I have been reading Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual for the last week. I have been taking it slowly and still have a little way to go but hope to finish in a day or so. It’s a fun book that can be maddening at times, and even dull every now and then (I find lists dull, there’s no way round it. Beckett also enjoyed lists and listing permutations of things, and it can be amusing in a way, but, at the same time…dull). But one list that is ‘not-dull’ comes about halfway through the book in chapter fifty-one.
Before I go any further I should point out to anyone who is unfamiliar with the book that it takes place at a specific point in time in a Parisian apartment block at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier. We get to nose around in each apartment, see who is there and find out about their lives as well as the lives of the previous inhabitants; but the narrative is frozen in time—according to Wikipedia it is June 23, 1975, just before 8 pm; I haven’t seen this stated explicitly in the text yet but it can probably be inferred from the chronology at the back of the book. It is also worth noting that Perec was a member of the Oulipo group of writers who wrote inventive works using ‘constraints’ as a way to inspire their writing. As an example Perec wrote a novel without using the letter ‘e’ ( A Void in English).
So, back to Chapter fifty-one, and one of the characters, an artist called Valène, considers painting a picture of the apartment block, with the front removed and he will paint all the inhabitants of the building in situ, including himself. Perec then proceeds to create a list which we soon realise is a list of short descriptions of characters in the book so far and, as we don’t recognise all of them, characters who will appear in the rest of the book. Because the text used for the list is a monospaced typeface, possibly Courier, it is obvious that each list entry is the same length, which turns out to be sixty characters. We then notice that every ten entries are blocked together and there is a separator after 60 entries. There is another separator at 120 and another at 180….well, not quite, it ends at 179.
At this point it may be best to look at some images to see what I mean. You can click on the images below to see a larger image.
If you look on the second image you may be able to see that a diagonal line appears from top-right to bottom-left. This is formed because of a further pattern that Perec has used. Line 61 ends with the letter ‘g’, the second to last letter in line 62 is also ‘g’, the third from last letter in line 63 is also ‘g’ and so on until we get to line 120 which starts with ‘G’ thus forming a diagonal of ‘g’s. Now that we know that the second block has this pattern we can see if the first and third blocks also have this pattern. Although it’s not so obvious we can see that there is a similar diagonal of ‘e’s in lines 1-60 and a diagonal of ‘o’s in lines 121-179, which together spells ‘EGO’. Why? I’m not sure there is one other than playfulness.
A quick internet search revealed a Wall Street Journal article by David Bellos, the English translator of ‘Life’. (The article can be found here but you may need to sign-in. I found I could view it ok on my phone but not on my PC, even when I turned my ad-blocker off.) In this article Bellos mentions that in French the diagonals spell ‘AME’, French for ‘soul’ and the German translator used ‘ICH’, German for ‘I’ and for Bellos EGO seemed the perfect choice for his English translation as it also means ‘I’ in Latin. Bellos mentions that AME appears nowhere else in the book.
But I wonder if there is any further wordplay used in this section. Have we missed anything? If Bellos missed anything then we English readers can’t help to discover any more. Also, why is the last block missing a line? Is there any further significance of the 60 lines/60 characters structure? I also wondered if there was a line that didn’t refer to a scene in the book, which would have been intriguing, but Bellos states that he connected each line summary to a story. But I still wonder….