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Sassy, foul-mouthed and very entertaining!

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Zazie in the Metro by Raymond Queneau
Translated by Barbara Wright

When I read Raymond Queneau’s “The Sunday of Life” for the 1951 Club, I had several commenters tell me how good his book “Zazie in the Metro” was; and as I already had a copy on my shelves, I determined that I should read it soon – and look! I have! 🙂

Published in 1959, “Zazie” is the book Queneau is best known for; this may be because it was made into a very successful film, or perhaps it was just published at the right time to hit the zeitgeist. Whatever it was, it’s certainly an entertaining and enjoyable read and definitely deserves its status.

The titular Zazie is a young girl who’s farmed out to her uncle Gabriel in Paris for a couple of days while her mother goes off in pursuit of a lover. Zazie’s age is never specified and we never really get a full description; however, as she’s constantly perceived as a potential target for sex maniacs, I did wonder if perhaps she was meant to be slightly older than the actress who portrayed her in the film, Catherine Demongeot.

Zazie has one great desire in Paris, which is to ride on the Metro. Alas, this is closed as the staff are on strike, so instead Zazie takes off on a series of madcap chases round the city, hotly pursued by her rather odd uncle (who has a job as a cross-dressing performer in a gay nightclub), a series of women who seem to be interested in her uncle, a tour guide, a parrot with a fairly limited range of words and a ‘chap’ who may be a policeman, pervert, a detective or something more sinister indeed…

The ending is riotously surreal with mayhem and murder breaking out all over the place, but things return to a status quo of sorts, and the slightly dream-like feeling that comes over at the end did make me wonder if everything which took place was not meant to be as real as it first appeared.

The whole manic story is told in a wonderful kind of vernacular, with phonetics and puns abounding. It’s wildly funny, kind of like an old-style screwball comedy but set in a more modern Paris and with plenty of bad language and innuendo. Zazie is a lovable, if foul-mouthed youngster, and we learn more about her from her reactions and interactions with other characters than we do from any kind of character building by the author. In fact, looking back on the book, that’s one of the cleverest things about it. Queneau doesn’t go in for big descriptions of the various protagonists; instead, he builds them up from their actions and what the other characters say about them. Simple things, like the fact that Zazie’s enigmatic aunt Marceline always says things ‘gently’, tell you all you need to know about them.

As with “Sunday” however I think there’s definitely more to the book than meets the eye. Gabriel is prone to deeper thought, and at one point muses (with a no doubt deliberate little nod to Sartre):

Being or nothingness, that is the question. Ascending, descending, coming, going, a man does so much that in the end he disappears. A taxi bears him off, a metro carries him away, the Tower doesn’t care, nor the Pantheon. Paris is but a dream, Gabriel is but a reverie (a charming one), Zazie the dream of a reverie (or of a nightmare) and all this story the dream of a dream, the reverie of a reverie, scarcely more than the typewritten delirium of an idiotic novelist (oh! sorry).

I suspect there are many, many linguistic tricks and in-jokes that I’m missing, and I ended the book thinking that I really want to read it again but with a mindset of appreciating the language more instead of relishing the fantastic and entertaining action. Regardless of that, Zazie is a wonderful romp, a joy to read and a certain indication that I should definitely read more of Raymond Queneau’s work!

(Kudos have to go to translator Barbara Wright again for rendering such sparkling and clever wordplay – what a wonderfully talented woman!)

Word Games from a Master of the Genre

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Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

I’ve been circling Raymond Queneau’s books for a while – in fact, I own several, and given my love of Calvino and Perec and literary wordplay it’s not surprising I should want to read him. And at last I have, though not any of the volumes I already had… In my defence, I was placing a Christmas order somewhere unmentionable which I had to get over ÂŁ10 – so it figures I should treat myself to something and it turned out to be “Exercises in Style”.

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Apart from “Zazie in the Metro”, this is probably the book that Queneau is best known for. Born in 1903, he’s possibly something of a missing link between the Surrealists and OuLiPo, as he briefly flirted with the former organisation before going his own way – never really agreeing with their politics or their views on art. In simple terms, they favoured an *anything goes* approach, whereas Queneau believed that structure and restrictions brought liberation as you were free to create within that structure.

“Exercises in Style” is quite fascinating. It takes a simple premise – a short paragraph relating a man on a packed bus accusing another passenger of jostling him, throwing himself down in an empty seat and then later on having a conversation with a friend about moving a button on his coat. Queneau then proceeds to retell the story in 98 different styles – the same actions, but each story is completely different because of the stylistic devices, ranging from Retrograde (understandable) through Reported Speech (very clever!) to Aphaeresis (unintelligible!).

As the exercises continue, there are subtle developments; the jostling becomes stepping on toes; extra characters(like a Dr. Queuneau  in Reported Speech) and an unnamed observer, put in appearances. This is storytelling as an organic form and each different retelling makes you look at the incident in a different light.

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If you described this book to someone, it might well sound dull, but it certainly isn’t. It’s a revelation as a reader to see how much we’re manipulated by the style and the word games adopted by an author. A simple incident has a totally different complexion depending on the way the author writes it. The book is a game, playing with words, but with a serious intent: telling us not to trust words, to be aware of this and look behind the words in each case to try to find the truth.

The book is issued by one of my favourite publishes, Alma, and so of course there is plenty of extra material. The foreword is by Umberto Eco, and there is an excellent little essay by another OuLiPo member, Italo Calvino, which throws light on Queneau’s career and work. Special praise needs to be given to translator Barbara Wright, too. When translating a book like this, so dependent on wordplay, the work becomes very much case of interpretation as well as translation. In some cases Wright created an English language version of the particular exercise, which was approved by Queneau – a wonderful case of writer and translator working together, and she deserves kudos for what she did with this!

“Exercises in Style” made me smile, laugh and think, which is a pretty good result really! And I shall definitely be exploring more of Queneau’s work. 🙂

More Library Love – and a little bit of wickedness…….

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Yes, the local library has come up trumps again – following the arrival of several British Library Crime Classics, another has appeared, along with a novel by Raymond Queneau (an OuLiPo member like Perec), and here they are:

Mavis Doriel Hay’s “Murder Underground” is actually her first crime novel, so I’m reading them out of order – but no matter. Queneau is best known for “Zazie dans le Metro” – but we’ll got onto that later…

…because, of course, I have been having a bit of a turn out of books, and have literally got rid of hundreds from the house. Some have gone to charity shops, some to a local school (from the collections of the Offspring mainly) and some are on Read It Swap It. However, OH had a bit of a shock when several parcels arrived this week containing these:

They are, from top to bottom, Q’s “Cambridge Lectures”, “Ten Tales Tall and True” by Alasdair Gray, “Zazie in the Metro”, “Japanese Pilgrimage” and “Japanese Inn” by Oliver Statler, “The Virago Book of Love Letters” and “Tales of Suspense” by Poe. So this is where the wickedness comes from, because I’m supposed to be ridding myself of books, not amassing more!

However, in my defence several came from RISI, so it was a case of one out, one in for those. The few I bought weren’t readily available in the library and so if I want to read them I have no choice!

And finally today a little review copy arrived via the very wonderful Overlook Press – another Gaito Gazdanov book!

Gazdanov is one of my favourite newly discovered authors so I’m very excited about this! Off to see how quickly I can get through my current read, “Lanark” by Alasdair Gray, so I can get onto the others…. 🙂

 

…. in which Perec plays more word games…

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I told you I got book obsessions, didn’t I?? And so here is more about Perec. I felt the need to read more of his work after “Species of Space” and this little volume had arrived at the same time:

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So, what’s it about and what’s so special? Well, this is what it says on the back:

art back(Sorry for the lopsided scan)

And that’s no word of a lie. There are no full stops and no capitalisation and the only punctuation I think was dashes. You’d think that 84 pages of that would be hard to read, but amazingly it isn’t – Perec’s brilliantly constructed the rhythm of the book so that it reads easily! It’s like a kind of flow chart with options translated into text and it’s clever and also very, very funny! So the poor man being advised has to contend with all the possibilities that might come up on such a chart (is it Friday? Yes. Is it in Lent? No. Has your boss swallowed a fish bone? etc etc) and goes round and round in circles like you can on these things, as your life ticks away.

I shan’t say any more about this except that it’s utterly brilliant, Perec was a genius and this is one of the funniest things I’ve read in a long time. ‘Nuff said!

Oulipo and Word Games – reading Species of Space and Other Pieces by Georges Perec

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There’s something about having a literary crush (and goodness knows I’ve had enough in my time!) that makes it hard for me to write rationally about an author or explain why I think they’re so wonderful – and I’m at that point with Georges Perec’s works at the moment! Instead of being able to discuss things in a sane manner I shall go all fangirl and rant on about how utterly brilliant his books are and how everyone should read them – which is really not constructive, is it??

However, I shall do my best….
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In retrospect I’m surprised I came across Perec so late, as he seems so closely linked with Calvino (one of my biggest author loves). Nevertheless, I adored “Life: A User’s Manual” and I’ve since read “W” which was also pretty impressive. “Species of Space” is a collection of mainly non-fiction works (the title piece plus excerpts from others) and in many ways these defy classification. Perec turns his eye to all manner of subjects, from space itself to a collection of holiday postcard texts to a list of what he had eaten throughout a whole year, lists of objects on his work desk and thoughts about how to classify books in your library.

This is such a fascinating book, with so many quirky unusual pieces, all in Perec’s trademark tone. Several pieces prefigure other works such as “Life” and “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris”, and they all have the effect of making the reader look at things with fresh eyes as if from the outside or for the first time. We’ve all had that experience where if you look at a word for long enough it becomes strange and loses its meaning; in the same way, Perec is urging us to look at things until they are no longer familiar, until we lost a little of our grip on reality and the world becomes odd.

As with “W” Perec’s work seems very much informed by his past and it definitely helps to know some of the facts of his life, ably provided in the introduction by his biographer (and translator of this selection) David Bellos. Perec has a way of circling round the facts and approaching them obliquely, which may be his way of trying to deal with things when it is too painful to do so head on.

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This is fiction and reminiscence as classification;  Perec’s day job for a large part of his life working as an archivist in a science laboratory and its often reflected in the structure of his work and the way in which he presents his writing. It could of course be argued that this is his way of trying to exert control over a life which was blighted by trauma and loss, a way of trying to classify his life so it makes sense. And there is the sense that from the very act of classification comes clarity, as if it teaches us to *really* look at things, really see them.

I was thinking how much his narrative voice reminded me of my beloved Calvino, when lo and behold Perec dropped a quote in from Italo’s “Cosmicomics” – synchronicity or what! In fact, the presence of Calvino permeates the book; apart from two parts that refer to or quote his works, “Two Hundred and Forty Three Postcards in Real Colour” is dedicated to him, and there is a quote from him on the back of the book.

There is much that is moving here, in particular the section “The Rue Vilin” where Perec makes several visits back to the street where he spent the first five years of his life. Each time, more has changed and more decay is evident – it’s as if he’s trying to gain a sense of place, to grasp hold of the memories before the tangible evidence is gone. This work sent me off to the Internet, looking up the street, and I found several astonishing things: firstly, the steps at the end of street are really iconic and have featured in a number of French films (see here). Secondly, the place no longer exists (which was quite shocking) and is now a modern park….. But thirdly, there is film of Perec visiting the Rue Vilin and then being interviewed here – I only wish my French was better….

The Rue Vilin Steps

The Rue Vilin Steps

“My spaces are fragile: time is going to wear them away, to destroy them. Nothing will any longer resemble what was, my memories will betray me, oblivion will infiltrate my memory. I shall look at a few old yellowing photographs with broken edges without recognising them.”

I’ve always liked ‘clever’ writers – ones who play with words, twist the genre, taking writing somewhere unexpected. And I love Perec’s playfulness and his profundity; and the fact that reading his work makes you look at the world completely differently. He’s definitely going to be one of my favourite writers for a long time to come.

Recent Reads: W of The memory of Childhood by Georges Perec

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Well, this book was the second purchase in Foyles during my recent trip to London, and it was actually difficult to choose what Perec to read next. Having loved his “Life: A User’s Manual”, I didn’t want to leave it too long before picking up another of his works – his words and images are rather haunting me at the moment, so much so that I felt the urge to do a jigsaw and picked up a nice one of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square! But that’s by the by – the book is what matters!

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However, I’m actually finding it hard to approach writing about “W” for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a hard book to classify – fiction? autobiography? a strange fantastic blend of both? It was in the fiction section of Foyles, and Vintage have stated quite clearly on the back cover “Fiction”. Yet, anyone with a small smattering of knowledge about Perec’s life will know enough to realise that one section of the book is certainly autobiographical. Secondly, the subject matter is quite intense and painful in places, bringing forth quite an emotional reaction – it takes a little while to assimilate then mentally deal with this work.

“W” has alternating chapters of two stories – the first consists of fragments of memories, recollection of events from Perec’s youth and childhood that he attempts to piece together; including some which were actually written in his youth. The second story, the italicised chapters of the book, tells the tale of one Gaspard Winkler (a name Perec used for one of the main characters in “Life”). Winkler provides a brief autobiography, in which he tells how he was orphaned, grew up, joined the army, deserted and escaped to Germany. Here, he is tracked down by a strange man, and it transpires that he has taken his identity from a shipwrecked boy called Gaspard Winkler. The boy is believed to be alive, and the impersonator is sent to search the islands off Tierro del Fuego to look for him.

The book is split into two parts, and in the second part, the italicised chapters tell of the island of W (which should be correctly rendered as double-vie in French, i.e. it can be read as ‘double life’ which kind of gives you a handle on how to read the book). The island’s hierarchy and way of life is entirely based on the Olympian ideal of sport. Initially, this seems to be some kind of utopian place, but as the story develops and more is revealed, it becomes clear that W is really not a nice place to live. Perec states that he invented the story of W in his youth, but it is unclear whether what we read here is the original or an expanded version – Perec is good at blurring lines.

Parallel to the W story, Perec continues with his memoirs of his youth – being sent away by his mother to live with a variety of aunts and attend local schools. His father died unnecessarily of a war wound and after his mother sent him away, he never saw her again. Perec is left with a handful of photos, a mixture of fragmented memories and a sense of loss. As the two strands of the book progress, it becomes clear that if/when Perec wrote about W as a youth, it was an analogy. W is anything but a paradise, it is simply an allegory for the concentration camps in which his mother lost her life, and the horrors it reveals are quite chilling. The reality of living under the Nazi regime is shown quite clearly and the hopelessness of those in the camps is staggering:

“There are competitions every day, where you Win or Lose. You have to fight to live. There is no alternative. It is not possibly to close your eyes to it, it is not possible to say no. There’s no recourse, no mercy, no salvation to be had from anyone. There’s not even any hope that time will sort things out … wherever you turn your eyes, that’s what you will see, you will not see anything else, and that is the only thing that will turn out to be true.”

Perec states early on:

“I have no childhood memories. I was excused: a different history, History with a capital H, had answered the questions in my stead: the war, the camps.”

In many ways that’s understandable, because as an evacuee, in effect a refugee from the Germans, he was very likely in denial about much that had happened to him. But I do feel that Perec is commenting on the quality of memory in general. I’m often suspicious of detailed autobiography, because I know from personal experience that it’s very difficult to remember your life. You retain fragments, images, feelings – but not a clear narrative of  your own existence. You don’t really have time to do that as you’re too busy living!!

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The autobiographical section is infused with sadness, loss and the confusions that children often feel, not understanding what is going on around them and why. And the human mind blanks out things which are painful, which it can’t deal with. The horrors revealed on the island of W, as its story unfolds, are the evils endured in the camps – random favouritism, cruelty, unfairness, inequality, brutality, the use of women as breeding machines and everything else that existed under the Nazi regime. By the end of the book it is quite clear that the two strands of the tale are related, with Perec trying to rationalise the events around him by creating the island of W.

“The Law is implacable, but the Law is unpredictable.. The Law must be known by all, but the Law cannot be known. Between those who live under its swat and those who pronounce it stands an insurmountable barrier.”

I am sure that, as with “Life”, I will get more from this book on a re-read. Thinking back on it, it’s still a hard book to mentally classify. “W” is a chilling story and one which bleakly reveals the evil of the concentration camps. It seems to me that perhaps the unusual structure is due to the fact Perec can only tell this story obliquely because of the implicit horrors it contains – if he looked at his past head-on, it would be too much to deal with. This is a stark book and one that will stay with me; and despite only having read two of his books, Perec is well on his way to becoming one of my favourite writers.

Recent reads – Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec

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Despite being a long-term reader and lover of Italo Calvino’s books, it was only relatively recently that I discovered the existence of the OULIPO group, and then one of their best-known proponents, Georges Perec. OULIPO is described by Wikipedia thus: “(short for French: Ouvroir de littĂ©rature potentielle; roughly translated: “workshop of potential literature”) is a loose gathering of (mainly) French-speaking writers and mathematicians which seeks to create works using constrained writing techniques. It was founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. Other notable members have included novelists Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, poets Oskar Pastior, Jean Lescure and poet/mathematician Jacques Roubaud.”

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Of Perec, Wikipedia says simply “Georges Perec (7 March 1936 – 3 March 1982) was a French novelist, filmmaker, documentalist and essayist. He was a member of the Oulipo group.” That bald statement doesn’t give a hint of his complexity as a novelist, and his most notorious book might well be “A Void” which avoids the use of any word containing the letter ‘e’! However, I was fortunate to pick up the chunky volume that is “Life: A User’s Manual” in the local Oxfam charity shop last year, and suddenly the time was right to read it. I confess I was a little intimidated, and I still don’t know quite how to do it justice, but here goes…

Of “Life”, Wikipedia neatly sums it up so: “Life A User’s Manual (the original title is La Vie mode d’emploi) is Georges Perec’s most famous novel, published in 1978, first translated into English by David Bellos in 1987. 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. La Vie mode d’emploi is a tapestry of interwoven stories and ideas as well as literary and historical allusions, based on the lives of the inhabitants of a fictitious Parisian apartment block, 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier (no such street exists, although the quadrangle Perec claims Simon-Crubellier cuts through does exist in Paris XVII). It was written according to a complex plan of writing constraints, and is primarily constructed from several elements, each adding a layer of complexity.”

Knowledge of the writing constraints did make me a little nervous about reading the book, but they really aren’t a problem. The volume is divided up into 6 sections, each with numerous chapters, and each chapter bears the title of the apartment it’s ostensibly about (e.g. Moreau 1, On the Stairs 3). So if you’re unsure of what you read earlier about that particular person or place, it’s easy enough to check the chapter titles and go back to the previous one. And as if acknowledging the complexity of his novel, Perec provides a helpful index at the back of the people and places, real and imaginary, who haunt the book, plus a chronology and a diagram of the house with its occupants (past and present) marked.

“Life” appears random initially, moving from one apartment to another, relating something about the occupants, or the furnitures, or the pictures, or the books, or anything in the room(s). And the sequence is not obviously logical (and is apparently based on a famous chess board sequence of moves, which Perec used to decide the order in which he would visit the apartments). So we initially move from apartment to apartment, being introduced to a variety of characters – their current status is related in present tense, but Perec uses any excuse to go off at a tangent, telling of their past history, or the history of the apartment, or the story behind a book or a painting. It’s a remarkably rich narrative, very readable, and surprisingly enjoyable. And as you progress through the book, you gradually build up a picture of the various occupants and their lives – as of course they are interrelated – and gain and overall picture of the building and the  people.

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Central to the book is the character Bartlebooth and his quest for order. One of the recurring motifs of the book is jigsaw puzzles – in fact, the introduction muses on them in detail – and Bartlebooth has taken it upon himself to spend his life producing a series of paintings, having them turned into jigsaws and then completing the puzzle before returning the picture to its original state. His motivation for this is stated clearly:

“Let us imagine a man whose wealth was equalled only by his indifference to what wealth generally brings, a man of exceptional arrogance who wishes to fix, to describe and to exhaust not the whole world – merely to state such an ambition is enough to invalidate it – but a constituted fragment of the world: in the fact of the inextricable incoherence of things, he will set out to execute a (necessarily limited) programme right the way through, in all its irreducible intact entirety.

In other words, Bartlebooth resolved one day that his whole life would be organised around a single project, an arbitrarily constrained programme with no purpose outside its own completion.”

His life’s work involves other characters who are housed in the building, and much of the life of the place is interlinked. Of course, it is easy to start seeing metaphors everywhere here, with this emphasis on puzzles: the obvious one being that life is a puzzle and that there is some cosmic puzzle maker in charge somewhere. As Perec acknowledges:

“… despite appearances, puzzling is not a solitary game: every move the puzzler makes, the puzzle-maker has made before; every piece the puzzler picks up, and picks up again, and studies and strokes, every combination he tries, and tries and second time, every blunder and every insight, each hope and each discouragement have all been designed, calculated, and decided by the other.”

Bartlebooth finds that, however much he tries to impose order, life has a way of throwing up unforeseen obstacles which hamper his plan; and if his ultimate quest is for understanding it will fail – we cannot understand the puzzle of life. His journey may be an attempt to impose order on a chaotic world but he (and we) will find that life is *not* a puzzle that can be controlled or solved.

Bartlebooth is the lynchpin that holds the whole structure of the story together, but there is a dazzling array of fellow players: Valene, the painter who taught Bartlebooth his craft; Smautf, Bartlebooth’s loyal servant; Gaspard Winckler, the puzzle maker; Madame de Beaumont, the widow of an Egyptologist; Dr. Dinteville, a GP who is a frustrated  academic; the Bergers, a hard-working couple; the Altamonts, an estranged couple with a sad past; and so on. These are just a few of the occupants of the building; I could list many, many, more but you would be better off reading the book!  All of the rich variety of human beings, some of whom make substantial contributions to the plot and some only fleeting appearances, are memorable and compelling. There are stories of murder, lies and deception, love and loss; and throughout there is an underlying sadness to many of the tales.

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This really is a remarkable book. Perec is nothing if not playful; about halfway through the book he contrives to provide a list of characters in one of Valene’s paintings and as you read through you realise that these are in fact all the characters in the book – and what an intensely detailed list that is. Then it strikes you that some of the characters aren’t entirely familiar and realisation dawns in the next chapter, when Perec cheekily introduces one of those characters for the first time!

And then there are the cultural references… LAUM is stuffed to the gills with them: detailed descriptions of paintings or illustrations; historical figures; musical works; books and literary characters. I didn’t always *get* the references, but I did some of them, and in the end I don’t feel it entirely matters. A book like this is blurring the lines between reality and fiction anyway, and this all adds to the intense richness of the narrative. As an online source says: “Through stories both ordinary and fantastic, Perec explores issues of class relations, romantic love, urban development, and spatial memory… Life is a masterpiece whether or not one is aware of the rules of the game”  which I found myself agreeing with entirely. I know that I will have missed many allusions but that didn’t in any way spoil the reading experience for me. I marvelled at Perec’s skill in weaving together complex and kaleidoscopic multiple narratives into a coherent whole. He gradually lays bare the occupants’ lives, past and present, capturing them all at one fixed point in time, when a particular event has taken place. He brilliantly uses this device to tell not only their stories, but myriad other ones, creasing a huge and complex story which shows human existence in its many and varied forms. “Life” is incredibly wide-ranging, both physically (the characters cover the globe) and philosophically (all shades of opinion and  thought seem to be covered). The stories vary from farcical to tragic, and I came out of the book feeling that the answer to the meaning of life is that there is none – so you might as well just try to enjoy yourself.

I was going to say that this was like nothing else I’d ever read before, but that isn’t quite true. I kept getting little hints of things that made me think of Italo Calvino, a fellow member of OULIPO and another master of complex and varied narratives. Both were amazingly skilled at telling tales, subverting the reader and producing brilliantly written books. At the end of the day, it seems to me (with my limited knowledge of OUILIPO!) that they are all about storytelling – both Calvino and Perec love to play with stories, twisting the reader’s expectations but always supplying delights. I was absolutely knocked out by “Life” and it’s sent me off to raid the local library to have a look at some more Perec. And if I’ve learned anything from reading this book, it’s not to be intimidated – however ‘difficult’ a book might appear, it probably isn’t because at the end of the day the author wants to communicate with you – and Perec certainly does here! I suspect “Life: A User’s Manual” will be haunting my thoughts for some time to come.

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