Tall Storeys

Patrick Parrinder

  • Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec, translated by David Bellos
    Collins Harvill, 581 pp, £15.00, October 1987, ISBN 0 00 271463 9
  • The New York Trilogy: City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room by Paul Auster
    Faber, 314 pp, £10.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 571 14925 1

Like Hoyle and Stephen Potter, Georges Perec was a devotee of indoor games. La Vie Mode d’Emploi (1978), a title combining lifemanship, gamesmanship and one-upmanship, was the monumental creation of an author whose other productions included a treatise on Go (the Japanese board-game) and a weekly crossword for the magazine Le Point. Perec, who died in 1982 at the age of 46, is credited with the invention of the longest known palindrome (over five thousand letters). He saw reading as a pastime and literature as a strenuously recreational art. The writer, he thought, was at his best when, like an obsessed games-player, he was struggling to comply with some rigid system of formal constraints. Perec was often dismissed as a mildly amusing exponent of la folie littéraire, but he was far more than this.

Perec was the least pretentious of writers. He wanted to write exciting narratives, books which could be ‘devoured face downwards on one’s bed’. (Life: A User’s Manual is a rather bulky volume for this purpose, though it qualifies in other respects.) Nevertheless he was a dedicated avant-gardist whose best works were inspired by his membership of the experimental group OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle). It was to OuLiPo that he owed his interest in palindromes, anagrams, crosswords, acrostics and mathematical algorithms as sources of literary structures. The most noted Oulipian feature of his work is his exploitation of the lipogram, or text in which one or more letters of the alphabet is voluntarily suppressed. La Disparition (1969) is a three hundred-page novel written without the e which is by far the most frequently used letter in French. The counterpart to La Disparition was Les Revenentes (1972), a lipogrammatic novel in a, i, o and u – e being the only permitted vowel. No single word in La Disparition can reappear in Les Revenentes, while many of the most familiar words in the language are equally debarred from both texts.

Perec rose to the Oulipian challenge on many other occasions, and in a variety of literary forms. For example, there is a brief play, Les Horreurs de la Guerre, in which the dialogue consists entirely in the enunciation of the letters of the alphabet from A to Z. (It opens with the words Abbesse! Aidez!) Not surprisingly, much of his work is regarded as untranslatable. Life: A User’s Manual is an exception, though it has clearly taxed the ingenuity of David Bellos. A chapter of humorous visiting-cards, for example, produces only one instantly cross-cultural item (‘Madeleine Proust: “Souvenirs” ’ – not one of Perec’s subtlest efforts). Luckily there are occasions when a bon mot in French can be translated by an even better mot in English. Among the visiting-cards, ‘Adolf Hitler: Fourreur’ becomes ‘Adolf Hitler: German Lieder’. The first paragraph of the novel pays tribute to the expressiveness of the English word ‘puzzle’; the translator derives an extra bonus from the fact that the English name of the machine used to cut jigsaw puzzles is – a jigsaw.

The theme of puzzles, especially jigsaw puzzles, is the main hint we are given that this is a novel as carefully patterned as Joyce’s Ulysses. The ‘subject’ is a Parisian apartment block: Life: A User’s Manual is, more or less, a room-by-room inventory of its contents, its inhabitants and their life-histories. If the 99 chapters (plus Preamble and Epilogue) are somehow reminiscent of The Thousand and One Nights, it is worth noting that Perec’s choice of setting contains powerful allusions to the realist tradition in French fiction. Behind Life: A User’s Manual there is the taxonomic ‘human comedy’ of Balzac, the sociological and clinical precision of Zola and the synaesthesia and imaginative claustrophobia of Proust. Perec shares the encyclopedic aims of his predecessors, taking us through endless rooms cluttered with meticulously-described pictures, books and objets d’art. It is like wandering through some vast museum of narrative painting, piling story upon story, storey upon storey. The inhabitants themselves are almost all, in a broad sense, artists (painters, writers, craftsmen, actresses, film-directors) or their servants and hangers-on (such as art-thieves and antique dealers). At the top of the building is an artist, Valène, engaged on a picture of the building, and an empty flat where Gaspard Winckler, cutter of jigsaws, formerly plied his jigsaw in a cork-lined room.

But however much it owes to the realist tradition, this is an Oulipian novel based on mathematical structures. Its compositional principles were outlined in an article that Perec published four years before it was completed. The sequence of 99 chapters, it turns out, follows an unbroken series of knight’s moves across a checkerboard of ten squares by ten, corresponding to the vertical elevation of the apartment building. Within each chapter, a mathematical algorithm produces a list of 42 elements which have the effect of shaping the text at every level. The book concludes with a rough elevation diagram, a chronological table, a checklist of incidental stories, and an enormous (and, I would say, superfluous) index. Such a rigidly Cartesian procedure is also appropriate, so Perec assures us, to the design and solution of jigsaw puzzles.

In the ideal hand-cut wooden jigsaw the skill of the solver is exactly matched against the cunning, trickery and subterfuge employed by the puzzle-maker. The reconstruction of a jigsaw piece by piece resembles the work of a detective patiently solving a crime: the moment the solver relaxes his attention or gives way to enthusiasm he is likely to be taken in by false resemblances of colour and shape. Perec’s arch-puzzler is Bartlebooth, an eccentric Old Harrovian whose life has been organised around a single arbitrary and Oulipian project. After ten years spent as Valène’s pupil learning to paint in watercolours, he set out on a twenty-year Grand Tour of the globe with the intention of producing 500 seascapes. No sooner has he finished each picture than he posts it to Winckler, whose orders are to cut it into a 750-piece jigsaw. Once the Grand Tour is over Bartlebooth spends his declining years solving the puzzles in numerical order. When each puzzle is completed he has the original paper reconstituted, separated from its plywood backing and returned to the place where the painting was done, where it is dipped in the sea until the colours dissolve. Bartlebooth dies of a heart attack leaving 61 of his puzzles still uncomplete. In his terminal moments, he is down to the last piece of the 439th puzzle: but the piece is w-shaped, while the one remaining space is shaped like an x. Has he fallen into one of Winckler’s traps, or could it be that the puzzle-maker has broken the rules and played a still more dastardly trick?

The dream of a perfect system, attainable but for a single slight error, is an ancient theme of fiction and even of religion. Life: A User’s Manual aspires to the condition of a perfect system, being a novel with (in the words used of one of the tidier rooms in the apartment building) ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’. In an essay included in his posthumous collection Penser/Classer (1985), however, Perec treats the idea of a perfect system with some disrespect. Here he speaks of ‘taxonomic vertigo’, and argues that utopias are dissatisfying to the human spirit because they leave no room for chaos. Chaos is subtly present in Life: A User’s Manual, which plunges the reader into a taxonomic vertigo with the effect of subverting the very systems that the novelist is at such pains to observe. Far from escaping, life pours in through the cracks of Perec’s plan, so that the methodical inventory of an apartment block and its inhabitants comes to resemble nothing so much as a cluttered and cobwebby Old Curiosity Shop. If you want to read about, say, animated watches, early maps of the New World, the golden age of French cycling, or a hundred other unrelated things, then this is undoubtedly the book. One could become as obsessed with it, however, as Bartlebooth was with his jigsaws. The cascade of curiosities threatens never to stop.

Perhaps life, as this user’s manual outlines it, is meant to be summed up in the story of Polonius the hamster. Polonius is the 43rd descendant of a pair of tame hamsters which had been trained to play dominoes. Like all his predecessors, he has been introduced to the game by his parents. An epidemic attacks the hamster community, and Polonius is the only survivor. He cannot play dominoes on his own, but neither is he capable of ridding himself of his obsession with the game. To preserve his sanity he has to be sent back to his original trainer for a weekly domino lesson. Another slave to obsession and victim of information overload is Cinoc, a ‘word-killer’ employed by Larousse to eliminate obsolete words from its dictionaries. The better Cinoc is at his job, the more it contrives to haunt him. He ends by spending all his leisure hours compiling a lexicon of forgotten words. (Perec being Perec, we are given a generous sample.) The narrator speculates inconclusively on the way in which Cinoc’s (Jewish) name ought to be pronounced; oddly enough, of the twenty phonetic variants that he lists, not one corresponds to the English (or Welsh?) ‘Kinnock’.

Gaspard Winckler, the puzzle-maker, was once a devotee of Jules Verne. The epigraph to Perec’s novel – ‘Look with all your eyes, look’ – is also taken from Verne. The act of looking, in its turn, leads to speculation, puzzling and surmise; it teases the brain. For example, a reader of Life: A User’s Manual may notice a certain similarity in the names Verne, Cinoc and Perec, and may even link them by means of a word-chain, a type of puzzle expounded in Chapter 85. Can Perec’s outspoken interest in Verne be attributed to their shared double e (neither name could appear in the text of La Disparition, for example) and to their mutual passion for classifications and lists – or is there some deeper symbolic affinity? In one of his essays Perec refers wistfully to the library on the Nautilus, a uniformly-bound collection of 12,000 volumes which remained fixed in time and frozen in their places on the shelves at the moment when Captain Nemo began his voyage. Perec’s apartment block is as utopian as Verne’s submarine. Though it has a sufficiently mundane address (11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, Paris XVII) and though the narrative present can be precisely located in time (it is just before 8 p.m. on 23 June 1975), the last thing that Life: A User’s Manual sets out to do is to portray or comment on Parisian life in the Seventies. The rich life of Perec’s building is as cut off from the world around it and as subservient to its creator as the Nautilus was to the calculations of Captain Nemo.

The characters of Life: A User’s Manual are Dickensian caricatures, whose identities seem as fixed as the furniture and household goods which surround them. They have none of the insecurity and anonymity of the figures who haunt Paul Auster’s vision of the modern city. Though The New York Trilogy outlines a comparable cityscape of streets and apartment blocks, its characters do not even have names, only aliases. Crime and detection are paramount themes in both Auster and Perec, but the crimes recounted in Life: A User’s Manual are, like those of the classic detective story, there to be solved. Perec’s apartment building, like an Orient Express or country-house murder, is a jigsaw puzzle waiting for its pieces to be put in place. Paul Auster is very different. His sources are in the ‘private eye’ novel and in Kafkaesque allegory, and in his city every human relationship, including those between author and characters and author and reader (The New York Trilogy contains an ‘Auster Detective Agency’ and a novelist called Paul Auster), is reducible to the paranoid pairings of observer and observed, hunter and quarry.

The ‘reality’ of New York and its people might be gauged by inspecting its census returns: these are frequently fictitious, or so Auster tells us, and the job of compiling them offers a useful apprenticeship for a would-be novelist. Another job that might suit an out-of-work novelist, if it were not so tedious and time-consuming, is that of private detective. The three linked novellas of The New York Trilogy are based on Auster’s realisation that, if the writer is a sort of private detective, the detective is essentially a writer. The only tools of his trade are a pair of eyes and a little red notebook. Auster’s protagonists are inseparable from their notebooks, and though they sometimes feel that their enquiries and surveillance have some inscrutable purpose, they are really only generating texts.

In ‘Ghosts’, where the deletion of names in favour of alliases is at its most blatant, a man called Blue is commissioned by White to keep Black under constant watch from a room across the street. Black is, apparently, writing a book. As the days pass, Blue finds himself in the position of a man condemned to sit alone in a room reading a book about a man sitting alone and writing a book. The boredom leads him into increasingly elaborate speculations about Black’s activities, and he uses these stories to fill out his regular reports, which are sent to a box number at a nearby post office. It is not hard to see that Blue and Black are doubles and that White, if not identical with Black, is at least his accomplice. Blue’s reports eventually turn up on Black’s desk, becoming part of the book he is writing.

Each of these stories explores experiences of imposture and mistaken identity, in the lives of characters whose isolation is sometimes interrupted by disorienting, unrepeatable instances of human contact: a conversation on a park bench, a phone call (deliberately?) made to a wrong number, a sudden passionate embrace between two otherwise cold and distant people. And always the characters’ freedom of action turns out to be illusory, since some unseen hand – presumably a novelist’s – with unexplained motives is controlling everything that happens. Distinguished by a cold intentness and an eerie lucidity of style, The New York Trilogy is steeped in the American urban wasteland as recorded in the early T.S. Eliot, or in Melville’s ‘Bartleby’. In addition, Paul Auster is a gifted parodist who does for the thriller and private-eye novel much of what Henry James in Washington Square did for the amorous romance.