Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Things that are driving me crazy in the user's manual for life

Users' manuals are hard to write. (I know — I've edited translations of some.) Their point is to clearly and simply describe (not necessarily explain) an often complicated and technical process. The more complex the process, the bigger the challenge to present the material unambiguously.

It's not unusual in, say, telephony manuals, to stumble across apparently contradictory instructions or passages of unclear agency.

So it comes as no surprise that in a manual concerning itself with the process of life as it coalesces at 11 rue Simon-Crubellier there should be a few trouble spots.

I'm a little over halfway through Georges Perec's Life A User's Manual, and I've identified 4 things that are driving me crazy.

1. The preamble is repeated in chapter 44. It would be reasonable to assume that these paragraphs were singled out after the fact (Or perhaps they were written first. The passage does after all fairly succinctly pin down the point of the whole book.). The only difference between these passages is that the preamble gives one more diagrammatic example in each of the categories of jigsaw puzzle pieces, and the diagrams are very slightly different. Why, why are these different? If the preamble and chapter 44 are the same, why not let them be the same?

2. I'm a bit put out by the lack of symmetry. The fifty-first chapter is special. Note that it is not "chapter fifty-one," in keeping with how the other chapters are labeled; it's "the fifty-first chapter." It is the kernel. Perec has painted himself into Valènes's room; the self-referential painting itemizes the book's contents. The rest of the novel serves only to flesh out what's listed here. However, it is not the precise physical center of the book (unless it is so by page count? but I can't imagine this holding across translations). In a book of 99 chapters, chapter 50 is the middle one. If we include the missing chapter for the ghost cellar (see below), chapter 51 still would not be the centre, but merely would begin the second half. (Why am I so stuck on this chapter, that it necessarily should be physically, structurally central as well as meaningfully?)

3. Perec's knight's tour — the route by which he leads us through the apartment block — is faulty. Was it a mistake he noticed too far along in the process which he never bothered to rectify? I can't believe it went unnoticed! Was it deliberate? It must be deliberate, but why? What happens between chapters 65 and 66? What makes their relationship unique in this building? (I'm not quite there yet. Hopefully I'll be reading these tonight.) Why does Perec skip over the bottom left cellar, which would've satisfied the knightly condition?

4. All the hexagons! What's with all the hexagons?! There are hexagonal red tiles (page 20); a low table, made of a pane of smoked glass set on a polyhedron of hexagonal cross-section (28); hexagonal vignettes (94); glazed red hexagonal tiles (120); glazed ochre-yellow hexagonal tiles (152); a hexagonal fireplace (191); small brownish hexagonal tiles (191); a hexagonal quartz brooch (219). Hmm, perhaps there aren't as many hexagons as I'd thought. (Maybe I missed some? Why'd I think there were so many?) Actually, there's a lot of geometry: circles, trapezoids, spheres, diamonds, squares, cubes, pyramids, rectangles, lozenges, cylinders, octagons, chevrons, kidney shapes. (And colours!) But for some reason the hexagons stand out for me. Perhaps emphasized by the bees, beeswax, honeycomb. Perhaps I've lived in too many apartments with hexagon-tiled bathrooms.

The precision of detail (falsely?) leads one to believe there is significance in it.

(Borges's "Library of Babel" consists of an endless expanse of interlocking hexagonal rooms. The "Crimson Hexagon" contains a perfect catalog of the libray. The fifty-first chapter is Life's crimson hexagon.)


Emily said...

I'm not quite as far along as you, Isabella, but from what I've gathered of Perec's sense of humor, I'm betting he would insert those obscure asymmetries just to get the goats of readers obsessive enough to be paying that much attention! And I count myself among that number, so I'm not calling you names. :-)

I really need to block out some daytime reading for this book. I keep trying to read it at bedtime, and falling down the rabbit-hole of interconnected quirks.

Richard said...

My Perec reading was sidetracked by Monsieurs Bolaño and Proust halfway through chapter 58, Isabella, so I'm not sure I even want to hazard a guess about these puzzles until I get back on track. Love what Emily suggests above, though. As far as the knight's tour and the significance of the fifty-first chapter, I think Perec hints at the reason for the anomaly in an interview somewhere (cited on one of my posts earlier in the month) but uses a page reference to an earlier edition of Life than the one most of us are using. And so the plot thickens! Very interesting post, young lady!!!

Isabella K said...

Emily, I'm sure you're right. Perec is a prankster.

I know what you mean about bedtime reading. I read at night, and then spend my morning coffee trying to remember and make sense of it. Two steps forward, one step back.

Richard, I noted some of your links to look more closely at them later. For now, I'm plowing ahead, noting what I can, hoping I can make everything come together in the end.

I'm not even reading anything else (working on a jigsaw puzzle though!), just sidetracked by the arrival of spring.

Julia said...

Fascinating post, Isabella. On your second point, here's something to add to the confusion. Something (I don't know what came over me) made me list the chapter titles and then count the number of times each was used. An example: "On the Stairs" headed 12 chapters. I added up the numbers and they came out to 100! In other words, there should have been 100 chapters. If some other obsessive-compulsive repeats this exercise and finds my math error, I'll be grateful. In the meantime, I seem to recall a blogger, I think it was Richard, quoting Perec's explanation for why there was not a 100th chapter; something about a little girl in the middle of the book, she was the reason for it all. Unfortunately, I've returned my inter-library-loan copy to the library and won't have the fun this week of looking for these things myself.

You mention the hexagons; how about them parallelepipeds?

Isabella K said...

Yes, Julia, there was something about a girl! I'll investigate further when I finish reading the book. And I suspect I'll be counting chapters...

Anonymous said...

You are farther than I, but I look forward to furthering the discussion when I have completed the novel and have something insightful to say. God willing... ;)

It has to be one of the most imaginative, fanciful, creative works I've read in a long, long time, and I'm putting the pieces together slowly as I go.

David Auerbach said...

In case you never did resolve the question regarding the little girl and the leap from chapter 65 to 66, the answer is here: