Life: A User's Manual

Life: A User's Manual (the original title is La Vie mode d'emploi) is Georges Perec's most famous novel, published in 1978, but first translated into English by David Bellos in 1988. Its title page describes it as "novels", in the plural, the reasons for which become apparent on reading. Some critics have cited the work as an example of postmodern fiction, though Perec himself preferred to avoid labels and his only long term affiliation with any movement was with the Oulipo or OUvroir de LIttérature POtentielle.

La Vie mode d'emploi is an immensely complex and rich work; a tapestry of interwoven stories and ideas and literary and historical allusions. It was written according to a complex plan of writing constraints, and is primarily constructed from several elements, each adding a layer of complexity:




...the plan should not have to do with an exploit or record, it would be neither a peak to scale nor an ocean floor to reach ... [it] would not be heroic, or spectacular; it would be something simple and discreet, difficult of course but not impossibly so, controlled from start to finish and conversely controlling every detail of the life of the man engaged upon it.

This is a story imagined by Perec when working on a large jigsaw puzzle, and is briefly this: a tremendously wealthy Englishman, Bartlebooth, devises a plan that will both occupy the remainder of his life and spend his entire fortune. First, he spends 10 years learning to paint watercolours. Then, he embarks on a 20-year trip around the world, painting a watercolour of a different port every two weeks. Each painting is sent back to France, where the paper is glued to a support board, and a craftsman cuts it into a jigsaw puzzle. Upon his return, Bartlebooth spends his time solving each jigsaw, re-creating the scene. Each finished puzzle is treated to re-bind the paper, the wooden support is removed, and the painting is sent to the port where it was painted. Exactly 20 years to the day that it was painted, the painting is placed in the seawater until the colours dissolve, and the paper, blank except for the faint marks where it was cut and re-joined, is returned to Bartlebooth. Ultimately, there would be nothing to show for 50 years of work: the project would leave absolutely no mark on the world.

The story is gradually revealed as the book progresses.

Apartment block

One of Perec's long-standing projects was the description of a Parisian apartment block, as it could be seen if the entire facade would be removed, exposing every room. Perec was obsessed with lists: such a description would be exhaustive down to the last detail.

The Knight's Tour

A Knight's Tour as a means of generating a novel was a long-standing idea of the Oulipo group. Perec devises the elevation of the building as a 10×10 grid: 10 storeys, including basements and attics and 10 rooms across, including 2 for the stairwell. Each room is assigned to a chapter, and the order of the chapters is given by the knight's moves on the grid.

The Constraints

These elements come together with Perec's constraints for the book (in keeping with Oulipo objectives): he created a complex system which would generate for each chapter a list of items, references or objects which that chapter should then contain or allude to. He described this system as a "machine for inspiring stories".

There are 42 lists of 10 objects each, gathered into 10 groups of 4 with the last two lists a special "Couples" list. Some examples:

  • number of people involved
  • length of the chapter in pages
  • an activity
  • a position of the body
  • emotions
  • an animal
  • reading material
  • countries
  • 2 lists of novelists, from whom a literary quotations is required
  • "Couples", eg "Pride and Prejudice, Laurel and Hardy.

The way in which these apply to each chapter is governed by an array called a Graeco-Latin square. The lists are considered in pairs, and each pair is governed by one cell of the array, which guarantees that every combination of elements is encountered. For instance, the items in the couples list are seen once with their natural partner (in which case Perec gives an explicit reference), and once with every other element (where he is free to be cryptic). In the 1780s, the great mathematician Leonard Euler had conjectured that a 10×10 Graeco-Latin square could not exist and it was not until 1959 that one was actually constructed, refuting Euler.

To further complicate matters, the 38th and 39th list are named "Missing" and "False" and each list comprises the numbers 1 to 10. The number these lists give for each chapter indicates one of the 10 groups of 4 lists, and folds the system back on itself: one of the elements must be omitted, and one must be false in some way (an opposite, for example). Things become tricky when the Missing and False numbers refer to group 10, which includes the Missing and False lists.

The novel

The entire block is primarily presented frozen in time, on June 23, 1975 just before 8pm, moments after the death of Bartlebooth. Nonetheless, the constraints system creates hundreds of separate stories encountered in the different rooms, concerning inhabitants of the block past and present and the other people in their lives. The story of Bartlebooth is the principal thread, but it interlinks with many others, for example his love for Marguerite Winkler, the wife of the jigsaw-puzzle maker, for which (he believes), Winkler is punishing him with puzzles of increasing complexity.

Bartlebooth's failing sight and the fiendishness of the puzzles increasingly steer his plan off course. Furthermore, several collectors of unique or eccentric artifacts choose his paintings as targets to acquire, and he is forced to change his plans and have the watercolours burned in a furnace locally instead of couriered back to the sea, for fear of those involved in the task being bribed. At the moment of his death, only one piece of the 439th puzzle remains unplaced: the gap in the laid out puzzle is in the shape of an X. But the piece that remains in the fingers of the dead man, in a final twisting irony, has the shape of a W.

Another key thread is the painter Serge Valene's final project. Bartlebooth hires him as a tutor before embarking on his tour of the world, and buys him a flat in the block. He is one of several painters who have lived in the block over the century. He plans to paint the entire apartment block, seen in elevation with the facade removed, showing all the occupants and the details of their lives: Valene, a character in the novel seeks to create a representation of the novel as a painting. Chapter 51, falling in the centre of the book lists all of Valene's ideas, and in the process picks out the key stories seen so far and yet to come.

Both Bartlebooth and Valene fail in their projects: this is a recurring theme in many of the stories.


While the book can be read linearly, from start to finish, it can be just as enjoyable to dip in and out of: for this purpose, an appendix section contains a chronology of events starting at 1833, a 70-page index, a list of the 100 or so main stories, and a plan of the elevation of the block as the 10x10 grid. The index lists many of the people, places and works of art mentioned in the book:

  • real, such as Mozart
  • fictitious, such as Jules Verne's character Captain Nemo
  • internally real, such as Bartlebooth himself
  • internally fictitious: the characters in a story written by a schoolboy, for instance

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