Life: A User’s Manual, by Georges Perec

I’ve been reading Life: A User’s Manual – a valuable if somewhat overwhelming exercise, and one of the few times I’ve had to read with a pen and paper handy.

Originally titled La Vie mode d’emploi, Perec’s weird little masterpiece is the product of Oulipo, the “potential literature” project founded by Raymond Queneau in the early 1960s. Oulipo sets out to generate new literature through the imposition of apparently arbitrary rules – in one of Perec’s most famous pranks, he writes an entire novel (A Void) without once using the letter “e.”

In Life: A User’s Manual, the form is much more complicated, following the pattern of a Knight’s Tour. An apartment block in Paris contains 10 floors of 10 rooms each, creating a 10×10 grid. Each room tells a story, one per chapter. Perec also devises a series of lists of elements that must be present in each chapter – a list I am still very slowly piecing together. I’ve found some help here, though I can’t yet vouch for its accuracy.

I have always believed that discipline is necessary to the artist, in order to channel the lawless exuberance of very creative people and direct their more unruly impulses. And while a Knight’s Tour and a series of interlocking lists is perhaps more discipline than most people might want or need, it’s a welcome change from the rambling formlessness of so much modern fiction, where the artist is indulged as he wanders in a desultory fashion across the page and his own disordered imaginings.

-Summer Block
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