Saturday, October 30, 2010

Life: A User's Manual

I am reading the marvelous novel Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec (1936-1982). The writing is reminiscent of Borges's for its intricate structure and rich detail. In the novel Perec constructed a world around a Parisian apartment building: every flat and every tenant's life is described in dispassionate yet curiously beguiling prose. Here is a sample. (under 400 words to avoid abusing fair use)

Let us imagine a man whose wealth is equalled only by his indifference to what wealth generally brings, a man of exceptional arrogance who wishes to fix, to describe, and to exhaust not the whole world – merely to state such an ambition is enough to invalidate it – but a constituted fragment of the world: in the face of the inextricable incoherence of things, he will set out to execute a (necessarily limited) programme right the way through....

In other words, Bartlebooth resolved one day that his whole life would be organised around a single project, an arbitrarily constrained programme with no purpose outside its own completion.

The idea occurred to him when he was twenty. At first it was only a vague idea, a question looming – what should I do? – with an answer taking shape: nothing. Money, power, art, women did not interest Bartlebooth. Nor did science, nor even gambling. There were only neckties and horses that just about did, or, to put it another way, beneath these futile illustrations [...] there stirred, dimly, a certain idea of perfection.

It grew over the following months and came to rest on three guiding principles.

[In summary, the principles were that the programme had to be simple (albeit challenging), amenable to strict planning, and self-extinguishing.]

Thus a concrete programme was designed, which can be stated succinctly as follows.

For ten years, from 1925 to 1935, Bartlebooth would acquire the art of painting watercolours.

For twenty years, from 1935 to 1955, he would travel the world, painting, at a rate of one watercolour each fortnight, five hundred seascapes of identical format (royal, 65cm x 50cm) depicting seaports. When each view was done, he would dispatch it to a specialist craftsman (Gaspard Winckler), who would glue it to a thin wooden backing board and cut it into a jigsaw puzzle of seven hundred and fifty pieces.

For twenty years, from 1955 to 1975, Bartlebooth, on his return to France, would reassemble the jigsaw puzzles in order, at a rate, once again, of one puzzle a fortnight. As each puzzle was finished, the seascape would be "retexturized" so that it could be removed from its backing, returned to the place where it had been painted – twenty years before – and dipped in a detergent solution whence would emerge a clean and unmarked sheet of Whatman paper.

Thus no trace would remain of an operation which would have been, throughout a period of fifty years, the sole motivation and unique activity of its author.


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