Chapter 26 of Part 1 of ‘Life: A User’s Manual’ by Georges Perec, translated by David Bellos

The second is an extract from a long book, therefore not a self-contained traditional short story. It is Chapter 26 of Part 1 of Georges Perec’s La Vie mode d’emploi. Slyly, Perec gives his book the subtitle ‘romans’, which should mean ‘novels’; but the narration of the lives (or episodes from the lives) of the many inhabitants of a single Parisian block of flats approximates to a series of short stories, though the same characters can come round more than once, forming a kind of syncopated short story for each.

Bartlebooth, an Englishman, has his own short story. Chapter 26 opens with a description of the ‘anti-chamber’ of Bartlebooth’s apartment, followed by short descriptions of the three servants who await his orders there. Then there is a little labyrinth motif in the text, followed by an exposition of how Bartlebooth spends his life. Bartlebooth employs an artist neighbour, Valène, to teach him the art of water-colour painting. It transpires that the former’s life-plan is to achieve perfection in a restricted sphere: to ‘seize, describe, plumb’ a portion of the world by means of painting marine landscapes – all the same size and at a fixed rate of production over twenty years. He sends them back to a craftsman, Winckler, who lived (past tense because he is dead by chapter 26) in the same building. (The protagonist of the whole book is in one sense the building itself.) Winckler was tasked with turning the paintings into puzzles of 750 pieces each, which Bartlebooth on his return was to spend the next twenty years reassembling – at the same fixed rate. The pictures would then be returned each to its original site of production and plunged into a solvent to remove the paint, leaving a virgin piece of Whatman (what [is] man?) paper.

This project results from Bartlebooth’s answer to his own question as to what he wanted to do with his life, which is “Nothing”. The saving grace of this grim attempt to control time, space and action in the service of nihilism is that, at the end of the whole book, Bartlebooth is found dead in his chair in his apartment, with a last piece of (the last?) puzzle in his hand. The space in the almost completed puzzle is that of an X: but the piece in the dead man’s hand is W-shaped. (W for Perec signifies his lost childhood.) Lethal perfectionism foiled! Turning back to the first chapter, on Winckler’s death long ago, we remember that Winckler had planned a “longue vengeance” . . . Clearly, Bartlebooth is the direct descendant of . . . 

First published by Hachette, 1978. Translated  by David Bellos as Life A User’s Manual, Harvill Press, 1987, rprt. Harper-Collins, 1992, and Vintage, 1996

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