“Play with all your mind, play”
I think, echoing here the epigraph to Life A Users Manual with my own substitution, that Georges Perec would have liked the “Searching for rue Simon-Crubellier” project where two artists search in Paris for the fictional street where the novel takes place. He was “a great pedestrian” who liked to walk around Paris writing about the “quotidienneté,” and of course I think he would have loved the idea of looking for a mythical street, something familiar, yet nonexistent, and going so far as to consult mapmakers (see part 2 of the video) in their quest.
I think too that he would have liked that the artists don't tell most of the people that what they're searching for doesn't exist except in a certain collective consciousness. Perec's world, his “galaxy” as it's been called, is built upon games and deception. In this regard, Cervantes is a close literary ascendent. Perec says in a 1981 interview with Kaye Mortley (“The Doing of Fiction,” Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 2009)
“…in almost everything I am producing there is, we could say, a story and the story of the story. A fiction and a fiction about the fiction and like, it's like mirrors, and it doesn't end with the fiction and the fiction about the fiction–there'll be speculation about the fiction of the fiction and so on. And there is, I could say there is several levels.”
The same could be said of Don Quixote, whose journey is interwoven with stories within the story all told through the possibly deceptive narration of a translation of a text from a vaguely accurate original in a language different than that of its subjects, a story where puns become wrought with meaning and characters may be fictions even to their fictionally real counterparts. And, not to belabor the idea more than it deserves, I also see parallels between Bartlebooth's (Bartleby-like) anti-journey in Life A User's Manual and Don Quixote's quest, both not accepting society as it is given to them, both deceived by others, to die unsatisfied. The inner sense of frustration I felt with both of these men is something unique and unforgettable.
Of course, Cervantes brings his characters closer in than Perec, making him the more approachable writer, and perhaps the comparison should end at the layers and gamesmanship, but it is true that in each book the overriding structure is incomplete without the individually inconsequential stories running between the sheets. Perec said something like one way to read his books is laying on the couch. The truth in that statement is in the idea that to read Life A Users Manual one is best advised to put away the thoughts of the “Knight's Tour” that gives the book its structure, not wonder whether the book is the depiction of a painting or a moment in time, but to start with the stories, for to see the forest in this case is to look closely at the trees. Perec scholar Warren Motte says in an excellent introduction (“Reading Georges Perec,” Context #22)
“And, finally, it must be noted that Life is animated by a closely-tuned narrative logic, each of the many tales it tells taking its place within a vaster story, each moment in the text carefully crafted with regard to the moment that precedes it and the moment that follows it—in short, it is a sheer joy to read.”
If you loved Don Quixote. If you've ever enjoyed reading Jorge Luis Borges, or Italo Calvino, then I think you will enjoy Life A User's Manual. All of these writers bring something more to the table than what first appears, but with all of them, there is no user manual required.
And with that recommendation, from one reader to another, we conclude our “PerecFest” in our “Classics in Translation” series. Thanks to our contributors, Laird Hunt, Geoff Wisner, Martin Riker (and by extension, Warren Motte), Scott Esposito, Susan Harris, and of course Georges Perec by way of his terrific publisher David R. Godine. Our giveaway of copies of the new, definitive edition, of Life A User's Manual will go through the end of the month to anyone who has left a comment (please actually actually say something) here at Dispatches.
Click [here] to see all of our posts on Georges Perec.