Life A User's Manual begins with a meditation on jigsaw puzzles. Jigsaw puzzles? Indeed, jigsaw puzzles. It is preceded by a motto from Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook, that could equally well serve as the motto for my research into dance, aesthetics and the brain: "The eyes follow the paths that have been laid down for it in the work."
Georges Perec varies on this motto when, at the end of the preamble, he observes the following truth about 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, and picks up again, and studies and strokes, every combination he tries, and tries a second time, every blunder and every insight, each hope and each discouragement have all been designed, calculated, and decided by the other."
With this the tone of the book has been set, because the whole novel can be seen as an intricate jigsaw puzzle. Every story, every piece stands on its own, but also fits into the larger design of the novel as a whole. As a matter of fact, the tone of the book had already been set by the motto that precedes the novel, "Look with all your eyes, look", a seemingly innocent line from Jules Verne’s Michael Strogoff. But in the universe of Georges Perec everything is what it is, but nothing is what it seems. There’s always the twist of fate, the chance encounter and the hidden meaning. In Jules Verne's novel, Michael Strogoff is told to keep his eyes open and look at the world around him, the moment when he has been unmasked by the Tartars as a spy for the czar and just before he is blinded with the glowing blade of a sword.
Life A User's Manual is a book for readers, and the more you have read the more you will appreciate the subtle references to other novels and popular culture. But to say so would do injustice to a book that is quite simply a marvel to read.
Life A User's Manual tells the story of a ten storied building, in the fictional 11, rue Simon-Crubellier, in Paris, minutely describing its interior and how it relates to the lives of those who lived there, but most of all it tells the stories, 179 in total, of its inhabitants. The order in which the different stories are told, is determined by a famous chess problem: how to visit every spot on the board using only the knight’s move. It is but one of many formal constraints that shape Life A User's Manual. Perec reputedly spent three years working out all the rules that govern every chapter and the patchwork they constitute. But don’t expect a formal or formalist book, for Life A User's Manual’s greatest gift is the affection with which it portrays its characters.
If there is a central character in this kaleidoscope of stories it is probably the fabulously wealthy Percival Bartlebooth, a name which no doubt resounds Melville's Bartleby. Bartlebooth argues to himself that if he is not to realize at a later age that all his life has been meaningless, he would do best to incorporate this meaninglessness into his life. And so one day he decides to take up lessons in painting watercolours with Serge Valène, who also lives at 11, rue Simon-Crubellier.
After 10 years he sets out on a journey around the world to paint watercolours of 500 different harbours and seaports, a journey which will take him another 20 years. Every other week he visits another town and every other week he sends a watercolour to his assistant Gaspard Winckler, who glues the paintings on a wooden board and makes them into a jigsaw puzzle of 750 pieces each.
In 1955, having finished all 500 watercolours, Bartlebooth returns home and begins to solve the puzzles. Once put together the puzzles are to be resolved from their backing and taken to where they were painted, where they are to be erased with some detergent. Bartlebooth will thus be left with what he started with, an empty sheet of paper. Beginning and end would coincide. But things don’t go as planned.
To revenge himself for 20 years of pointless work, Gaspard Winckler has made the jigsaw puzzles ever more difficult. Almost blind Bartlebooth dies as he haphazardly attempts to finish the 439th puzzle. As Perec writes in the last paragraph of the 99th chapter, a paragraph that brings me near tears whenever I reread it:
''It is the twenty-third of June nineteen seventy-five, and it is eight o'clock in the evening. Seated at his jigsaw puzzle, Bartlebooth has just died. On the tablecloth, somewhere in the crepuscular sky of the four hundred and thirty-ninth puzzle, the black hole of the sole piece not yet filled in has the almost perfect shape of an X. But the ironical thing, which could have been foreseen long ago, is that the piece the dead man holds between his fingers is shaped like a W.''
Gaspard Winckler, who died two years earlier has triumphed, but it has been a meaningless triumph.
Bartlebooth’s project is the most grotesque failure in Life A User's Manual, but at the end of their life every character seems to realize that his or her life has been meaningless, that his or her efforts were futile, that he or she has spent a life building castles in the air, making plans that were unrealistic from the outset, or that life in the form of chance has at some point intervened.
The book is told by Serge Valène who has lived in the building for over 55 years and who in the final months of his life "conceived the idea of a painting that would reassemble his entire existence: everything his memory had recorded, all the sensations that had swept over him, all his fantasies, his passions, his hates would be recorded on canvas, a compendium of minute parts of which the sum would be his life."
In the epilogue we learn that a few weeks after Bartlebooth Valène has died, leaving behind an almost blank canvas: "a few charcoal lines had been carefully drawn, dividing it up into regular square boxes, the sketch of a cross-section of a block of flats which no figure, now, would ever come to inhabit."