Saturday, May 29, 2010

No one's gonna take me alive

Reading "The Duchess of Medina Sidonia's Story," which gives way to "The Marqués de Val Florida's Story," told along with "Hermosito's Story," as related within "The Gypsy Chief's Story," over the course of the twenty-seventh through twenty-ninth days of the adventures recounted in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan Potocki.

Listening to "Knights of Cydonia," as told by Muse.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Because I am a girl

Why I love this campaign from Plan Canada...

Because Helena shushes me every time it plays on TV (a lot, again, lately). Because she is rapt by it. Because she waits for the end of it — "It only takes one girl to change the world. Are you the one?" — so she can declaim "Yes!" to anyone within earshot.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What you may find in Saragossa

She opened the door and we found ourselves in underground vaults, beyond which was what looked like a silver lake, but was actually a lake of quicksilver. The princess clapped her hands, and a boat propelled by a yellow dwarf appeared. We stepped into the boat, and I saw that the dwarf's face was of gold, with diamond eyes and a coral mouth. In other words it was an automaton who rowed through the quicksilver with his little oars and skilfully made the boat skim along. This novel pilot took us to the foot of a rock whch opened up to allow us to pass into another chamber, in which there was the amazing spectacle of countless other automata: peacocks spreading enamel tails which were studded with jewels, parrots with emeralds for plumage flying above our heads, negroes made of ebony proffering golden platters laden with ruby cherries and sapphire grapes. There were numerous other astonishing objects in these magical vaults which stretched further than the eye could see.

At that moment I was unaccountably tempted to repeat the word "paradise" to see what effect it would have on the princess. I yielded to this fatal curiosity and said, "Signora, one can truthfully say that you are living in paradise on earth."

The princess smiled in the most charming manner and said, "So that you can better judge the delights of this place, I shall introduce to you my six ladies-in-waiting."

She took a golden key from her belt and opened a huge chest which was covered in black velvet and decorated with solid silver.

When the chest was opened, a skeleton appeared, who came towards me in a menacing way. I drew my sword. The skeleton ripped off its left arm and, using it as a weapon, launched a furious attack on me. I put up a good fight, but a second skeleton emerged from the chest, tore a rib off the first skeleton and hit me over the head with it. I grabbed it by the throat but it clasped me in its fleshless arms and tried to throw me to the ground. I managed to get clear of it, but a third skeleton emerged from the trunk to join the other two. Then the other three appeared. Seeing no chance of coming away alive from so unequal a combat, I fell to my knees and begged the princess to spare me.

The princess ordered the skeletons to return to the chest, then said, "Romati, never forget as long as you live what you have seen here."

As she said this she grasped my arm. I felt it burn to the bone and I fainted.

— from The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan Potocki.

It was written around 1800 in French by a Polish nobleman, but wasn't published in its entirety during his lifetime.

It's a novel of frames. Kind of like Arabian Nights, with a touch of Don Quixote about it (for its adventuring and metaphysical aspects), and maybe even Perec's Life A User's Manual (not sure exactly why — some of the flavour has seeped from one reading to the other), only more macabre. Loving it!

Saturday, May 22, 2010


I'm reviewing Sunflower, by Gyula Krúdy, as part of the Spotlight Series tour featuring New York Review Books. Visit the Spotlight Series tour page for links to dozens of reviews of fantastic NYRB Classics. See also the interview with their managing editor.


"Let crazy life rush headlong on the highway for others; we shall contemplate the sunflowers, watch them sprout, blossom, fade away. Yesterday they were still giants, but now, in autumn, they are thatch on the roof."

Sunflower, by Gyula Krúdy, is a remarkable book featuring some deeply weird prose.

Mostly it's about the love affairs of a handful of characters living in and around Budapest in the early 20th century.

Eveline, the 22-year-old woman who flees the city for her house in the country, to escape thoughts of her former fiancé; Kálmán, said lover, who is gambling her money way; Álmos-Dreamer, a 40-year-old bachelor country aristocrat who pines for Eveline and is quite literally wasting away with romantic longing; Malvina Maszkerádi, a friend staying with Eveline, who outwardly appears modern and worldly, but who fears engaging in life — her ideal love is an ancient, calmly virile tree, to whom no man can compare; Pistoli, patron of village Gypsies, whose three former wives ended up in the madhouse, now determinedly wooing Miss Maszkerádi, much to her consternation.

We encounter their lovers, former lovers, the lovers of their former lovers, their ancestors, their ancestors' lovers, ghosts, and fortunetellers.

There's not much by way of plot speak of. The narrative shifts focus often and with such intensity that it seems unlikely to return to a character once it's moved on, but we do achieve a sense of resolution regarding those people we come to care about.

Sunflower reminds me of the Russians: the lush tone with which Turgenev paints his scenes, the portraits of aristocrats (in particular I'm thinking of Dostoevsky's wry touch in The Gambler), and Tolstoy, well, I'll get to that.

Beyond all the romantic intrigues, Sunflower is about the meaning of life and death. Krúdy sets out to tackle the issue of "Why bother to set out in life when it was over so soon?"

There are sufficient tales told throughout the novel to show that death in itself should prove no obstacle to achieving romantic (or sexual) fulfillment. While Eveline in her confused state of mind clings to life's sidelines, Kálmán grabs life by the balls (with mixed results), Álmos-Dreamer straddles both sides of death's divide (proving its inconsequence), and Miss Maszkerádi is paralyzed by some combination of fear, boredom, pointlessness.

"I can't resign myself to the fact that I live in order to die some day. I'd love to step off this well-trodden straight and boring path. To somehow live differently, think different thoughts, feel different feelings than others. It wouldn't bother me to be as alone as a tree on the plains. My leaves would be like no other tree's. [...] (p 88)"

While Sunflower often flirts with morbidity, it is deeply fecund and organic.

There's an episode that stands out as the heart of the book, to my mind, serving much the same function as does Natasha's dance in War and Peace. In this sense: the scene doesn't really match the rest of the book and yet seems to be the book's whole reason for being. Natasha's dance sings her Russianness, the Russianness of all of them, peasant, servant, or aristocrat, whether a traditionalist or someone with modern views, it strips that all away to allow something organic to manifest itself. And here in Sunflower is this Gypsy serenade, unacceptable to the Miss Maszkerádi's urban attitude, her sense of social decorum, clashing with her modern views. Mr Pistoli, a rustic bon vivant, breaks down her defenses, with music, wine, words. And Miss Maszkerádi rises to his bait, gives herself over to it, which gives way to revelry, each of them playing a trickster while fully enchanted, for a few hours at least. It's a lovely scene, full of erotic potential, where something gypsy and Hungarian and human is being realized. Sadly, the moment passes.

The comparison of Gyula Krúdy to Bruno Schulz is a valid one (at least, what I've read of Schulz), both in subject somewhat preternatural and how the language feeds the senses.

Krúdy's language is dense with images and, it seems to me, secret meanings — that is, it manages to create an aura of the surreal, the otherwordly, and the erotic, without contrivance. The opening pages have the feel of a gothic romance, but this mood rather quickly congeals into something much thicker, pervading the very air these characters breathe, often in a disconcertingly creepy way.

How quickly some images (at first even banal) can take a sinister turn. For example: "Miss Maszkerádi's steely-glinting eyes appeared as serene as an idol's or a maniac's. (p 89)" Or (my favourite sentence of the book): "Meanwhile Risoulette stood in the door, bewildered, like a woman who has spilled kerosene on her skirt but cannot find a match. (p 138)"

Many pastoral scenes meander in and out of dark crevices.

But cock's crow signals the arrival of those never-glimpsed vagabonds who stand stock still under your window in the dead of night, with murder in their hears, guilt and terror in their eyes. Come morning, they regain their original shapes and turn into solitary trees at crossroads or hat-waving, curly-haired young travelers with small knapsacks and large staffs, humming a merry tune and marching bright-eyed toward distant lands to bring glad tidings, fun and games, new songs and youthful flaring passions to small houses that somnolently await them. There they sit down at the kitchen table, earn their dinner by telling glorious tall tales, help pour the wine, chop the wood, nab the fattened pig by the ear; they also repair the grandfather clock that had not chimed in forty years and leave in the middle of the night, taking along the young miss's heart as well as her innocence. How enviably cheerful the lives of these vagabonds who pass your house at cock's crow after a night of sleeplessness . . . As if their knee-deep pockets contained some seed they drop in front of the window, to sprout into a yellow-crowned sunflower; no sooner are they gone than it is already tall enough to peek through the window pane. While, inside, the young lady of the house is already fast asleep, like Aladdin in the enchanted cave. (p 15)

The sunflower, of course, turns to follow the sun, turns toward life. We are the sunflower at the window, gazing in. Eveline watches the sunflowers, while being one much of the time herself, rooted in her place and rotating to seek out a life source outside of herself. By autumn, she comes to bask.

Sunflower is a wonderful but demanding novel. It serves as the perfect bridge between 19th-century Russians and 20th-century surrealists. If you give yourself over to it, it is magical and profound.

  • Excerpt

  • Review: Los Angeles Times

  • The Babel Guide to Hungarian Literature

  • HunLit: Multi-lingual Literature Database of the Hungarian Book Foundation — Gyula Krúdy page

  • UNESCO Literature & Translation: Napraforgó (Sunflower)

  • Hungarian Literature Online: the goddess in Sunflower

  • Hungarian Literature Online: interview with John Bakti

  • "Woman as Goddess in Krúdy's Sunflower," by John Bakti

  • A note on the cover
    The cover image comes from a photograph by Witkacy, a turn-of-the-century Polish playwright, painter, drug-experimenter, philosopher... all-round artist extraordinaire... you get the idea. The photo is of Jadwiga Janczewska, his fiancée, who committed suicide (he himself committed suicide many years later). I'm not sure what about the cover I want to say, really, apart from that it feels connected and appropriate that Witkacy's work would appear in connection with Sunflower. I've seen some of his plays as well as movies based on his work; he had a strange and strong sense of Polishness, which might be considered parallel to Krúdy's Hungarianness, and an absurdist (and quite possibly morbid) sensibility. He and his work both were pretty fucked up for their time. Witkacy also championed the work of Bruno Schulz, to whom Krúdy is compared. Somehow, this cover fits.


    I've previously written about the following NYRB Classics:
  • The Invention of Morel, Adolfo Bioy Casares

  • Clandestine in Chile, Gabriel García Márquez.

  • My Fantoms, Théophile Gautier

  • Uncle, JP Martin

  • Uncle Cleans Up, JP Martin

  • Letty Fox: Her Luck, Christina Stead

  • Chess Story, Stefan Zweig

  • Et cetera
  • Thursday, May 20, 2010

    Marking my place

    I acquired a lovely set of bookmarks at the start of the year, one for every month of the year, each with a (detachable) calendar of that month.

    At first, how convenient, I thought. On my morning commute without any effort at all I was being reminded what day it was. (Yes, this is a good thing because, yes, I need reminding.)

    This worked particlarly well in January. The bookmark was dedicated to one book in particular — the book of the month — and it was useful to track the days while I was on vacation.

    February's bookmark is still encased in Memories of the Future. Every time I pick this book up, I feel like I'm travelling in time.

    March, April, May have been shifting. They've occupied several books, often at the same time. I no longer no what day it is.

    I think it's time I detached the calendars, freed myself from time constraints. My place in a book must remain outside time.

    The future of the book

    Some three weeks ago (more! what day is this, anyway?) I headed out to the 12th Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival to attend a panel discussion: "The Future of the Book."

    (It's the only event I attended this year; there was no author in particular that I was clammering to see, but I feel obliged to experience the benefits of great cultural events taking place near me, no matter how much I'd rather nap.)

    On the panel: Yvonne Hunter, director of publicity and marketing at Penguin (Canada); Kim McArthur, publisher and president of McArthur & Company; and Andrew Piper, prof at McGill, author of Dreaming in Books: The Making of the Bibliographic Imagination in the Romantic Age, and blogger.

    The discussion was moderated by Paul Kennedy, wearing a Habs jersey.

    I was going to report on this panel discussion immediately after the fact, and then I wasn't going to bother, and now I am, because of an overwhelming sense of confusion. That is, I came out of that talk a bit confused, the discussion had a vague and shifting focus, and the panelists themselves didn't seem very certain about anything. Now that it's sat with me for a few weeks, I see that this muddleheadedness is really the point, evidencing the confusion of the industry as a whole.

    I'm sure that's not news to a lot of people. Me neither. But it's one thing to read about the industry here and there, the uncertain financial futures of independent booksellers and publishers, that reading is on the decline, the problems associated with digital rights management, etc; quite another to be in a room with industry professionals and see them shrugging their shoulders and shaking their heads.

    So, this is me, not really reporting on anything at all, just saying, "Aurgh."

    The state of things today is that boundaries are being knocked down, between writers and readers, between publishers and distributors. There's consensus among the publishers that they're losing the middle — you're left with big-money authors and weird little niche markets; the rest is dross.

    Briefly they discuss the potential for technology to change the reading experience, particularly for children, where it can be an enhanced learning experience, and also for encyclopedia-type reference books. (Great! But then they're not books anymore.)

    Of course, no one believes that books will ever be driven to extinction; although in some ways, they are being transformed into something like fetish objects. (I think the word "fetish" is taken by some people in the audience (as evidenced by their comments) to be something stronger, weirder, and more offensive than it ought to be. Everybody seems kind of scared by this.

    Here's something I hadn't thought of: Ebooks can't be remaindered (the whole concept of which, I learn, was introduced during the Great Depression). Too bad for me and my bargain-bin hunting ways, but I'd've thought the industry would love that. Did you know it's normal to expect 50% returns on Maeve Binchy titles?

    (None of the publishers who send me review copies is equipped to send review copies as ebooks.)

    The "plan" then is to feed all those profits from your bestsellers back into the editorial process; if you don't need printing and warehousing and distribution, the savings will better serve the author–editor relationship. The role of the publisher can now morph into that of nurturing young talent. (Which is what I always thought it was supposed to be, that that's what the bestsellers afforded them to do; I'm not sure how digital changes this.)

    (But this is kind of contrary to the kind of anecdote I regularly read, that editorial input is below expectation, and copyediting often nonexistent. I really don't think they know what they're talking about.)

    I sat in a room of well over 100 people, most of them older than me, most of them gasping at the revelations of the Orwellian-like capabilities of Amazon to get inside your Kindle and track your every movement. Clearly they all like books, panel included; in fact, the panel were quite nostalgic about the physical book, about how you take them to bed and to the beach, and I was really surprised at all their trepidation.

    My sense of it is this: They are too easily confusing content with form. They are feeding into each other's romantic nostalgia for physical books. In their defense of physical books, they are fetishizing them, and trying to preserve a market while resisting a brave new one. (I must say, the Penguin rep seems genuinely concerned with ensuring authors get a fair shake out of the deal). There's a weird emotional blockage at work that's preventing everyone from seeing clearly and getting on with business.

    I'm not really sure what I want to say here. Sorry for not being coherent, but neither is the future.

    Vaguely related matters
    Five different reading devices, championed by five different readers.
    Some answers to some common complaints.
    The future of reading at the PEN World Voices Festival.
    Amazon tracks Kindle habits.
    Kobo also tracks how you read.

    Wednesday, May 12, 2010

    The creaking of the deathwatch beetle

    Eveline's insomnia proved to be of long duration.

    If you are sleepless in the big city you may gain some consolation from street noises that tell you there are others who find no relief in the night. But in the village the midnight hours can drive you to distraction, their slow passage as sluggish as the creaking of the deathwatch beetle. You may well imagine yourself a portrait of an antique ancestor hanging on the wall, whose wide-open eyes must contemplate one generation after another. The years whiz by with the wind and the rain, the rumbling storms, the migrating birds, the unctuous words of the priest and the mourners' bent heads by the open grave, stallions collapsing in a heap and fine old watchdogs laid low to rest, serving maids who were once young and fair, and tumbledown fences, desolate wishing wells and overgrown gardens... One after another, the years whoosh by. Only the insomniac looks on with open eyes, like a cadaver who forgot to die. A fine dust descends from the moldering ceiling to cover everything: bright faces and haymaking hips, merry neighbors, springtime smiles, flashing white teeth. Transience squats by the foot of the bed like a moribund, faithful old servitor. And the hand reaches less often for the thirst-quenching goblet.

    At last the roosters began to crow.

    — from Sunflower, by Gyula Krúdy.

    I will be posting about Sunflower on May 22 as part of the Spotlight Series tour for New York Review Books Classics — a whole week featuring reviews of those sexy NYRB books!

    Monday, May 10, 2010

    The future is now

    I'd decided to treat myself to an ereader as soon as the Kobo became available in black. I've read all about it, know the specs, etc, but some purchases I want to turn over in my hands before I buy. So this weekend I tried one out in-store.

    The Kobo is bigger and lighter than I expected it to be. Page-turning was a little slow, but I hear that's typical of all devices using eInk technology. I went around in circles, navigation-wise, for a bit, but that circle is limited, and though it was taking longer than I wanted to figure things out, I'm sure I would've done so eventually. I left the store determined to have one; if I couldn't convince anyone to get me one for Mother's Day, I would pick one up for myself on Monday.

    As it happens, I hardly had time to sing its praises at home before I had in my hands an altogether different ereader (because allegedly, I'm the best mom ever).

    The Sony Reader Touch Edition is about twice the price, and I'm not entirely convinced I'm worth it. Undeniably, however, the look and feel of the Kobo is cheap by comparison. The Sony has more weight to it (kind of a negative), but this heft also confers solidity. I can imagine the Kobo being easily cracked, and the buttons not registering your intended actions. The Sony is a quality piece of hardware. (And the eInk seemed to move faster on the Sony in my own home than in-store and under sales pressure.)

    Getting started
    The Kobo comes preloaded with 100 books, which had had me excited — with it, I could get started straight away. On the other hand, those books are public domain — presumably I could track down and download those public domain titles I'd actually be interested in reading to any ereader I pleased.

    (Has the meme propagated yet? What are the 100 books preloaded to the Kobo? How many have you read and how many do you actually intend to someday read? Now I'm kind of curious to know what they are.)

    The Sony reader wasn't quite ready to use starting out of the box. First you have to charge it up. Then you have to find something to read.

    This reader comes loaded up with about a dozen samples: 5 are in a Germanic language I can't read, and there are 2 fantastic classic novels in French (both of which I've already read (I even read half of one of them in French)). The English samples are all excerpts. I was surprised to find one of these is a selection of 10 recipes, 3 of which I'm eager to try out.

    A few hours later I've added to my library some Dickens, some Dumas, PG Wodehouse, and Agatha Christie. None of these are top of list, but they're all books I mean to get around to someday. Also, I find on my hard drive a PDF of Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness. Onto the ereader it goes. (Since added: George Gissing, on Susan's recommendation.)

    Things to get excited about
    The Sony has going for it the ability to take notes. I always figured e-marginalia would be a natural offshoot of this kind of technology, but I'd convinced myself wasn't really necessary. How often do I make notes in books? Not very. But I do add a lot of sticky notes with stars and arrows (mostly as bookmarks). So it is comforting to have the option of extending these habits into the future.

    Also a plus: the built-in dictionary. How often do I look up words in the dictionary while reading? Not very. But, I feel that I should (a recent exercise in annotation mde me realize that I understand many words in context but much less precisely than I should). And now I can! Very, very easily! I'm looking forward to putting this to the test when I'm reading the new China Miéville this summer (though, there's a good chance a lot of his words won't be in the dictionary). Ehh, I'm sure I'll use it with Dickens too.

    Some frustrating quirks
    Regarding the reader itself, at this early stage, I have little to complain about. I hate that alphabetical by author means by first name, and I appear to be losing this battle against the technological world. But, oh, I hate that a lot.

    Regarding the whole business of ereading, well...

    I downloaded a PDF (Agatha Christie) only to find it included only the book's odd-numbered pages; all the even-numbered pages were (mostly — except for the occasional oddly placed scrap block of text) blank.

    The public domain files are often hit or miss. Many of the ePub books are obviously produced using OCR. One sample (GK Chesterton) was evidently not proofread; headers (the book and chapter titles) and footers (paper page numbers) would appear mid e-page, often interrupting a sentence.

    And! Why can't I get (I mean buy, from a store) any JD Salinger stories?

    At the end of the day
    I went to bed, finally, with a real hardcover book though, because it was the book I happened to be in the middle of. Not because of its format. Format is lost behind a good book. I'd gladly read it electronically if it were at the ready (but now, I wasn't going to buy an ecopy, when I already had paper in front of me).

    I've purchased one ebook (The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan Potocki) and am considering a few more. I think it's a bit funny that my hi-tech reading device is being used to supply me with literature that's old. I feel like I should be using it to read science fiction.

    One publisher has already advised me that they do not (cannot?) supply review copies (in Canada) in an electronic format. Not yet anyway.

    I'm definitely hoping that the move to the ereader will help me reclaim some wall space, or at least not endanger any more, but the effect will not be immediate. I have two print books ordered a week ago winging their way to me, review copies will continue, and then there are those darn sexy, irresistible NYRB classics.

    Do you have an ereader? If so, do you read more print or electronic books? Do you find you choose to read certain types of books in one format or another? Where do you like to get your ebooks from? Do you find your ereader lacking in any particular respect? Do you use your ereader one-handed or two-handed? Do you carry it with you everywhere?

    Sunday, May 09, 2010


    I recently read an uncorrected proof of a newly (or soon-to-be) released NYRB classic, Clandestine in Chile, by Gabriel García Márquez, which I'd received as a part of prize pack. The proof contains only García Márquez's brief introductory comments, with a preface by Francisco Goldman still to come, which means I came to this story pretty cold and uninformed.

    Previous to reading this book, I had never heard of Miguel Littín. He's a film director, and a Chilean in exile (due to chaotic circumstances following the coup that ousted Allende in 1973).

    This is the story of Littín's return to Chile in 1985, under a false name and disguised as a Uruguayan businessman (an elaborate covert operation effected by the Chilean resistance), to film a documentary about life under Pinochet.

    (Don't you love the cover? The placement of that title square is genius!)

    "This may not have been the most heroic action of my life, but it is the most worthwhile," Littín told García Márquez. This report is assembled from 18 hours of interviews and retold as a first-person narrative.

    Littín has some trouble finding the unhappiness he'd assumed would be so rampant under dictatorship. Misery is not always directly related to physical circumstances. Littín finds it people's restrained gestures, their pace, their lowered gaze.

    I went off alone to a restaurant on the heights of the city that Ely and I used to frequent when we were courting. The place was the same, tables out under the elms, a profusion of flowers, but it seemed to have stopped being. There was nobody there. I had to complain to get waited on. Even then, I waited nearly an hour before my order of grilled meat arrived. I was finishing my meal when a couple came in whom I had not seen since Ely and I were regular customers there. Ernesto and Elvira, proprietors of a gloomy little shop a few blocks away that dealt in engravings and medallions of saints, rosaries and reliquaries, funerary decorations. They were an irreverent and fun-loving pair, and we had enjoyed staying late with them on Saturdays in good weather, drinking wine and playing cards. Seeing them enter now, holding hands just as before, I was surprised by their loyalty to the restaurant after all the changes in Chile and I was struck by how much they had aged. It was a mirror in which I suddenly saw an image of my own old age. Had they recognized me they would undoubtedly have stared at me with the same stupefaction, but I was protected by my Uruguayan mask. They were eating at a nearby table and talking in loud tones but without their usual intensity. Occasionally they would look over at me without curiosity, without the slightest inkling that we had once enjoyed each other's company at the same table. It wasn't until that moment that I realized how long and devastating the years of exile had been. Not just for those of us who left — as I had thought until then — but also for the ones who stayed.

    An unexpected dimension is the role of the youth in Littín's view of Pinochet's Chile. Their political fervour is lacking; the youth cannot remember life under democracy.

    This report was first published in Spanish in 1986. Some 15,000 copies of this report were burned in central Chile, on orders from Pinochet.

    At just over a 100 pages, it's a quick read, and a pretty interesting one; however, I do think it's reads better as a piece of reportage. There's not much of a voice in it; the writing is far from great, repetitive at times, and García Márquez is nowhere in evidence. This makes the story sound drier than perhaps it ought to, but what's key is to recognize the truth in it. This really happened! And that's what makes it an intriguing story.

    Review: New York Times.

    Sunday, May 02, 2010

    La Vie est belle

    Non frustra vixi.

    Life A User's Manual (Georges Perec) is so, so much the book I wish I would write.

    I love how difficult it was to find the space to read the final 30 pages this weekend, between kicking the ball around the schoolyard, buying fresh-cut tulips, getting caught in the rain, waiting for news of the hospitalized 90-year-old grandfather-in-law, walking some more for the hell of it with nowhere to go, laundering, cooking some surprisingly delicious lemon-dill chicken, playing a videogame, planting up some pots on the balcony, going for ice cream, and drinking chardonnay; reading fills some odd spaces.

    I love how summer is so quickly upon us and how our courtyard is brimming with fresh but familiar noises: the couple with the new, strangely quiet baby; the couple who have been using their air conditioner all week long, even the day it snowed; the girl hoisting her bicycle up the fire escape to the third floor; the pigeons roosting; the man smoking on his balcony describing what it's like to watch the hockey game with his father, who's visiting from France and has never seen a game in his life, and the Habs won; the woman shaking out a tablecloth; the couple having a romantic candlelight dinner on their balcony; the drunkards spilling out from the bar on the corner; the trio for flute, violin, and cello; the couple who never speak to each other except to give each other orders, which they duly follow.

    And for me, this book is now very much connected with this sense of interconnectedness, this melding of all our lives, and there's joy in it.

    I love how it makes me miss my cat, the one I named Calvino. I see his younger self on Perec's shoulder, and his namesake is frequently mentioned alongside Perec in various commentaries.

    I love the sense of eternal return. Everything is undone: the puzzles, but also indexing systems, construction plans, careers, families, kitchens, and good deeds (for example, the tale of the green beans). Apartments filled and emptied. All the stuff that comes and goes. Really, a beautiful, life-affirming thing. Out of chaos, order, and back again.

    (Was Valène's painting undone? Or was it stalled in a state of potential?)

    I love the allusions to the game of go. On the third-floor landing are seven marble lozenges laid out in the ko position (page 530), a kind of infinite deadlock. It's a game of territory, defined by what surrounds it. Positions are best shown in relief. Kind of like jigsaw puzzle pieces.

    (The Gold Bug Variations: she watches the two men puzzle together at the cabin, one of them searching the board to find a fit for the piece in his hand, the other searching the table to find the piece that fits a chosen spot. Which puzzler are you?)

    My favourite story within this novel is the tale of the woman who made the devil appear eighty-two times (chapter 65). Because it features the devil, but also because of the sleight of hand involved, within the story itself as well as for its place within the novel. These characters are conspicuously absent from the map of the building (previous residents of Madame Moreau's apartment). This is also the chapter ending with the tin with the picture of the girl eating the petit-beurre (as she eats a "missing" chapter for the skipped chess move, disappearing one of the building's cellars ).

    Frankly, the whole book puts me in mind of the vanishing leprauchaun problem: where's the missing chapter? the missing puzzle piece? how did the puzzle piece change shape?

    I'm itching to annotate this book, but it's a daunting task. (I'll be considering this in the coming weeks; let's see how the book sits with me over more time. I'm toying with the idea of picking up a copy in French; my French is pretty crap, but maybe I'll learn something along the way.)

    If you look hard enough, you'll find other people have done some of the legwork. . .

    Compare Life A User's Manual (p 423):

    . . . and Moriane with its alabaster gates transparent in the sunlight, its coral columns supporting pediments encrusted with serpentine, its villas all of glass, like aquariums where the shadows of dancing girls with silvery scales swim beneath medusa-shaped chandeliers.

    with Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities:

    When you have forded the river, when you have crossed the mountain pass, you suddenly find before you the city of Moriana, its alabaster gates transparent in the sunlight, its coral columns supporting pediments encrusted with serpentine, its villas all of glass like aquariums where the shadows of dancing girls with silvery scales swim beneath the medusa-shaped chandeliers.

    (Which passage actually jumped out at me in all its exquisite beautifulness.)

    As for the amazing couple Cyrille Altamont meets in a pub (page 504), the "thirty-year-old woman with a look that was both Slav and Asiatic at the same time — broad cheekbones, narrow eyes, reddish fair hair plaited and wound around her head" — this is clearly Clawdia Chauchat, and the gentleman is Mynheer Peeperkorn (although I've not yet met him for myself), known to me from Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain (which book I left off at page 425, so I cannot tell if any passage in particular is being more closely referenced).

    If you enjoyed reading Georges Perec's Life A User's Manual, I vehemently urge you to check out The Dodecahedron: Or A Frame for Frames, by Paul Glennon. I recently listed it as a book I feel deserves a wider audience, and previously excerpted a bit here.