages earlier: down, down and right – a crummy kitchen of an old man called Cinoc. The oldster, whose name has precisely 20 spelling and pronouncing variations, has been employed as a self-proclaimed “word-killer”. Down through another hole! – we are being entertained by 30 examples of terms and phrases which Cinoc has gotten rid of. Not to mention the long-forgotten historic figures, those marginally worthwhile utensils and absolutely worthless encyclopedias Cinoc must have rummaged through first! Among fits of laughter, we keep wondering whether this awkward potpourri ever existed or was it just fabricated by Perec’s prodigious coining prowess? One hundred fifty pages later: right, down and down – a grandiosely decorated drawing room of an individual named Bartlebooth is opening up before us.
In this instance, appearances are not deceiving – the Englishman, one of the two most memorable figures found in the novel, possesses an equally sophisticated character. After all, to sacrifice 50 years of one’s own life for the ultimately puzzling concept is not a feat which characterizes some mindless, unimaginative, straightforward fellas. The ‘cracked ice’ here crystallizes into a detailed account of Bartlebooth’s recent problems with an obstinate art critic and the tourist companies he has been affiliated with. Let’s move on to our next random stop, this time just one floor below: left, left and down – it is Altamonts’ apartment and another finely furnished drawing room. The sixteen-year- old daughter of the hosts – Véronique – is staring at a photograph of two ballet dancers amidst their barre routine conducted by a lanky, stereotypically looking instructor. One of the girls in the picture is Véronique’s mother, whose tragic mistake and its horrid aftermath shattered her promising career as a prima ballerina over twenty five years ago. The teen has a tendency to dig in the recent history of her closest family and this particular predilection leads us to another blowhole: a painfully touching letter of Cyrille Altamont. Who is that man to Véronique, what is his letter all about, and to whom is it addressed – these are the questions, to which you all should find answers on your own. Besides, my oxygen level is getting low and I have not uttered a single word yet about perplexing perspectives and prospective perceptivities we are exposed to in the astonishing conglomerate of Perec’s “obseory”.
That’s right, “obseory” is the term, a roaring hybrid of observations and theory, for when we are straining the overwhelming state of our minds reading Life a User’s Manual, we cannot help but notice that Perec’s vertical dissection of a townhouse at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier and our subsequent vivisection of all the flats, apartments and other rooms combined together form some kind of new floor or, even better, a groundbreaking ‘twin tower’ for our skyscraper-ish reality, where the reigning monarch is a hermaphrodite of two ‘sexes’: assumption and scrutiny. French author, with surgical precision, uses his scalpel of writing which resembles a multi-dimensional prop from an FX studio. Its blade, forged by one of the most talented blacksmiths that have ever graced this planet – Theo Constricteur, has a thin, unnoticeable groove, through which the matrix (the matri[n]ks?) of observable letters is being squirted out and splashed around. Just like Winckler, the old craftsman who lived on the sixth floor, Perec operates his cutting tool to ‘sculpt’ something of such a frenetic intensity, let alone voluminous, overbearing momentum, that it somehow exceeds every question concerning possible and impossible spatiality and temporality of descriptions within and beyond the novel, as well as eludes our ability to distinguish chronology of certain ‘observable areas’ of the book itself, when we are snuggling ourselves inside its epic ‘premises’. It is precisely during those moments, that Perec refutes Popper’s assertions so effortlessly and mercilessly (provided we are not confining ourselves exclusively to the scientific plateau), that we almost feel bad for our poor old Karl. As we are being befuddled by the charming chunks of stories, bold boulders of histories and splendid slabs of accounts, which have been saturated with countless historical and imaginary facts, objects, things, extensions and other existentialities, we expose ourselves to the riddle that even the mentioned Winckler – as sly as a fox when it comes down to hiding a hoax inside a jigsaw puzzle – would not be ashamed of.
So what is this “obseory” after all? I have my own few suspicions, but I am not even sure which could be described as the least misbegotten one. Is it this almost hyper-realistic entity or, rather, ‘wholeness’ which gives us metaphysical butterflies when we are being completely absent from the ‘as-we-know-it-ness’, due to the blend of Perec’s incarcerated letters and our decompressed percepts? Or is it this odd hypothesis (this one is clearly not trying to precede anything, I assure you!) of our sense of sight sort of ‘coming out’ of our eyes as a stream of potentiality-to-see, fusing with all that have always been outside, in front of, next to, above, beneath, across, on, in, out, behind and between (not only in the spatial mode, but also in the temporal one too), assembling new ‘compound beings’, which could be referred to on an ad hoc basis as “block-visuals”? Or maybe it is the other side (what other side?) of the language itself? When we use it in a certain self-entangled or, shall I say, self-restrained combination, it may branch out into some pristine ‘places of descriptiveness/de-scriptiveness’, dragging along and merging with common phenomena, which we have grown accustomed to ages ago. Or maybe it still would be something much more different from what we can possibly imagine, even during these rare days of our genuine seer- like insightfulness?…
I have nearly emptied my scuba tank. I suppose I will have to resurface any second now. You remain ‘under’ with Georgie. Just remember to “look with all your eyes, look”! In the end, despite my previous objections, it may be the best quote to sum up one of our approaches to the shape of Oulipean and post-Oulipean letters to come as well as to those which have already come. Who knows what other puzzles the obseory prepared for us out there and what we would discover if we stared long enough through those still bewildering spectacles of o’s, which are hiding in the very center of the verb “look”? But I will not theorize and speculate anymore. You may not take it and pop(per) off…