Sunday, November 13, 2011

Aimless Reading: The P's, Part 25 (Georges Perec)

Life A User's Manual
Perec, George
Life: A User's Manual

Purchased at St. Mark's Books in 1993.

Towards the end of my second year of teaching in New York, I took a trip to Paris. Two friends were working there as au pairs at the time, so off I went. I stayed with my friend, L., who had the worse of the two gigs. She worked near the Trocadero, on the Rue John F. Kennedy, in a classic Parisian apartment building. Her employer gave her a former chauffeur's quarters on the ground floor -- in the parking garage.

The room could not have measured more then twelve by six. It was tiny. A small shower stood in a corner next to a sink at the rear wall of the apartment. These took up the entire width of the apartment. I think there was a shared commode in the parking garage. She slept on a cot that stood against the left wall (looking in from the door) and had a small chest of drawers on the opposite wall. There may have been a small desk or wardrobe on the front wall.

We shared the bed, platonically, while I was there. It was kind of depressing. My other friend actually had a room in the apartment of the people she worked for, but it was not a situation that allowed for visitors. I did see the apartment one day. I remember using their super-automatic espresso maker and wondering why such things didn't exist in the U.S. (They do now. And I own one.)

The other friend, R., who I have mentioned previously, had a boyfriend she'd met in Paris. He was a young artist, just finishing his final year at Parsons Paris. He'd been born in New York, but his mother remarried and moved to Brussels when he was a boy and he'd grown up there. He was an avid reader and we had many long, excited discussions about literature in Paris and also later, after he'd moved to New York. He was the person who first introduced me to Paul Auster's work, as I recall.

He also recommended Georges Perec, especially this book, which he of course had read in the original language. I remember buying it when I returned to New York and spending a couple of months reading it. It's rare that I can remember a story as clearly as I remember one of the many stories that make this book. It goes something like this.

A man lives in a Parisian apartment house on a fairly generous inherited income. He decides to give meaning to his life by willing into existence a planned, purposeful direction involving several ten year plans. First, he decides to become a watercolorist. He spends the first ten years apprenticing himself to an artist and becomes a passable landscape painter.

He spends the next ten years traveling to one port after another, his travels spanning the entire globe. At each port, he paints a watercolor of that port. Now, there are several other tenants in the building who play a part in the plan after the first ten years. I think the artist who teaches him lives in the building, as does a box maker and a master jigsaw puzzle maker.

After he paints a port, he rolls the watercolor in a tube and ships it back to the puzzle maker, who glues the image to a piece of wood, lets it set, then cuts it into a jigsaw puzzle. He then gives the puzzle to the man who makes the wooden boxes. The man creates a box, numbers it, and places it in the man's apartment, awaiting his return.

He spends the third decade back in his apartment putting the puzzles together in the order in which they were created. After completing a puzzle, he gives it to another man in the apartment building who glues it together in such a way that the image fuses back into a whole. Once this is complete, he uses a special chemical that allows him to remove the newly intact paper from the wood. The image is then mailed to someone at the port where it was painted, where that person is charged with dipping the water color into a solution that makes the image disappear completely.

All this is going swimmingly, except for one little hitch. The puzzles are getting more and more difficult and time is running out. Further complicating the situation, the puzzle maker dies, which means the solutions to the puzzles dies with him, so there is no one to help the man, should he stumble. It is taking him longer and longer to complete each one. He approaches his deadline with mounting anxiety mixed with horror.

Ain't that somethin'?

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