On Perec's "La vie mode d'emploi"

On Perec's "La vie mode d'emploi"

Last week I just finished, after a quite a few months (yes, it’s hard to concentrate on books these days with all these electronic distractions), George Perec’s massive book “La vie mode d’emploi”. Perec’s book is an encyclopaedic tome that probably is the closest thing in the French language I think to a Gaddis or a Pynchon that I’ve come across, at least in terms of scope. And certainly in terms of length (more than 600 pages long). And written in a French is which is pretty damn obscure — I did have frequent recourses to asking ML “what does that word mean”?

The book describes all the inhabitants of a Parisian apartment building situated on the fictional Rue Simon-Crubeiller. And I when I say all the inhabitants, I mean all those who lived there from the building’s construction to around the mid 1970s — everyone who has lived in each apartment of each floor of the building. The book features not only an index, but also a chronological list of all the major events of the book, as well as a list of all the many stories that Perec tells us — by story, I mean here a short history or “fait divers” in most cases lasting no more than a few pages. And usually, but always, often ending badly or surprisingly.

All classes of characters swarm through the pages of Perec’s book — artists, confidence tricksters, millionaires, accountants, doctors, scholars, scientists. Perec fills his book with spurious scholarship, made-up citations from imaginary specialists of every field of human knowledge. Many characters spend their entire lives of fruitless quests that often end in failure, pursuing impossible endeavours. He includes everything. There are endless enumerations of every object found in the cellars of certain apartments. Paintings and interior decorations are described in excruciating detail. Not only the paintings themselves, but also the stories which take place inside the paintings. At one point, all the objects found in the stairway of the building over the last few decades is listed. Many of the characters know other characters in the building, but many others live separate lives. The events described in the book cover the four corners of the Earth, although we never leave rue Simon-Crubellier.

The main story running through the book is that of English billionaire Percival Bartelbooth, whose life’s work consists of a decades-long project to travel the four corners of the world (staying away from Paris for almost twenty years I think) and paint a series of watercolours in different seaside spots; back in Paris at rue Simon-Crubeiller, artisan Gaspard Winckler, on the orders of Bartelbooth, transforms each of these painting into a complicated jigsaw puzzle. For the next twenty years, Bartelbooth devotes all his energies to solving these puzzles; as each one is solved, he returns to the place where he first painted the picture and dissolves it, leaving a blank sheet of paper. Yup: I’m reminded of Beckett: everything we do in life is a means to avoid boredom.

Reading the book I couldn’t help thinking of the building I was reading it in: our building here at Avenue Rene-Coty was built at around the same time as Perec’s fictional building at 11, Rue Simon-Crubeller. Both of them are Haussmannien structures, built during the great housing boom in Paris at the end of the 19th century. Although, unlike Perec’s building, the most of the apartments in the building here have remained in the same family since its construction — talk about a particularly astute purchase, given that most of the apartments today in this seven-floor building are now worth more than 400,000 euros. I wonder what are all the stories of all the people who have lived here over the last 150 or so years?

Linking all these chaotic stories together is impossible — there is no thread running through them all. Well, that is real life, after all, where the people in the 7th floor may not necessarily know what happens on the ground floor. Links go unmade, after all. Perec does not make any attempt to step out from behind the curtain and tell us what it means. It doesn’t mean anything — we not in a novel, after all…

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