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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Life A User's Manual

Georges Perec

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To purchase Life A User's Manual

Title: Life A User's Manual
Author: Georges Perec
Genre: Novel
Written: 1978 (Eng. 1987, rev. 2009)
Length: 501 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Life A User's Manual - US
Life A User's Manual - UK
Life A User's Manual - Canada
La Vie mode d'emploi - Canada
Life A User's Manual - India
La Vie mode d'emploi - France
Das Leben Gebrauchsanweisung - Deutschland
La vita istruzioni per l'uso - Italia
La vida instrucciones de uso - España
  • French title: La Vie mode d'emploi
  • Translated by David Bellos
  • Winner of the Prix Médicis

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Our Assessment:

A : a monumental jumble of a modern masterpiece

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Atlantic Monthly . 12/1987 Phoebe-Lou Adams
FAZ A 15/8/2002 Tobias Döring
London Rev.of Books . 10/12/1987 Patrick Parrinder
The LA Times . 29/11/1987 Richard Eder
The Nation . 3/8/2016 Joanna Scott
The New Republic . 8/2/1988 Sven Birkerts
The New Statesman A 13/11/1987 Gilbert Adair
The NY Rev. of Books . 16/6/1988 Harry Mathews
The NY Times Book Rev. A 15/11/1987 Paul Auster
Time . 23/11/1987 Paul Gray
TLS . 30/10/1987 Gabriel Josipovici

  From the Reviews:
  • "(L)etztlich gilt zur lustvollen Erkundung dieses Erzähluniversums nur eine einzige Gebrauchsanweisung: Man vergesse alle Formeln, Anweisungen und Systeme, schlage das Buch an beliebiger Stelle auf und lese, lese, lese." - Tobias Döring, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Life is a giant inventory. (...) It is here that the achievement of Perec lies. (His translator, David Bellows has put the French into a wonderfully lucid and supple English.) His book, in a formal sense, is identical with its contents. In effect, it is made up of Bartlebooth's jigsaw pieces." - Richard Eder, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(A) work that is simultaneously capacious and intimate, forthcoming and wily. (...) Life, A Userís Manual demonstrates how inconclusive endings can be. The whole book may be seen as one long interruption, with the ongoing action inside the apartment building brought to a standstill by the author. Building from a single moment in time, looking into the past and the future, Perec has given us a refreshingly flexible model for narrative. He also gives us much to remember." - The Nation, Joanna Scott

  • "What makes it ultimately so moving and lovable is that, though it fails (as it was meant to fail) as a user's manual to life (...) this world of things remains, secure and serene in its unquenchable thereness. Three cheers (...) for David Bellos' heroic translation." - Gilbert Adair, New Statesman

  • "What draws one into this book is not Perec's cleverness, but the deftness and clarity of his style. (...) (A)part from a number of small lapses here and there, David Bellos seems to have done an admirable job. (...) [Perec] is not a writer who will appeal to everyone, but those who have a taste for the unusual, for books that create worlds unto themselves, will be dazzled by this crazy-quilt monument to the imagination." - Paul Auster, The New York Times Book Review

  • "From the most straitened (and self-imposed) circumstances, Perec spins forth an infinite variety of entertainments, hundreds of tales, anecdotes, puzzles, mysteries, conundrums and diversions. Do the glittering pieces add up to a radiant whole? While the fun proceeds, this question seems irrelevant. At the end, it teases and haunts." - Paul Gray, Time

  • "A great book, rather than a merely brilliant one (.....) How sad then to have to say that the book has been translated and edited extremely carelessly." - Gabriel Josipovici, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Life: A User's Manual is very much the consummation of his achievement, bringing together stories and characters from much of his previous writing, and continually alluding to those writers who define the fictional space in which Perec's texts also aspire to move." - Mark Ford, London Review of Books (2/2/1989)

  • "Furniture, shoe laces, dust bins, a romance, a crime, a hand reaching out for a newspaper, are told of in equal and apparently dispassionate detail. Yet bit by bit, a universe of colors and emotions, of human stirrings and failures is created. Time moves them all, and Perec's masterpiece manages to make time palpable, fragrant and sad." - Richard Eder, The Los Angeles Times (4/11/1990)

  • "What is for me the most memorable novel of the last fifty years, Georges Perec's Life: A User's Manual, is endlessly valuable because of its infinite promise: Perec invented a Parisian apartment block and bisected it, as if it were a doll's house, to describe lives that might have been lived in every one of its hundred rooms. The book's construction depends on an elaborate pattern, but its central brilliance is trick-free: Paris 1975, a particular building with cellars and garrets and stairways and salons and endless particular clutter." - Daniel Soar, London Review of Books (9/3/2006)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Life A User's Manual is probably the work Georges Perec is best known for. His biggest tome and most complex creation, it has generally been acknowledged as a modern masterpiece (and was, for example, selected as "Novel of the Decade" by Salon du Livre).
       Georges Perec was a tremendously playful writer, in all senses of the word. He was a member of OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle -- the "Workshop for Potential Literature") from 1967 onwards, and he reveled in the word games and literary restrictions the group studied and applied to their writings (in his biography of Perec (see our review), David Bellos describes the group as beginning as one "intent on the further study of (...) the overlap between, or intersection of, mathematics and poetry"). Perec had famously written a book without the letter "e" (La disparition, translated by Gilbert Adair as A Void), created the world's longest palindrome (earning him an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records) and, starting in 1976, was the crossword-puzzle setter for Le Point. More than most authors and word-lovers he twisted language and subjected it to the most rigid rules -- and managed to create marvelous things with it.
       No Perec text is entirely straightforward, but his writing is not all merely fun and games. Things and W or The Memory of Childhood are just two of his many varied texts that show that his methods could readily lead to what can be considered fairly mainstream results.
       Life A User's Manual, dedicated to OuLiPo's guiding light Raymond Queneau, combines all of the best of Georges Perec. In effect, it does combine all of Perec's approaches, games, and themes, and the result is quite extraordinary. It is a novel, a collection of many short stories, and an example of countless literary games. More than most books it defies (or at least poses an enormous challenge to) any effort at translation, but David Bellos has managed to render it into English without losing all too much of what Perec has done. Much has inevitably gone by the wayside, but Bellos' book does justice to what Perec set out to do and is an excellent book in its own right.
       Told in six parts and ninety-nine chapters, plus a preamble and an epilogue, the novel also comes with three appendices -- a useful index, a chronology, and an "Alphabetical Checklist of Some of the Stories Narrated in this Manual". It begins with a jigsaw puzzle, and in fact the whole novel is a jigsaw puzzle, pieces that can stand on their own but that also fit together in a larger design. Jigsaw puzzles also figure prominently in the text, as one of the characters, Percival Bartlebooth (a name that Bellos describes as a being a combination of Valery Larbaud's A. O. Barnabooth and Melville's Bartleby) spends half his life painting pictures that he has someone mount and cut into jigsaw puzzles, in order for him to spend the second half of his life reassembling these puzzles (an idea that ultimately does not go exactly as intended, of course).
       Life A User's Manual centers around a building (11 rue Simon-Crubellier) and its inhabitants, the narrative jumping around according to a grid design (explained in David Bellos' Georges Perec). Each has a story, and many of the stories naturally overlap. Perec complicates matters further by playing different stylistic games throughout the novel, imposing constraints that are sometimes obvious and sometimes not (and sometimes don't quite make the jump from French to English). There are also quotations woven into the text from numerous authors, including Borges, Butor, Melville, Harry Mathews, Nabokov, Stendhal, Jules Verne -- and Georges Perec.
       Life A User's Manual is a huge, ambitious book (and the English version is already a very different beast than Perec's actual La Vie mode d'emploi). It is not easily described (an exegesis would probably cover several volumes of similar length), and it is probably not to everyone's taste, but for those who like serious fun in their reading matter Life A User's Manual is emphatically recommended.

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Life A User's Manual: Reviews: Georges Perec: OuLiPo: Other books by Georges Perec under review: Other books about Georges Perec under review: Books translated by Georges Perec into French under review: Other books under review that might be of interest:

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About the Author:

               The great French writer Georges Perec (1936-1982) studied sociology at the Sorbonne and worked as a research librarian. His first published novel, Les Choses, won the 1965 Prix Renaudot. A member of the Oulipo since 1967 he wrote a wide variety of pieces, ranging from his impressive fictions to a weekly crossword for Le Point.

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