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LIFE, A USER'S MANUAL and a New Approach to Nihilism

Yasmeen Malik

Yasmeen Malik

The University of Georgia


Perec’s New Approach to Nihilism in Life, A User’s Manual


Georges Perec’s life was marked by tragedy and loss—his parents killed by the Nazis, his own untimley death—and one might assume that his literary works reflect a negative view of life. However, this paper argues the opposite: that Perec developed a new approach to nihilism, one which accepts the brevity and pointlessness of life but suggests a plan for how to make use of our limited time and come to terms with it. In Life, A User’s Manual, Perec illustrates the application of this philosophy, through his character Bartlebooth, showing that while we may only have a short amount of time here, we control everything that happens to us between birth and death, and that there is beauty to be found in every story and object, no matter how trivial or small.



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. The idea occurred to him when he was twenty. At first it was only a vague idea, a question looming — what should I do? — with an answer taking shape: nothing (Perec, 117).


Georges Perec was born in Paris in 1936, the only son of Polish-Jewish immigrants. World War II took both his parents from him: his father died in combat serving for the French army and his mother was arrested and then killed at Auschwitz. Orphaned at the age of six, Perec was adopted by his aunt and uncle. He studied sociology at the Sorbonne, served in the French army, and then ended up working as an archivist in a research library until his literary works were able to support him financially. During this time, Perec joined the Oulipo, a group devoted to the study of literary form. Members of the Oulipo often borrow formal patterns from other discourses such as mathematics or logic. Perec’s own books reflect the aims of the Oulipo in their heavily-planned and constrained manner, and his time spent with some of its members greatly influenced his works, such as La Disparition (A Void).

            It is easy to look at Perec’s work and assume the constraints help fill an existential void that he grappled with throughout his youth and early adulthood. His personal history serves as a backdrop that leads many to misinterpret his texts as negative or cynical, especially in light of his typically dark characters and themes. But with Life, A User's Manual, Perec approaches nihilism as a positive, creative force of being. Life accepts our essential nothingness but, at the same time, revels in the process that takes place between birth and death. We are able to exercise an exuberant free will, bouncing around within the framework of those two events of birth and death to create puzzles, layers, and collections.

            Life is considered Perec’s pinnacle text because of its careful attention to constraints and the innovative methods he imposes on commonly accepted form. He based the entire structure of the book on a series of self-imposed constraints. One such constraint is his construction of a fictional apartment building which is made of a ten-by-ten grid, each square representing a room or a staircase landing, and each described in its own chapter. The progression from chapter to chapter is not linear, but rather follows the knight’s tour (the movement of a knight on a chessboard), never stopping twice on the same square. Perec’s second primary constraint is his creation of a complex system that would create, for every chapter, an original list of items to be included. He made forty-two lists of ten objects each, gathered into ten groups of four with a Graeco-Latin square deciding the way in which these apply to each chapter. Life, A User’s Manual is at once a novel, an apartment building, and a game of chess. However, these constraints do not isolate the reader from the text–Perec’s goal was to give his audience a visceral feeling for the little things, for the reality of life.

            Perec’s works were not about the constraints themselves, but about pushing the boundaries of contemporary literature and language. He once stated that his literary vision was guided by four major concerns: a passion for the inherently trivial details of day-to-day life; an inclination toward confession and mixing in autobiographical details; a push toward formal innovation; and an aspiration to tell engaging, absorbing stories (Constraining Chance, Alison James). Life brings these four concerns into intersection. The constraints are not how Perec finds his personal meaning, but they do remove the arbitrary from his writing, allowing him to focus entirely on how each piece of his literary puzzle will further the plot and theme of the story.

            Percival Bartlebooth is one of Life’s apartment dwellers, and his routine mirrors the blend of beauty and nihilism pervasive in Perec's work. “Faced with the inextricable incoherence” of the world, he decides he will spend the rest of his life painting watercolors (Perec 117). The five hundred landscapes he paints at ports around the world are turned into five hundred puzzles, which are intended to be turned into five hundred blank sheets of paper that show no trace of his project’s existence. Like Bartlebooth, Perec sets himself a strict, yet more or less meaningless, structural challenge. In Bartlebooth's case, this challenge consists of an ostensibly zero-sum loop: his fifty-year plan. For Perec, the challenge is to construct a novel out of a series of motionless vignettes, each vignette featuring a different room or corridor in the same apartment building, at a moment when one particular event is taking place. Both the author and the character go about their assigned tasks with remarkable vigor, but Perec's performance is more remarkable than Bartlebooth's: whereas the fictional character is merely competent, the author's narrative expands within his structural framework, flexing and reaching, revealing a tapestry of interwoven stories, all the tales of the current and former residents of the rue Simon-Crubellier as revealed through their rooms. The constraints set Perec’s writing afire and bring forth his major concerns both artistically and with a nod to the reality of human existence in its truest and most honest form.

            The title itself reflects Perec’s positive spin on nihilism. All of life is here, in all of its wonder and sadness. It is not a “User's Manual” in that it gives answers to complex problems. What it does accomplish is far more difficult: it suggests over and over why life is worth living and how beauty and wonder surround not only the everyday, but also the tragic. Many stories are real stories. There is adventure, crime, love. But many of the chapters are only descriptions of scenes and of people, unmoving, like the description of a painting. In most of the scenes, there are real paintings described, creating, in essence, a painting within a painting. Furthermore, one of the main stories is about paintings and the destruction of paintings, reinforcing Perec’s idea that eventually everything fades and turns to nothing.

            The Parisian apartment acquires life through the lives of its inhabitants. Life, in Perec’s view, is that reality which is sad, hopeless, and absurd, and yet we are here and alive and must not lose time in pointless activities. To emphasize the brevity of life, Perec constantly notes passing time. The book closes, “It is the twenty-third of June nineteen seventy-fives, and it is eight o’clock in the evening” (Perec 497). In the end, the building empties out after the telling of the story is completed. Time has erased Bartlebooth, Valene, and all of the residents, just as it will wipe away each of us. In the face of nihilism, Perec is pronouncing that nothing to nothing is very much something.

            Georges Perec found a home in literature. His works taken as a whole, in their astonishing diversity and originality, can be read as a sustained reflection upon literature’s vigor as a cultural mode and as a compelling demonstration of the vastness of its possibilities. Specifically in Life, A User’s Manual, Perec pushes the boundaries of contemporary literature and redefines the classical concept of nihilism into an idea of a positive force driving each of us to both enjoy and relish our time on earth. Time is not to be wasted. We, as individuals, are not able to control our death or when it comes, but we do are able to control our lives. It is a wonderfully self-contained universe that starts and ends with nothing.



Works Cited

James, Alison Siân. Constraining Chance: Georges Perec and the Oulipo. Evanston, IL:   Northwestern UP, 2009. Print.


Perec, Georges. Life, A User's Manual. Boston: D.R. Godine, 1987. Print.



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