Georges Perec provokes

Seeking a Question for tomorrow night’s Convivium, and being these days much engaged with books and with the computer keyboard, I let Serendipity take its well-known course and picked up a book that I had bought some years ago and read perhaps a third of. Always meant to get back to it:

Georges Perec Life A User’s Manual (1978 in French; 2009 in English).

Says the Amazon blurb:

One of the great novels of the century… From the confessions of a racing cyclist to the plans of an avenging murderer, from a young ethnographer obsessed with a Sumatran tribe to the death of a trapeze artist, Life is stories connected by a single moment in time (8:00 p.m. on June 23, 1975) in an apartment block in the XVIIth arrondissement of Paris. Chapter by chapter, room by room, an extraordinary rich cast of characters is revealed in a series of tales that are bizarre, unlikely, moving, funny, or (sometimes) quite ordinary. The apartment block’s one hundred rooms are arranged in a magic square, and the book, too, contains a staggering range of literary puzzles and allusions, acrostics, problems of chess and logic, crosswords, and mathematical formula. All for the reader to solve.

So I opened it to the Preamble and found this:

To begin with, the art of jigsaw puzzles seems of little substance, easily exhausted, wholly dealt with by a basic introduction to Gestalt: the perceived object – we may be dealing with a perceptual act, the acquisition of a skill, a physiological system, or, as in the present case, a wooden jigsaw puzzle – is not a sum of elements to be distinguished from each another and analysed discretely, but a pattern, that is to say a form, a structure: the element’s existence does not precede the existence of the whole, it comes neither before nor after it, for the parts do not determine the pattern, but the pattern determines the parts: knowledge of the pattern and of its laws, of the set and its structure, could not possibly be derived from discrete knowledge of the elements that compose it. That means you can look at a piece of a puzzle for three whole days, you can believe you know about its colouring and shape, and be no further on than when you stated. The only thing that counts is the ability to link this piece to other pieces, and in that sense the art of the jigsaw puzzle has something in common with the art of . The pieces are readable, take on a sense, only when assembled; in isolation, a puzzle piece means nothing – just an impossible question, an opaque challenge…

Well. A delicious manifold of connections to elements of the life around me at present (word books, jigsaw puzzles, knotty this-and-that) . If you are familiar with Perec (1936-1982), it may be via his 300-page novel La disparition (1969), “a lipogram, written with natural sentence structure and correct grammar, but using only words that do not contain the letter ‘e’. It has been translated into English by Gilbert Adair under the title A Void (1994). His novella Les revenentes (1972) is a complementary univocalic piece in which the letter ‘e’ is the only vowel used.” (Wikipedia). He was a member of Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), q. absolutely v.

Idly flipping the pages of Life, I landed quite by accident (koff koff) here:

Each of Winckler’s puzzles was a new, unique, and irreplaceable adventure for Bartlebooth. Each time, when he broke the seal that locked Madame Hourcade’s black box and spread out on his tablecloth, under the shadowless light of his scialytic lamp, the seven hundred and fifty little pieces of wood that his watercolour had become, it seemed to him that all the experience he had accumulated over five or ten or fifteen years would be of no use, but this time, like every other time, he would have to deal with difficulties he could not even begin to guess at.

That led me on a delicious and delightful chase, largely via Google, to fill in the backstory: who is/was the puzzle maker Gaspard Winckler? Percival Bartlebooth? …and pieces from NY Times (Paul Auster’s “Bartlebooth Follies”), The Guardian, Review 31, and London Review of Books supplied all the knowledge I lacked…

I’m still working on what the Question is in all of this, or which of the many Questions I think would be most fruitful to pose to the Convivium.

Here’s a summary, levered somewhat fuzzily out of a Google Books result, for those who want desperately to know some of the answers to questions above:



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