Georges Perec (1936) was a member of the Oulipo group founded in 1960 by
Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais.
Les Choses (1965)
La Disparition/ A Void (1969)
is, a convoluted mystery thriller written without the letter "e".
"Les Revenentes" (1972), instead, is written using only one vowel: "e".
La Vie Mode d'Emploi/ Life A User's Manual (1978)
is a meticulous
catalog of the events taking place
in each room of a building at 8pm on the 23th of June of 1975.
While the plot is ostensibly static, grounded to that specific instant,
the hundreds of flashbacks that pop out of that one day end up expanding its time dimension
to gargantuan proportions through countless emerging subplots
and their rich cast of characters.
Each of the 99 short, self-contained chapters constitutes a piece in
a vast jigsaw puzzle that, in turn, represents a vast "comedie humaine"
set in a microcosm of eccentrics; a densely populated novel that is mainly
kept alive by an overwhelming number of arbitrary detours.
The narrator describes both the furniture and the lives of
the inhabitants, including those who are no longer there.
The novel can be read as an existentialist-style parable about the vain efforts of the human race to impose an arbitrary order on the world it inhabits, neglecting the fact that the world will eventually take our lives away and leave absolutely nothing behind.
Perec is endlessly mocking the madness of the human race, slowly but meticulously compiling an encyclopedia of their vices and vanities.
A woman is climbing the stairs of the building at
11 Rue Simon-Crubellier to inspect the apartment vacated two years earlier
by the death of its occupant, the craftsman Gaspard Winckler, who lived
and worked there for 40 years and died with no close family.
The widow of Fernand de Beaumont, an archeologist who tried in vain to
locate the legendary city of Lebtit in Spain until he committed suicide,
Vera Beaumont, has a jigzaw puzzle and a complicated engineering book in the
In a third-floor room
a member of a Japanese sect, Ashikage Yoshimitsu, initiates three new members
to the sect's painful form of meditation.
in the fourth floor is an empty room with four paintings on the wall,
that the narrator describes in detail. Then we are told that a Smautf sent
postcards to a Valene.
Someone named Bartlebooth
sent Valene the same parcel for 20 years every two weeks.
At the fifth floor a naked girl is walking towards an empty bathroom.
Valene lives on the seventh floor. He is an old painter.
His room is somehow attached to the second-floor apartment of Vera Beaumont.
This elderly woman lives with her granddaughters Anne and Beatrice after
her husband's suicide and the tragic murder of her daughter Elizabeth.
The scientist Georges Morellet, discovered by Smautf, was hired by
Bartlebooth to treat each finished puzzle with a special chemical solution.
In recent years, having become useless to his old master, he devoted himself
to chemical experiments that greatly upset his neighbors, especially the
Plassaert couple. Eventually, he was locked away.
Gaspard Winckler, who died two years earlier, is the man who, 20 years earlier, made the last jigsaw puzzle for Bartlebooth.
Hutting is a successful painter with two servants, Joseph and Ethel. He owns a gallery
at the top of the building, and commutes with New York.
Jane Sutton is a teenage girl, an au-pair for the Rorschachs.
Remi Rorschach was the manager of a trapeze artist who lived nonstop on the trapeze and committed suicide when they tried to bring him to the ground.
Dinteville is a doctor.
We are finally told that Mortimer Smautf is Bartlebooth's aging butler, who
has been at his service for over 50 years and traveled with him for 20 years
all over the world.
We learn that Percival Bartlebooth painted a watercolor in every
place they visited and then sent it to Winckler to be turned into a jigsaw puzzle.
Smautf ended up creating three collections: postage stamps, hotel stickers
Serge Valene the painter has lived in the building longer than anyone else, for 55
years, longer even than Bartlebooth, who took lessons from him as a young man and moved into
the building precisely to be near his master.
Rorschach became a television producer and, when he found out about Bartlebooth's odd enterprise, he tried in vain to convince the eccentric to make a tv serial out of it.
The Altamonts are getting ready for their annual party.
Mrs Moreau is the eldest person in the building. Now confined to her bed,
this childless widow still manages her lucrative mail-order catalog business.
A visit to the boiler room triggers the story of how Emile Gratiolet inherited
the building from his father and owned it for 17 years, until his death,
by the which time he had had to sell quite a few of the real estate to assist
the widow of his younger ruined brother Ferdinand.
Despite the underlying ironic tone,
it paints a rather pessimistic fresco of the human race.
There are two themes that proceed in parallel: one is the evil nature of the human race (as characters are continuously deceived, betrayed, swindled and so on); and the other one is the inevitability of failure of even the most elaborate plans.
The concept of failure is reenforced by another metaphor: not only has the protagonist failed to complete his project, but an enormous painting (which is de facto the novel itself) has remained a mere unfinished sketch.
So many lives depend on the protagonist's self-annihilating project, so many
lives are set in motion by the simple fact that someone was a bored young man
and couldn't come up with anything meaningful to do with his life; and so many
lives become as pointless as his for the transitive property that their own
lives are serving a pointless life.
At the same time, the protagonist fails even in the project whose declared
goal was failure, because he dies before he can complete it (he fails to
completely fail), and therefore
something will actually be left behind, not to mention this novel itself that
narrates his failure to fail.
The various pompous algorithms that pop up in the novel (not only the
to paint 500 watercolors in 20 years and have each turned into a
but also various meticulous porjects,
the hotel chain that opens facilities in 24 cities whose names spell out the names of the two parent corporations, the 24 monthly portraits)
and the various assembly chains (that's what the protagonist ultimately
sets up, and that's what the businesswoman did)
may also constitute a parody of the highly organized industrial society that
is also doomed to nothingness.
The quality of the narrative declines after the first two books.
A female writer, Ursula Sobieski,
visits the building to find out more about James Sherwood, a previous
tenant who made a fortune selling his candies and then lost one third of
his fortune to two swindlers who posed as the owner of the a mythical Christian
vase and as the world's expert in that matter. After a long and convoluted
quest, James Sherwood had been led to believe that the antique collector had
stolen the vase and was now willing to sell him to him, after the expert
validated the vase. He had begged to be sold the vase only to find out that
the whole thing had been elaborately staged. Ursula is writing a book about
James Sherwood, who was Bartlebooth's great-uncle who died the year that
Bartlebooth was born: Bartlebooth's mother Priscilla inherited his fortune.
What puzzles Ursula is that James Sherwood did not seem upset at all at having
lost so much money, a fact that might be related to the arrest, two years
later, of a gang of money counterfeiters: maybe he paid the vase with fake
Mrs Moreau took over her husband's business when he died and she turned it into
a 2,000-people enterprise.
Another business in the building is Marcia's antique store.
The Altamonts, who have a daughter Veronique, inherited the apartment from a distant relative, whose son Marcel Appenzzell traveled for five years in Sumatra, following a mysterious tribe that refused to communicate and kept moving further into the jungle until he finally realized that they were running away from his curiosity. Upon returning to Europe, he set out to write down what he had learned of that tribe but one day burned all the papers and disappeared.
The reception that the Altamonts are hosting is for the annual return of
It is only in chapter 26 that the book finally focuses on the protagonist, on
the man around whom all those lives revolve. In his room there is an
announcement of Gaspard Winckler's funeral, held two years earlier.
Percival Bartlebooth was born wealthy, and didn't know what to do with his life.
He decided to take watercolor lessons from Serge Valene for ten years (and Valene
still remembers how inept he was) and one day he told him what his plan
was: to travel around the world for 20 years (in the company of Smautf), painting one watercolor of a
seascape every two weeks, and to send the watercolors to Gaspard
Winckler to be turned
into jigsaw puzzles of 750 pieces each. Then, upon returning home, he
proceeded to reassemble the 500 puzzles and to scientifically erase them using
Morellet's chemical process. Therefore Bartlebooth's own plan was to erase
every trace of the operation that occupied his life.
Rorschach lives in the apartment that used to be occupied by an Italian,
Emilio Grifalconi, who had married a much younger woman who eventually ran
away with a teacher, Paul Hebert, and who devoted the rest of his life to
raising his twins. Emilio befriended Valene and left him two gifts: a
prehistoric blade and an odd piece of rotting wood representing the meticulous
work of worms inside an old table. Nothing was ever heard of the woman,
except that one day a boy recognized his old teacher Paul Hebert selling
food in the street.
Vera Beaumont had hired her lawyer Leon Salini to investigate the
double murder of Francois Breidel and his wife Elizabeth (Vera's daughter)
and found out that the killer was
a Sven Ericsson, for whom Elizabeth had worked as an au pair under a fictitious
name after running away from Vera at the age of 16, and who held responsible
for the death of his son and for his wife's suicide. The killer had spent years
chasing Elizabeth until Elizabeth herself, tired of hiding, had volunteered
her whereabouts to him after giving birth to her second daughter.
Gilbert Berger is working on a serial novel.
Clara Marcia the antique dealer is married to art historian Leon Marcia.
Vera Beaumont's granddaughters are very different. The elder,
Anne, is obsessed with her weight. Beatrice, on the other hand, was science
prodigy who, as a child, designed a giant radio beacon.
They have employed the same cleaning lady for 20 years, Mrs Lafuente.
Philippe and Caroline Marquiseaux run a music business. Two of their protege
are the Swedish avantgarde composer Svend Grundtvig and the transgender
singer Sam Horton, now known as Hortense, famous for her wild orgies.
Two traveling salesmen meet on the stairs, one selling a fake shamanic guide
and the other one selling a religious pamphlet.
Paul Hebert's old room is now inhabited by a young single mother, Genevieve
Foulerot, an aspiring actress. We learn that Hebert was arrested and tortured
and eventually sent to a concentration camp by the occupying Nazist troops
when terrorist attacks killed German officials.
Bartlebooth found the young Gaspard Winckler through a newspaper advert.
The young man had just arrived in the city with his wife Marguerite, a miniaturist.
The Plassaert couple has a child, Remi. The previous tenant was Troyan,
a secondhand bookseller
Jerome, now a grumpy old man, had been a history teacher, but, after a period
spent elsewhere, he returned poor and lonely, and never told anybody what
happened to him.
Mrs Albin is another tenant who returned after a long absence. She ran a
printing shop in Syria until riots erupted and they had to leave the country,
losing all their money. Her husband died of a heart attack. She is now beginning
to lose her memory.
Genevieve Foulerot was abandoned by her family after she decided to keep and
raise her illegitimate child. The only relative who supported her was her
Valene was actually in love with Winckler's wife, but she died giving birth
to a stillborn child.
Adele and Jean Plassaert dealt in imports of Indian exotic merchandise.
Henry Fresnel, a chef,
abandoned his pregnant wife and didn't return until 40 years later. His wife
kept the restaurant open and kept waiting for his return. When he finally did,
she was indifferent to the stories of his travels, sold the apartment and
The Polish beauty Elzbieta Orlowska fell in love with a schoolmate, the
Tunisian boy Boubaker, whom she didn't see for ten year. Nonetheless they
got married, settled in Tunisia and had a son, Mahmoud. Eventually she ran
away from her husband and settled in one of Bartlebooth's apartments. She seems
to have only one friend, a very old man.
The Gratiolet family was exterminated by all sorts of tragedies, until
Olivier Gratiolet was the only survivor. Drafted for the war in Algeria,
he lost his legs to a landmine, but found the love of his life: a nurse called
Arlette. Even Arlette died tragically, strangled by her insane father, but
meanwhile their daughter Isabelle had been born. Olivier, reduced to poverty,
had to sell his apartments and now, a 55-years-old widower,
his teenage daughter Isabelle
takes care of him. His mission has become to prove that the theory of evolution
Hutting is painting a portrait for an old Japanese customer. This is part of
a series of 24 (one per month) that he calls "imaginary" because they are
set in mythological settings (with the exception of the self-portrait, which
is about Hutting himself dealing with the tax inspector). He has already made
20 of the 24 portraits.
Cinoc (a name that sounds like "nutcase") spent his life working for a
publisher. He was in charge of removing obsolete words from the dictionary.
Eventually he started his own project: a dictionary of all the words that
had been condemned to oblivion.
The middle-aged Charles Berger works as a waiter in a night-club specializing in
drag shows and run by the despicable Didi, while his wife Lise is a speech
therapist who works with children.
Cyrille Altamont worked for a bank specializing in energy and his biggest
blunder was to ignore a German inventor, Wehsal, who had rediscovered the secret
Nazist process to manufacture petroleum. When the oil crisis struck, it was
too late: Wehsal had hanged himself after being charge with treason for trying
to sell his secret to a developing country (presumably the only one that had
understood the value of it). Food and drinks are being delivered to the
Altamont apartment for their annual party.
Mrs Moreau lives, together with her
in the quarters that used to be rented by a mysterious
Joy Slowburn, who lived alone with her chaffeur Carlos and was never seen
outside the house other than in Carlos' car. Only when the two got murdered
did the truth come out. She had been a clairvoyant named Ingeborg before
marrying a soldier named Blunt. Blunt was drafted in a war but soon deserted.
Blackmailed by the Filipino scout (Carlos) who knew how his desertion had caused the
death of his entire squad, Blunt lived in hiding. He and Ingeborg made a little
fortune by staging a magician's show in which they made the devil appear
for rich customers. When Carlos found out, he demanded to live with them.
Eventually Blunt, terrified that two detectives were watching their apartment,
killed Carlos but accidentally also killed his wife.
Imprisoned, he was the target of religious groups determined to kill the devil.
It turned out that the two detectives had been hired, instead, to spy on
Mrs Marcia runs an antique shop that specializes in animated watches and
clockwork toys. Her husband never wanted to have anything to do with the store,
whereas her son David helps her after he was injured in a motorcycle accident.
Gaspard Winckler stuck to his mission of making jigsaw puzzles and made
them more and more difficult. Bartlebooth was beginning to lag behind.
Henry Fleury designed Mrs Moreau's living room, used for the special occasions,
notably for the visits of Hermann Fugger, a friend of Hutting and of the
Marcia's store had once been the saddlery of Albert Massy, a former Tour de
France cyclist who had felt so guilty for the disfiguring accident occurred
to his protege Lino Margay that he pressured his sister Josette into marrying
him, despite Lino's horrible face. Josette had eventually run away from her
husband, and her husband had run away from everything. Relocating in South
America, he had used his horrible face to gain the trust of gangsters and
had become rich enough to afford plastic surgery. After regaining his beauty,
Lino had returned to Josette, and they had happily moved into one of his
Bartlebooth was good friend with the archeologist Fernand de Beaumont before
he committed suicide.
David Marcia, who now lives with his parents after his motorcycle accident,
lost his fortune in a theatrical festival.
One chapter is the summary of a novel being read on the stairs by
Vera Beaumont's piano-runer's grandson: the adventurer
Carol von Loorens got an expedition funded by Napoleon to find the source
of the Nile river and got entrusted with a secret mission to approach
a famous pirate, except that Loorens fell in love with a Prussian girl
who had been kidnapped and was kept in the pirate's harem, Ursula; the
attempt failed and the girl was killed by the pirates.
Remi Rorschach is Olivia's fifth husband: she was a famous actress in Australia,
originally married to another young star, Jeremy Bishop,
and then in the USA before meeting him. She is about
to leave on a train for her 56th world tour in support of a film about her own
At one point Bartlebooth realized that he was going blind, a fact that further
complicated his plan to reassemble and then dissolve the puzzles made by
Winckler (who was by then dead). Bartlebooth hired Veronique
Altamont to help him handle the pieces that he could no longer see.
Olivier Gratiolet's daughter Isabelle was hated and feared at school by her
classmates and by the teachers because of her odd behavior and stories.
Part of Hutting's apartment used to be occupied by a wealthy couple, the
judge Maximilien Danglar and his wife Berthe, and by their servants:
Honore the butler, his wife Corinne the cook, and the young chambermaid Celia
A courageous detective, Roland Blanchet, risked his career to
prove that the wealthy couple had been carrying out bold burglaries with
impunity. He followed them until he discovered an incriminating notebook
in their apartment (while accidentally setting the fire that destroyed their
apartment) and then, having lost his job, tried in vain to blackmail them
but asked for too much money. Eventually they were arrested and sent to jail.
Honore and his wife were already elderly and
were allowed by Emile Gratiolet to remain in the building until their death
two decades later, while the younger Celia was hired by Bartlebooth and
had an illegitimate son who died in the war.
Cinoc's bedroom used to be rented to the aging Helen Brodin. Only after her
death did her nephew Francois Gratiolet found out about her murders:
Helen's husband Antoine had been killed by three thugs and she methodically
chased them down and killed them one by one, leaving no traces behind.
Charles Berger's flat had been inhabited by a Russian expert in cryptograms,
Abel Speiss, who spent his life secretely in love with Mrs Hardy but never
told her so.
Olivia Rorschach has rented out her apartment, while she will be traveling,
to an Italian diplomat, Giovanni Pizzicagnoli.
Bartlebooth, already blind, came to be harassed by an art critic hired by
a luxury hotel corporation to create the world's most spectacular collection of
contemporary art. This art critic, Charles Beyssandre, traveled the world
looking for worthy art until he learned of Barthebooth's bizarre project
to destroy all of his puzzles (he heard it from Remi Rorschach, who was planning
to make a film of it). Bartlebooth refused to sell the remaining puzzles
and instead devised ever more reliable ways to destroy them.
Beyssandre tried everything to stop the destruction, even killing those
entrusted with the job (although one puzzle might have survived because the
man entrusted with its destruction has just died).
Bartlebooth died not having completed the puzzle
on which he was working, but at the same time the hotel chain went
bankrupt and Beyssandre disappeared.
Blanche Altamont had been a dancer, fallen in love with her choreographer
Maximilien, and gotten pregnant of his child. Determined to get rid of the child
against Maximilien's will in order to save her career, she traveled to London
where an older friend, Cyrille, had helped her get an abortion but Maximilien,
devastasted by the news, had hanged himself. That's how Blanche had married
Cyrille, by then already a diplomat living abroad. Their teenage daughter
Veronique, however, knowing nothing of this, suspected that her father's
absence meant that he was not her real father. Trying to prove her theory,
she ended up discovering the truth in a letter written by Cyrille to Blanche:
Veronique learned that she was born many years after Maximilien's suicide,
and that Cyrille had been kept away from her by her mother, who, torn by
remorse, blamed her father for the abortion, and brought her up to
hate her father.
Mrs Moreau lives with her friend, Mrs Trevins, who is actually a spinster.
This friend invented the story that she has five nieces who are a quintuplet.
She has invented their biographies: that they became a famous acrobat act in
a circus, that one became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe in a
yacht, that one became very rich with her scientific inventions, etc.
In reality, this was all invented for a novel that no publisher ever wanted
to publish because she is in her eighties. The inspiration for the biographies
of the five girls came from real people of that building: Mrs Moreau herself,
Hermann Fugger, Leon Marcia, Morellet and even Bartlebooth.
Now the two old ladies (Moreau and Trevins) are being visited by Gertrude,
who was Mrs Moreau's cook for ten years but now works for a lord in England.
In chapter 95
we finally read the story of how the building was built by Olivier
Dinteville moved to this building after ruining his career with a side
project that ended up consuming four years of his life and losing him most
of his patients: a critical edition of an unpublished manuscript on the
kidney written by an ancestor of his. When he finally completed this work,
he submitted it to a world expert who told him that he had wasted time.
No publisher, in fact, accepted to publish it. But over the years that
world expert published plagiarized versions of Dinteville's work
without crediting the real author.
Hutting used to run one of the most celebrated salons of intellectuals.
He is working on a painting that he wants to remain unfinished.
Maurice and Louise Reol (who had lived together for four years before getting
formally married) were close to bankruptcy when, after a long series of
Kafkian adventures, he finally got a raised of salary from his employer.
Bartlebooth dies on the 23th of June of 1975, two years after the death of
Winckler and a few months before Morellet was locked in a mental asylum and
two months after he learned of the death of the man entrusted with destroying
the last completed puzzle. Chapter 99 describes what the current inhabitants
of the building are doing while Bartlebooth is dying: the Altamonts are
getting ready for their annual party, the Reols are dining, Olivia is ready
to leave on her trip, the old ladies Moreau and Trevins are looking at a
postcard, Dinteville is examing a patient, Cinoc is examining obsolete words,
Isabelle Gratiolet is building a house of cards, Gilbert Berger is looking
for an ending to his serial novel,
Ursula Sobieski is looking for Bartlebooth, the Plassaerts are working on
Genevieve Foulerot is taking a bath, Leon Marcia is thinking of a lecture
he heard long ago, Vera Beaumont is taking a nap.
Bartlebooth has not lived long enough to finish all Winckler's 500 puzzles.
Bartlebooth has died working on Winckler's 439th puzzle, unable to finish
it because Winckler had made a mistake:
the last hole in the puzzle is in the shape of an X
while the piece that Bartlebooth is still holding in his hand
is in the shape of a W.
The epilogue (and 100th chapter) tells us that Smautf left the building on
the very next day and that Valene died a few weeks later, leaving behind
a giant sketch of the building's current occupants, which is reproduced in
the last page of the book.
(Translation by/ Tradotto da xxx) |
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