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Exploring Life A User: The Stories, Characters, and References of Georges Perec's Novel

Life A User: A Novel by Georges Perec

Life A User (the original title is La Vie mode d'emploi) is a novel by French writer Georges Perec, published in 1978. It is widely regarded as one of the most innovative and influential works of postmodern fiction, as well as one of Perec's most ambitious and complex creations. In this article, we will explore what makes this novel so unique and fascinating, by examining its structure, characters, stories, meaning, and significance.

Life A User


What is Life A User about? The novel is a collection of stories and descriptions based on the lives of the inhabitants of a fictitious apartment block in Paris, located at 11 rue Simon-Crubellier. The novel covers a single moment in time, 8:00 p.m. on June 23, 1975, but also spans decades of history and geography, as it reveals the past and present of each character and room. The novel is also a puzzle, a game, a challenge, and a tribute to literature and art, as it contains numerous references, allusions, constraints, and surprises that invite the reader to participate in its creation and interpretation.

Who is Georges Perec and what is his style? Georges Perec (1936-1982) was a French novelist, essayist, poet, filmmaker, and member of Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle), a group of writers and mathematicians who experimented with formal constraints and combinatorial techniques in literature. Perec was known for his playful and inventive use of language, his exploration of diverse genres and forms, his fascination with puzzles and games, his obsession with lists and catalogues, his attention to detail and trivia, his humor and irony, his engagement with contemporary culture and society, and his personal and historical themes. Some of his other famous works include Les Choses (Things), W ou le souvenir d'enfance (W or The Memory of Childhood), La Disparition (A Void), Les Revenentes (The Exeter Text), Un cabinet d'amateur (An Art Gallery), Espèces d'espaces (Species of Spaces), Je me souviens (I Remember), among others.

Why is Life A User considered a masterpiece of postmodern fiction? Postmodern fiction is a term that refers to a variety of literary works that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century, characterized by their rejection of traditional conventions and expectations of realism, their experimentation with narrative techniques and structures, their self-referentiality and metafictionality, their intertextuality and parody, their fragmentation and multiplicity, their ambiguity and indeterminacy, their irony and skepticism. Life A User exemplifies many of these features, as it challenges the reader's assumptions and expectations, as it mixes and matches different genres and modes of writing, as it comments on its own creation and meaning, as it borrows and transforms elements from other texts and sources, as it breaks and reassembles the unity and coherence of the novel, as it questions and undermines the notions of truth and reality, as it plays with and subverts the conventions and rules of literature.

The Structure of the Novel

How is Life A User organized and divided? The novel consists of 99 chapters, each corresponding to one of the 100 rooms in the apartment block (one room is inaccessible). The chapters are arranged in a non-linear order, following a knight's tour, a chess problem that consists of visiting each square of a chessboard exactly once with a knight. The chapters are also divided into 10 parts, each corresponding to one of the 10 floors of the building. Each part begins with a list of the rooms that will be visited in that part, followed by a preamble that introduces some of the characters and themes that will be developed in that part. Each chapter begins with a description of the room and its contents, followed by one or more stories related to the room or its inhabitants. Each chapter ends with a reference to another chapter or room, creating a network of connections and transitions throughout the novel.

What are the constraints and rules that Perec followed in writing the novel? Perec was inspired by the principles and methods of Oulipo, especially by Raymond Queneau's Cent mille milliards de poèmes (Hundred Thousand Billion Poems), a collection of 10 sonnets that can be combined in 10^14 different ways by changing the order of the lines. Perec applied a similar combinatorial logic to his novel, using various grids, lists, tables, diagrams, algorithms, and patterns to generate and organize his material. For example, he used a 10x10 Graeco-Latin square, a mathematical structure that consists of two sets of 10 elements arranged in such a way that no element appears twice in the same row or column. He assigned one set to the rooms (each room has a letter from A to J) and another set to the chapters (each chapter has a number from 1 to 10). He also assigned each chapter a list of 42 elements, such as colors, animals, materials, occupations, countries, etc., that had to appear in that chapter. He also used a list of 21 functions or actions, such as dying, killing, inheriting, traveling, etc., that had to occur in each part. He also used a list of literary genres and styles, such as biography, detective story, fairy tale, etc., that had to be used in each chapter. He also used various constraints on language, such as lipograms (avoiding certain letters), palindromes (words or sentences that read the same backwards and forwards), anagrams (words that are formed by rearranging the letters of other words), etc.

How does Life A User use different genres and modes of writing? Life A User is a novel that contains many other novels within it. It is also a novel that imitates and parodies many other novels and genres. It is a novel that celebrates and criticizes the diversity and richness of literature. Perec used different genres and modes of writing to create contrast and variety, to evoke different moods and effects, to pay homage and tribute, to challenge and subvert. Some of the genres and modes of writing that he used include: realism, fantasy, science fiction, horror, romance, adventure, mystery, comedy, tragedy, satire, parody, pastiche, allegory, symbolism, metafiction, etc.

The Characters and Stories of the Novel

Who are the main characters and what are their roles? Life A User has hundreds of characters, some more prominent than others, some appearing only briefly or indirectly, some fictional, some historical, some based on real people. Some of the main characters include:

  • Bartlebooth: an eccentric English millionaire who devises a plan to spend his life painting watercolors of different ports around the world, then turning them into jigsaw puzzles, then dissolving them back into blank paper. He is the central figure of the novel, the one who connects most of the other characters and stories.

  • Winckler: a craftsman who makes jigsaw puzzles for Bartlebooth. He is also an artist who creates intricate and elaborate machines and contraptions. He is Bartlebooth's antagonist, the one who tries to sabotage his plan and make his puzzles unsolvable.

Valène: a painter who lives in the apartment block and teaches Bartlebooth how to paint. He is also working on a 71b2f0854b


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