I wrote this on May 1, 2012, for a former blog, but I went back and updated it for 2018, but I back dated to 2012 which was the day I wrote the review originally.
Life a User’s Manual by Georges Perec is a very frustrating book. I read this book for a book club I was planning to attend in San Francisco, but something happened and I was not able to go to the book club. If not for the book club, I never would have read this book, because it’s boring right from the start. Still I was determined to attend the book club, so I decided to read the reviews and figure out the main plot points, before reading the book. I hate to do this because it ruins the surprises and the ending. This is a spoiler if you have not read the book, stop here.
Bartlebooth is a wealthy Englishman similar to the protagonist in Around the World in 80 Days. He wants to spend all of his money before he dies and he makes an estimation of how long he shall live. I believe he starts at age From 25 to 35 he will learn to paint watercolors. But, he is a terrible painter whom his teacher master artist, Serge Valène, all but gives up on. Serge Valène is the narrator of the book.
From 35 to 45, he will travel the world painting 500 seascapes. I think they are all seascapes, but I am not sure. These are painting of the sea from the shore of different places all over the world. He will ship the painting back to France where a master craftsman cut them and make them into jigsaw puzzles. From 45 to 65 he will solve the puzzles and then have each one shipped back to the original location where it is too be rubbed out by being dipped into a dissolving solution. Nothing will be left, but the cuts of the jigsaw, which will now be blame. So, his entire life work’s will be erased. Clearly these are the thought of an unsound mind.
However, an art critic/art dealer find out, but late in the game. Most of them have been ruined already, but the dealer wants to save all the ones that are left. He offers to buy them from Bartlebooth who refuses. The dealer will stop at nothing to get his way, as he feels the painting are priceless works of art, which will make him very rich. It is not clear if the art dealer murders the handlers who are supposed to destroy the paintings. Nor is it clear if the art dealer does get this one painting, after the murder. But, maybe the art dealer does get one of the paintings.
Bartlebooth is so upset by the interruption of his plan, he decides to burn the rest of the puzzles/painting after he solves them, to keep them away from the art dealer. Bartlebooth is almost done with all the puzzles, but it takes him longer then thought as he is going blind with old age and he needs to hire helpers to help him solve the puzzles. Bartlebooth dies without finishing all the puzzles, leaving his life’s work ruined.
The story about the character Bartlebooth is very interesting, but there are too many other characters, who are not really important. Some of them one may like to read about and some of them could become interesting if one devotes time to them. The author seems to be having a hoot making these characters humorous in sort of black way. I bought a used paper back copy because the book was not on Kindle at the time when I read it. Life a User’s Manual is now on Kindle at a reasonable price. Its a heavy book to carry around, so I suggest using an electronic book service.
I took out my highlighter and searched to find each mention of the word Bartlebooth and I highlighted them. At the end of book Georges Perec gives timeline as to the places Bartlebooth had traveled over the years. But, there is nothing about these travels included in the book. We don’t get to follow Bartlebooth around on his grand adventures, in the company of only his servant Smautf, rather we stuck inside a hotel or rooming house in which he had taken rooms. Inside we witness different characters being introduced and then discarded.
I would have rather the book started the story of Bartlebooth at the beginning and followed the travels around the world and ended the story at the end, rather than obsessing over the apartment’s rooms and lists. Life a User’s Manual is like reading a grocery or laundry list of an insane person. You really have to work very hard to come to understand the story of Bartlebooth, but it worth doing. Once I understood his story very pleased with it.
The Bartlebooth portion of the book is quite short and could be just a short story that one can read in one hour. I believe the author was being facetious. Some of the characters may have been his personal friends or enemies whom he was mocking or paying homage to by placing them in his novel.
I am aware that he was writing in a style of Oulipo. Oulipo means refinements or constraints are added to the story. However, these are self-imposed constraints.
These constraints could be things like the main character must die at midnight on a certain day, or a certain number of rooms are within the rooming house, and all the action must take place in the rooms. I assume Ulysses by James Joyce has a constraint in that all the actions must occur on the same day. But, the concept of Oulipo is still unclear to me. I don’t understand why an author would apply constraints to a novel he was writing when they hamper the story telling and ultimately make the novel worse. Constraints can be an interesting technique in writing, but only if they enhance the story.
The book wants to make a larger statement about life going beyond the story of Bartlebooth and his painting to point out, that often the plans we make for our lives don’t work out and come to ruin. Bartlebooth has already accepted this and he wants his life to come to nothing, but he fails in this plan as some of his painting do survive his death. The man servants stays on after Bartlebooth’s death, but eventually moves away from the rooming house. I could be wrong as I have not read the book for along time, but it does not end right at the death of Bartlebooth, but carries on with the aftermath before coming to a close.