Georges Perec

, /10

Georges Perec (1936) was a member of the Oulipo group founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais.

Les Choses (1965)

synopsis forthcoming

La Disparition/ A Void (1969) is, a convoluted mystery thriller written without the letter "e".

synopsis forthcoming

"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.
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 protagonist's plan to paint 500 watercolors in 20 years and have each turned into a 750-piece puzzle) but also various meticulous porjects, like 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 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 drawing room. 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 and postcards. 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.
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 money? 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 Mr Altamont. 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 grandfather. 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 moved abroad. 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 is false. 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 cook Gertrude, 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 Vera Beaumont. 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 Altamonts. 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 mansions. 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 life. 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 Crespi. 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 Gratiolet's great-grandfather. 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 their accounts, 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.

Copyright © 2015 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of Use
(Translation by/ Tradotto da xxx)

Se sei interessato a tradurre questo testo, contattami