Thursday, December 20, 2007

Between-semester reading #1

This is not the promised substantive post. Tomorrow, most likely.

As the fulfillment of a long-time promise to myself, I've begun reading--this time, with the intent to finish--Georges Perec's famous-in-some-circles novel, Life: A User's Manual. Recounting the various lives of the tenants of a small apartment building in Paris up to a point just after the death of one of the tenants, it is extraordinarily detailed in its cataloguing of the material and biographical, knick-knacky minutiae of the tenants . . . and, here and there, the omniscient-but-invisible narrator's hints that all this will add up to . . . something. More (much, much more) detail about the rules Perec followed in writing this novel is here; those curious about Oulipo, the experimental-literature collective Perec belonged to, can visit here.

I'm about a hundred pages into this thing. I'm maddeningly, delightfully lost in this fiendishly-complex thing. At least one regular visitor here has read this; I'll not be wanting to hear anything from you other than confirmation that it will be worth my while to finish it.

A recurring motif in this novel is the jigsaw puzzle. It's fitting, then, that its Preamble is a meditation on jigsaw puzzles. Here is its final paragraph-and-a-half, which I especially like:

The organised, coherent, structured signifying space of the picture is cut up not only into inert, formless elements containing little information or signifying power, but also into falsified elements, carrying false information; two fragments of cornice made to fit each other perfectly when they belong in fact to two quite separate sections of the ceiling, the belt buckle of a uniform which turns out in extremis to be a metal clasp holding the chandelier, several almost identically cut pieces belonging, for one part, to a dwarf orange tree placed on a mantelpiece and, for the other part, to its scarcely attenuated reflection in a mirror, are classic examples of the types of traps puzzle-lovers come across.

From this, one can make a deduction which is quite certainly the ultimate truth of jigsaw puzzles: despite appearances, puzzling is not a solitary game: every move the puzzler makes, the puzzle-maker has made before; every piece the puzzler picks up, ans picks up again, and studies and strokes, every combination he tries, and tries a second time, every blunder and every insight, each hope ans each discouragement have all been designed, calculated, and decided by the other. (xvii)
Some people read stuff like that and run screaming for the hills, and I understand that sentiment. Of course, for "some," read "most readers"--which means that not a lot of this sort of thing gets written, doesn't stay in print long, or is hard to find even if it is in print. And, truth be told, not all the Oulipo stuff results in marvelous works of literature. But sometimes it does, and--so far--Life: A User's Manual is proving to be one of the most satisfying things I've read in a very long time.

6 comments:

Raminagrobis said...
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Raminagrobis said...

Perec’s a wonderful writer, isn’t he? I suspect I may be the reader from whom you don’t wish to hear anything more (that it will be worth your while to finish it goes without saying) – but I can’t resist mentioning the following minuscule spoiler, since I know that it’s a hobbyhorse of yours: Las Meninas figures as an element in Perec’s ‘schedule of obligations’, and it features in chapters 9, 13, 23, 28, 33, 35, 40, 45, 70 and 84.

I know it’s terribly bad form to mention it, but it so happens that I was in Madrid earlier this week for a wedding, and I managed to get to the Prado to see the painting itself. Needless to say, I had Blog Meridian in mind when I was looking at it.

John B. said...

Grobie,
Actually, I was thinking of our friend Stencil; I didn't know you had read it as well, but given your fondness for the Oulipo folks, I shouldn't be surprised. Thanks, by the way, for the heads up about Las Meninas.

Of course, I'm reading it in translation, but yes: I'm very much enjoying that immersion in detail, the disappearing into descriptions of pictures, the stories-within-stories . . . rich, heady stuff.

Speaking of Las Meninas: it's not bad form at all to mention such things as seeing the World's Greatest Painting. Thanks for thinking about us as you looked at it. I hope you'll post a little something about it.

dd said...

Hmmm. I visited "Las Meninas" in Madrid immediately before I learned of your blog. Perhaps it is art radar?

I am interested in the book you are reading and look forward to knowing more about it. I've spent a great deal of time in Paris over the past fifteen years and yearn for its essence more than ever since the euro has gobbled up the dollar. I read "Paris to the Moon" in 2006
loved it.

Sheila said...

Perec is wonderful, isn't he? Some years ago, on completing Life, I felt that I hadn't gotten my fill, and so resolved to revive my flagging French by reading the original La Vie: Mode d'emploi while my memory of the translation was intact. This was back when I was young and ambitious and full of beans. I still have both volumes. Ahem.

Have you read W? If you find yourself yearning for more Perec once you've read Life, I recommend it. Altogether different but equally fine.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Life is a great book, and it's an excellent translation. I thought the rest of his books were pretty bad, except La disparation (Englished masterfully by Gilbert Adair as A Void), which is perfectly ingenious.