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.


Anonymous said...

I loved this sentence of yours: "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." as that is exactly how I feel regarding this book.

I love that you named your cat Calvino; I have Cosmicomics waiting for me on my shelf, the first I'll read of him, and hopefully I can pick up Invisible Cities, too.

I love how you were more involved with the puzzles in the novel than I; The Gold Bug Variations makes me think of Bach's Goldberg Variations, again a puzzle of sorts as the music replicates itself and intertwines with us...

It's been so nice to meet you through this reading experience. Perhaps one of the best benefits of reading it altogether is the interactions I've enjoyed with you, Richard and the others.

Emily said...

I didn't even recognize Clavdia Chauchat! And I loved The Magic Mountain; well spotted. That story about the kitchen cracked me up.

Your view of the narrative pattern as cyclical and life-affirming is so positive - I must admit my impression was a bit more "this is an exercise in futility," especially re: Bartlebooth's self-imposed return of his puzzle-paintings to their virginal state. But on the other hand, the net effect certainly doesn't end up being zero, even leaving aside his failure to complete the project, since he influences so many other lives in the building. Pretty fascinating stuff!

Isabella K said...

Dolcebellezza: I'm glad to have met you too! This has been a great, interesting group of people to read with.

Emily: The positivity hit me on page 428 — it's Carel van Loorens who says "Non frustra vixi" ("I have not lived in vain), and if he doesn't think so...

(And that's the page this book asserts itself as a novel, in my opinion, not just a series of vignettes.)

As pointless and/or tragic as some of the stories come across, the characters don't seem to see themselves that way. It's just life! Bartlebooth's project may seem meaningless to an outsider, but he devised it for himself, specifically to put some order and meaning into his life. It's not the destination, it's the journey, blah, blah.

(Like the couple who spice up their sex life through robbing their friends and peers. It's not like they need the money, it's the thrill. People do all sorts of crazy things for crazy reasons.)

Umm, ya, I don't know where I was going with this. The narratives we make of our lives, I guess, are very different depending on whether you're on the inside of them or on the outside.

Sarah (tuulenhaiven) said...

Love that last sentence in your comment above. That seems like something Perec was definitely showing, and it's so cool how he would touch upon an individuals life from the outside at some points, and from the inside at others, revealing a great deal more about the person, etc.

Richard said...

Isabella, so glad you could join us for the Perec shared read and equally glad that you enjoyed it so! I thought Perec was amazing at conveying the joys of life even amid all its hardships--part of what made the ending all the more meaningful for me. Anyway, you've given me a lot of food for thought with these Perec posts of thanks, my très cool cyber friend! À bientôt!

Isabella K said...

Sarah: Part of me thinks Perec is commenting on how (not very) well we know our neighbours — how well can we know anyone/anything at all, we can only come to people via their outer trappings, and in a sense maybe that's all there is — but if that was at all his intention, he does so entirely without moralizing.

Richard, mon ami: Je me demande what Perec would make of this très cool cyber-age, the hyperinterconnectedness of people and things.