Peta Mitchell. Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature. Volume 37, Issue 1. March 2004.
During the late 1960s and 1970s, a shift away from the modernist conceptualization of the building-as-machine became evident in architectural discourse. Architecture began to see its role not as constructing functional and monumental “machines for living,” but as providing less rationalized living spaces directly concerned with the quotidian. Influenced by poststructuralist theory, architects and urban planners began to metaphorize their work in terms of writing: buildings and cities became “texts” and “collages” (Ellin 280-88). Faced with the late-twentieth-century breakdown of what architect Peter Eisenman terms the three fictions of classicism-representation, reason, and history-the concept of a unified, rational “work,” either literary or architectural, began to be replaced in both disciplines with that of “textuality” (Barthes; Eisenman 172).
While Eisenman spoke of architecture as writing, architectural terminology had already begun to suffuse the writing of Jacques Derrida, who in 1987 described his writing process as one of “building” (Derrida and Eisenman 112). Indeed, by the mid-1980s, Derrida and Eisenman had recognized their parallel concerns and collaborated on a cross-disciplinary project: a design, based upon Derrida’s work on khora, for the Parc de la Villette in Paris. More generally, in the late twentieth century, both the literary and the architectural text began to be represented as “collages,” their creators “bricoleurs” (Derrida 139; Rowe and Koetter 86-117). In both disciplines, parody and citationality became key concepts, and, moreover, both came to be informed by a kind of Lyotardian game theory. Influential Dutch architect N. John Habraken, for instance, maintained from the early 1970s that the practice of architecture is akin to “playing games.” Moreover, in his most recent publication, The Structure of the Ordinary: Form and Control in the Built Environment, Habraken likens the built environment to a game of chess (19-26).
Georges Perec’s Life a User’s Manual articulates compellingly this confluence of architecture and literary studies that emerged in the mid-1970s. Indeed, according to Nan Ellin, at the time of the novel’s production, France was at the forefront of the new architecture, with a “series of important theoretical and historical studies […] that examined urban morphologies and architectural typologies” (42). It is hard to imagine that these developments in architectural theory and practice escaped the attention of Perec, who was both friend and colleague of Paul Virilio and Henri Lefebvre. Perec was himself a field researcher in Lefebvre’s groupe d’etude de la vie quotidienne in 1960, and provided research for Volume 2 of Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life (Bellos, Georges 236). Similarly, in 1974 Perec contributed to Virilio’s series L’Espace critique by writing Especes d’espaces, a non-fiction work that displays Perec’s passion for identifying and analyzing everyday, lived spaces.
Published in 1978, Perec’s Life a User’s Manual dramatically fuses his interests in the everyday and architecture into what might be termed an “architext,” a term that has been employed to different ends by Mary Ann Caws and by Gerard Genette. While Genette uses the term to imply that every text belongs to a genre, hence an arche-text, or original text (82), Caws makes use of the term architexture in order to “call attention to the surface texture of the construction made by reading” (xiv). For the purpose of this paper, however, I use architext to designate a text in which architecture and literature are so thoroughly imbricated that book and building become one.
Before discussing the architextural qualities of Life a User’s Manual, it is important to note that the novel does operate within a nineteenth-century tradition of “architectural” French literature. Furthermore, given that Perec’s primary interest was in the literary, one might assume that Perec’s writing was informed more strongly by this tradition than by the architectural theories of Lefebvre and Virilio. In his study of the nineteenth-century French “building novel,” Philippe Hamon asserts that, for authors such as Emile Zola, Marcel Proust, Honore de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and Victor Hugo, architecture provided more than simply the “frame” or “backdrop for plot.” Architecture, instead, provided a stage upon which everyday social life could be enacted, thereby generating a “concept of history,” both individual and collective (4). Moreover, according to Hamon, this nineteenth-century “imbrication of literature and architecture” (7) allowed fiction to imply an urban macrocosm through the depiction of a microcosm.
Although it would appear that architecture, writing, and the quotidian have gone hand-in-hand in French literature since before France’s second Empire, Perec’s approach to the architext appears to differ from that of his predecessors in one crucial aspect. Hamon argues that it is the “realistic effect” of architecture that made it so appealing to nineteenth-century literature, which, undergoing a crisis of representation, drew upon architecture’s aura of “verisimilitude” to provide foundational support. Indeed, he adds, architecture “may well offer literature its beginning (arche) and its absolute origin” (23). However, I would argue that Perec’s novel diverges from this tradition, for, rather than being a search for origins and true representation, Life a User’s Manual denies the very possibility of originality. Perec’s architext is de-constructive and ironic.
The quality of Life a User’s Manual that renders it such an exemplary architext is what William Paulson describes as its “almost complete interpenetration of theme and structure, so that to describe the one is to describe the other” (335). The novel is “set” in an apartment building on rue Simon-Crubellier, a fictitious street in the Plaine Monceau district of Paris. However, to say that the novel is set in this apartment building would be somewhat misleading. This is where Perec’s imbrication of theme and structure begins to make life confusing for the reader who, as he or she reads on, becomes increasingly aware that the book is the apartment building itself. According to Perec, the novel was partly inspired by a Saul Steinberg drawing of a New York rooming house with its facade removed (Species 40). Of this twenty-three-room building, Perec writes, the “mere inventory-and it could never be exhaustive-of the items of furniture and the actions represented has something truly vertiginous about it” (41). Undaunted, in Life a User’s Manual, Perec constructs an edifice even more complex than that of Steinberg. As an appendix to Life a User’s Manual, Perec provides a floor plan of 11 rue Simon-Crubellier that lays flat the building’s ten floors and marks out its communal areas and the boundaries of each tenant’s property. Yet this map obscures as much as it reveals, for its erasure of the wall divisions within each apartment belies the fact that the building has a total of a hundred rooms. Its elongated, rectangular form also disguises another crucial aspect of the book’s architecture: when made square and superimposed upon the rectilinear grid of an architectural floor plan, Perec’s original plan begins to resemble an enlarged ten-by-ten chessboard.
Each of the novel’s chapters visits a new room and describes the objects, furnishings, and surfaces it finds there; as well, it tells the histories and describes the everyday lives of the room’s inhabitants. While the correspondence of book and building is a readily identifiable artifice, a deeper, less immediately apparent architecture is at play in the narrative sequencing of the novel’s chapter-rooms. On the chessboard-floor plan of Perec’s building, each room visited is a knight’s move away from the last. In chess, this type of solitary-player game is called a knight’s tour and requires the player to move a piece around the chessboard in a series of knight’s moves, never landing on the same square more than once.
While Life a User’s Manual does give the reader certain hints as to the game it is playing (various allusions to chess are made within the text), the requirement for the reader to piece together these various oblique references in order to decipher the novel’s underlying narrative structure conjures up yet another form of play. The novel’s preamble is dedicated to a treatise on the “art of jigsaw puzzling” (xii), which -contrary to appearances and unlike the puzzle of the knight’s tour-is “not a solitary game” (xiv). Instead, the act of jigsaw puzzling constitutes a kind of dialogue between puzzle maker and puzzler; between author and reader. Thus Perec’s novel calls for an active independent reader, one who must recognize, first, that there is indeed a puzzle to solve even before becoming a participant in the “game” of puzzling. The puzzle that Perec’s reader must solve, however, is not of the “machine-made” variety, whose pieces are “arbitrarily” shaped (xii), thereby producing an “arbitrary degree of difficulty” (xiii). Rather, it is a hand-made, unique puzzle whose creator cuts up “the organised, coherent, structured signifying space of the picture […] [not only] into inert, formless elements containing little information or signifying power, but also into falsified elements, carrying false information” (xiv). From this, Perec states, one can deduce “the ultimate truth of jigsaw puzzles”: “every move the puzzler makes, the puzzlemaker has made before; every piece the puzzler picks up, and picks up again, and studies and strokes, every combination he tries, and tries a second time, every blunder and every insight, each hope and each discouragement have all been designed, calculated and decided by the other” (xiv).
Jean-Francois Lyotard makes a similar point in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, arguing that the act of communication is like a game that is played by set rules put in place by a holder of power, such as an author. Yet, while he maintains that the relationship between two participants in a game is never one of equality, Lyotard argues that an understanding of the imbalance of power between participants must be tempered by the knowledge that “not even the least privileged among us is ever entirely powerless over the messages that traverse and position him at the post of sender, addressee, or referent” (15). The game of language is one that aspires not to “truth” but to “performativity” (45); it is, furthermore, a game of strategy, of “moves” that provoke “countermoves.” Lyotard stresses that these countermoves should not be merely “reactional,” for “reactional countermoves are no more than programmed effects in the opponent’s strategy; they play into his hands and thus have no effect on the balance of power. That is why it is important to increase displacement in the games, and even to disorient it, in such a way as to make an unexpected ‘move’ (a new statement)” (16).
While the knight’s tour is mapped out for the reader, the petits recits the reader accumulates on his or her tour are much like the disassembled pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that require a proactive approach to be placed back into the larger whole. In order to decipher the puzzle, the reader must see each chapter as a jigsaw-puzzle piece whose minute detail is simply part of a larger picture and whose place in that larger narrative must be puzzled out. In the same way, each room visited can be placed, like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, back within the frame of the building’s architectural floor plan.
The novel has no identifiable narrator, but it does have a kind of “narrative consciousness” (Paulson 328) in the guise of Valene, the apartment building’s longest-term inhabitant and resident artist. Valene, in effect, provides a guided tour of this Parisian microcosm, telling over a hundred tales-ranging from the ordinary to the extraordinary-of the building’s present and former inhabitants. However, this is not to say that meaning in the novel is reducible primarily to the consciousness or persona of Valene. Indeed, the narrator almost invariably remains nameless, and the characters he portrays tend to be evoked only indirectly through descriptions of the objects they own and the spaces they inhabit. Rather than an omniscient narrator, Valene is a kind of fleneur figure; a solitary walker and spectator who weaves his way through the labyrinthine microcosmic urban space of 11 rue Simon-Crubellier, reading the building as though it were a text, constructing his narrative as though he were an architect. For Walter Benjamin, the city is the “realisation” of the labyrinth (429), the pedestrian flaneur an enlightened observer of it. Within the maze of the city lies the privileged domain of the flaneur, the equally paradoxical space of the arcade, where the street and the interior-the public and the private-abut and merge. The narrative presence of Valene is, correspondingly, most visible in those chapters that take place on the stairs. This liminal zone of the stairwell, which resists classification as public or private, is for Valene “a neutral place that belongs to all and to none” (3), and constitutes “a memory, an emotion, something ancient and impalpable, something palpitating somewhere in the guttering flame of his memory” (61-62). Spaces, for Valene, are far from inert-they conjure up memories, tell stories, influence lives. Indeed, it is space, rather than temporality or persona, that is the basic organizing principle of the novel; it is a principle reflected also in the spatial narrative sequencing inscribed by the knight’s tour.
Not only have the tenants of number 11 rue Simon-Crubellier come and gone, but even the internal structure of the building itself has altered, with minor territorializations and deterritorializations taking place over its hundred-year life span. Indeed, the building itself appears almost as mutable as those characters that dwell in it, and it is barely solid enough to contain them as their stories range across time and space. As Jamie Brassett writes, “what usually begins as the description of these humanly valorized/valorizing spaces-depicting the present-day story of its inhabitant-often takes a turn to writing the story of the room, of its previous inhabitant(s) and their stories. Indeed, what always begins as firmly entrenched between the walls of a particular flat or room soon becomes a story which transgresses these boundaries. […] Each character in Perec’s novel must be situated; the story of their lives is told by examining the stories of the space in which these lives are delimited” (152-53).
This approach to the representation of a person’s life as being shaped by the spaces in which it is lived requires, as David Bellos has noted, the adoption of a “strictly controlled [.. .] flat perspective on the world.” Bellos adds that Perec resists the impulse to give the characters that live, or have lived, within these rooms “psychological depth.” he explains that, for Perec, this exercise could only be “a projection of details into unknowable gaps,” and one that the reader should be free to perform (“Writing” 17). With Perec’s resistance to depth, the apartment building becomes a repository of its inhabitants’ collective memory rather than offering itself as an analogy for the human psyche. As a result, Paulson writes, history similarly appears in the novel not in terms of depth-as an “unfolding process”-but in terms of surface-as “an informational residue, a set of memories, messages, and outcomes that constrain individuals and their activities and their relationships in the present” (329). Surfaces are also crucial to Valene, who, the reader learns, desires to paint the unthinkable-all the stories of all the rooms of 11 rue Simon-Crubellier. This painting, once completed, would for Valene stand as a memorial, or perhaps even a “mausoleum,” to the lives lived in the apartment building:
The very idea of the picture he had planned to do and whose laid-out, broken-up images had begun to haunt every second of his life, furnishing his dreams, squeezing his memories, the very idea of this shattered building laying bare the cracks of its past, the crumbling of its present, this unordered amassing of stories grandiose and trivial, frivolous and pathetic, gave him the impression of a grotesque mausoleum raised in the memory of companions petrified in terminal postures as insignificant in their solemnity as they were in their ordinariness, as if he had wanted both to warn of and to delay these slow or quick deaths which seemed to be engulfing the entire building storey by storey. (Life 127)
Perec’s emphasis on the ordinary lives of his characters, borne out in the memories of Valene, attests to his interest in the concept of the quotidian. Indeed, Perec claims that his “sociological” writing ( “Statement” 21 ) is primarily concerned with the “awareness of [the] everyday” (“Doing” 28). By making the quotidian central to Life a User’s Manual, Perec belies the myth that everyday life is tedious and uninteresting, for, as Perec’s mentor Lefebvre writes, the analysis of everyday life reveals that even “people with secrets, with inner lives, with mysteries, lead mundane everyday lives” (Critique 239). Everyday life, Lefebvre argues, “is profoundly related to all activities, and encompasses them with all their differences and their conflicts; it is their meeting place, their bond, their common ground. And it is in everyday life that the sum total of relations which make the human-and every human being-a whole takes its shape and form. In it are expressed and fulfilled those relations which bring into play the totality of the real, albeit in a certain manner which is always partial and incomplete” (97, emph. Lefebvre’s). Not only does a study of the quotidian “rehabilitate” everyday life, but it also implicitly critiques those supposedly “superior activities” that have led to its devaluation (87). Thus, Life a User’s Manual can be read as performative of Lefebvre’s rehabilitation of the quotidian and the reawakened interest in collective memory led by Maurice Halbwachs in the late 1940s.
Life a User’s Manual, as well as being a repository of its characters’ histories, is also a vast assemblage of hidden literary quotations, some of which can be uncovered with the aid of the novel’s index. Citation and parody lie at the very heart of the novel, for its central character, Bartlebooth, is an amalgam of the protagonists of Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” and Valery Larbaud’s novel The Diary of A.O. Barnabooth: A Novel. Melville’s Bartleby is a scrivener, or legal copyist, who one day informs his employer that he would “prefer not to” do anything. It is to this end-the refusal to perform any action requested of him-that Bartleby rigorously applies himself until his death. Larbaud’s Barnabooth, on the other hand, is a young, exceedingly wealthy South American who whittles away his fortune by undertaking a grand tour of Europe in order to discover a sense of identity. Perec’s Bartlebooth, having both a colossal inheritance and nothing to do, resolves instead “that his whole life would be organised around a single project, an arbitrarily constrained programmme with no purpose outside its own completion” (Life 117). This fifty-year project, Bartlebooth decides, is to be guided by three rigorous constraints: first, that it be “discreet” and not “heroic”; second, that “all recourse to chance would be ruled out”; and, finally, that it be “useless” and no trace of the plan would be left upon its completion (118).
The plan Bartlebooth devises in 1925 is one that entails, first, spending ten years learning, from Valene, to paint watercolours. The next twenty years would be spent travelling the world painting five hundred seascapes, each of which would be made into a 750-piece jigsaw puzzle by another of the apartment building’s tenants, Gaspard Winckler (118-19). The final twenty years would be spent reassembling, in order, the jigsaw puzzles. The plan would come full circle when each completed puzzle would be “removed from its backing, returned to the place where it had been painted-twenty years before-and dipped in a detergent solution whence would emerge a clean and unmarked sheet of Whatman paper” (119).
Bartlebooth, the reader learns, pursues his program with “Cartesian rigour” (333), and everything goes to plan. That is, until the jigsaws he has Wincklcr make begin to become more and more difficult to solve (126), a problem complicated by the fact that Bartlebooth in 1972 also begins to lose his sight. While Bartlebooth’s plan has been thwarted by chance-one of his completed puzzles is stolen by an art critic on its way to being destroyed (435)-it is only at the end of Life a User’s Manual that it comes completely unstuck. At eight o’clock on the night of 23 june 1975, Bartlebooth is sitting at his 439th jigsaw puzzle, holding in his hand the final piece. The difficulty is that Bartlebooth has just died-the last remaining “black hole” in the puzzle is in the shape of an X, but the “ironical thing,” Perec writes, “which could have been fore seen long ago, is that the piece that the dead man holds between his fingers is shaped like a W” (497).
No motive is given for Winckler’s revenge on Bartlebooth, but it is at this point that the reader becomes aware, for the first time, that, for the last 490 or so pages, time has stood still at the very moment of Bartlebooth’s death. The ironic reversal becomes apparent: Bartlebooth’s plan has failed because it tried to rule out the X factors of chance and death, for, as Bellos writes, “Bartlebooth’s plan to complete a life without leaving a trace or ripple on the surface of things must fail because it ignores death, or rather seeks to treat death only as an event that follows the completion of life, rather than as the radical imperfection that is in life and constitutes mortal existence” (“Literary” 193, emph. Bellos’s).
This theme of death is underscored by the very jigsaw that Bartlebooth dies trying to solve. The puzzle depicts a seaport and the ruins of the ancient city of Miletus at the mouth of the Maeander (now the Menderes) River on the west coast of Turkey. According to legend, the meanderings of the river gave Daedalus the inspiration for his Cretan labyrinth (“Meander”). Daedalus’s labyrinth was based upon what is known as the meander pattern-also known as the meander key-which appears traditionally in mazes and labyrinths, and resembles a pair of interlocking knight’s moves. Indeed, an intricate form of the meander key appears in Life a User’s Manual as a decorative motif between two paragraphs (115). Jacques Roubaud writes that, in Greek myth, Meander was the son of Ocean and Thetys, and “the sibling of the world’s three thousand waterways that run into the sea.” Roubaud continues, “Meander was the only one amongst them to be reluctant and to delay his unavoidable end-to put off meeting his mother and the mother of the sea. [… ] The M, the M of meander and Mortality, the mirror-image of W, leaves the ‘black hole’ of its signature in Bartlebooth’s puzzle, the signature which constraint-any constraint-forever attempts to show and hide by leaving a void” (110).
Yet Perec’s Life a User’s Manual invokes not only Daedalus and his labyrinth but also one of Miletus’s most renowned citizens, fifth-century-BC architect and political philosopher Hippodamus of Miletus. In his Poetics, Aristotle confers upon Hippodamus the honour of having invented modern urban planning with his conception of the orthogonal grid (133-35, 422; sects.l,267b, 1,33Ob). In 494 BC, the Persians invaded Miletus, razing it to the ground. And, as Roger Paden writes, the rebuilding of Miletus-which was at least overseen by Hippodamus-was “the first major orthogonal construction on the Aegean” (27), one that paved the way for other famous orthogonal cities such as Rhodes and Manhattan. While it has since been established that Hippodamus was certainly not the first to design gridded cities (26), he is still traditionally referred to as the “father” of urban planning. The rebuilt Miletus, moreover, has become to urban planning the archetypal orthogonal city, for what made Hippodamus’s grid so thoroughly “modern” was its rationalization of the traditionally disorderly development of cities: the grid imposed an apparent rational order upon an otherwise haptic urban space.
What, then, do Hippodamus and his grid have to do with Perec and his novel? just as Bartlebooth’s plan is governed by rigorous constraints, so too is the underlying architecture of Perec’s novel. The first of the novel’s constraints is that of the previously discussed knight’s tour, to which might be added yet another level of complexity: the chessboard itself also acts as a Latin bi-square of order ten. Briefly, this bi-square, which was “discovered” not long before Perec wrote Life a User’s Manual (Bellos, Georges 514), is a ten-by-ten array of squares, with each of the hundred squares ascribed a paired value from two sets of ten elements (traditionally an array of numbers and letters). There are two basic rules that govern distribution of the twenty elements in a bi-square of order ten: first, each of the hundred pairings must be unique, and second, each element may occur only once in any given row or column. In the case of Life a User’s Manual, the bi-square dictates which objects and which quotations are to be found in each of the hundred rooms, but has little or no bearing upon the narrative development of the novel. However, as Bellos writes, the use of just one bi-square in the novel would have resulted in a “tedious” and “exhaustive recombination of just two sets often elements” (515). Perec’s answer, Bellos continues, was to construct and use no fewer than “twenty-one bi-squares, each comprising two lists of ten ‘elements,’ giving forty-two lists in all, with 420 ‘things’ to distribute, forty-two to a box (and never the same forty-two twice)” (515).
Thus, it becomes evident that the concept of the grid lies at the heart of Life a User’s Manual, overlaying and constraining characters and events. According to Rosalind Krauss in her seminal 1979 essay “Grids,” the grid was the fundamental “emblem of modernity” (52), its coordinated flatness providing “the means of crowding out the dimensions of the real and replacing them with the spread of a single surface” (51). Whue this function of the grid might seem to conflict with Perec’s stated “sociological” intent to describe the everyday, the quality of the grid to “explicitly reject a narrative or sequential reading of any kind” (Krauss 55) provides a firm foundation for Life a User’s Manual, whose narrative sequence is not of a temporal or thematic order beyond the grid but is drawn from the grid itself. Moreover, as Krauss writes, the grid works both centrifugally and centripetally. First, the grid works outward by virtue of the fact that it can logically extend to infinity, and, as such, Krauss writes, a work of art based upon the grid “is presented as a mere fragment, a tiny piece arbitrarily cropped from an infinitely larger fabric. Thus the grid operates from the work of art outward, compelling our acknowledgement of a world beyond the frame” (60). Alternatively, the grid may also refer inward, for it can act as “an introjection of the boundaries of the world into the interior work; […] as a mapping of the space inside the frame onto itself,” thereby separating the world from the work of art (61). The grid that underlies Life a User’s Manual may, therefore, be seen to work paradoxically-at once implying a greater world and isolating itself from that world.
The third major constraint of Perec’s novel is that of time-the time-frame of the novel is exactly a hundred years, with rue Simon-Crubellier being parcelled out for development in 1875 and Bartlebooth dying a century later in 1975. This hundred-year time frame may be more than simply a pleasing parallel with the apartment building’s hundred rooms, for the construction of the apartment building coincides with the final influential years of France’s most notorious urban planner, Georges-Eugene Haussmann. Appointed prefect of the Seine by Napoleon III in 1853, Haussmann set about modernizing Paris through a series of percements, ‘piercings.’ Many of the old mediaeval quartiers with their labyrinthine streets were razed in order to make way for long, wide boulevards that would allow for an unrestricted view of the monuments that sat at either end. According to David Harvey, these percements subjected Paris to the “tyranny of the straight line” (204), while Benjamin, also a fierce critic of the Haussmannization of Paris, argues that the creation of the boulevards had the strategic function of making it impossible for people to set up barricades across them, thereby quelling the potential for popular insurrection (23). Haussmann’s feverish urban planning did not merely bring into existence the boulevards; new quartiers were created beyond Paris’s ancient mediaeval walls, one such Haussmannic quartier being the Plaine Monceau district, which fictionally houses Perec’s apartment building.
Haussmann’s rational urban plan for Paris also spilled over into a return to classical form in architecture. The Haussmannic apartment block with its regulation height and dressed limestone facade became standardized and churned out by an obscure “architectural machine” (Sutcliffe 87-88). Sharon Marcus, in Apartment Stories: City and Home in Nineteenth-Century Paris and London, argues that the Haussmannization of Paris-which was most evident in the homogeneity of its apartments’ facades-was a process of interiorization that rigorously delimited private and public spaces. In the first half of the nineteenth century, before Haussmann, she writes, “Parisian architects and observers understood the apartment house to be a relatively transparent structure. That transparency meant that the apartment house’s facade worked less as a boundary between an external, public surface and its internal, private depths, and more as the frame for a series of views into and out of the building” (138).
With Haussmann, however, the interior was reconfigured as a “hermetic, concealed, and strictly demarcated place” (Marcus 138), and the facade was similarly reconceived as an opaque shield with which to screen the gaze from the public space of the street. As such, Perec’s removal of his building’s facade in order to reveal the memories and lives of its inhabitants can be read as an attack on the philosophy that constructed it in the first place. Valene even hints at this, for, when he imagines the building’s eventual and inevitable destruction by the forces of twentieth-century modernization, he likens it to “the same fever which around eighteen fifty brought these buildings out of the ground” (Life 131).
Like Bartlebooth, Haussmann never completed his grand plan for Paris, for, having resigned from the prefecture in 1870, his work was put on hold by the Franco-Prussian war and the uprising of the Paris Commune. By the 188Os there was a complete revolt against the Haussmannic architectural style, with the straight lines of Haussmann’s rational architecture being replaced by the curved lines of Art Nouveau (Sutcliffe 88). The cry against Haussmann has been repeated throughout the twentieth century, but perhaps most notably by two of Perec’s contemporaries. Henri Lefebvre claimed that Haussmann “shattered the historical space of Paris in order to impose a space that was strategic-and hence planned and demarcated according to the viewpoint of strategy” (Production 312). More outspoken, Guy-Ernest Debord described Haussmann’s Paris as “a city built by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (5). For architects such as Eisenman, the rational architecture espoused by Haussmann and his ilk must always, ultimately, fail. Architecture, Eisenman argues, can never “embod[y] reason” in the way Haussmann intended; it can “only state the desire to do so” (161).
Thus, once again, totalizing plans and totalizing architecture are shown to be doomed to failure. So what of Perec’s own rigorous system of constraints, which forms the architecture of Life a User’s Manual? Well, it fails also, but by design. Over a decade before the publication of Life a User’s Manual, Perec joined OuLiPo (an acronym of Ouvroir de litterature potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature), a group that included Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino. OuLiPo was formed in 1960 to investigate the cross-pollination of mathematics and literature and its potential for writing and, along with various other experimental techniques, devised and promoted the use of a device known as the “clinamen.” The OuLiPian clinamen was derived from the Epicurean theory of the creation of matter, as outlined by the first-century-BC poet Lucretius in De Rerum Natura Libri Sex. Epicurus (341-270 BC) effectively adopted and upheld his predecessor Democritus’s atomic theory of matter, which proposed that matter comprised atoms falling through the void in straight, unswerving lines. However, according to Lucretius, Epicurus held that the creation of matter could occur only if those atoms were to converge. Thus, he proposed the clinamen as the point at which atoms, falling in an otherwise regular laminar flow, swerve (dedinare; clinamen), collide, and thereby create matter (Lucretius 248-49). Moreover, the swerve of the clinamen came to denote freedom of choice for the Epicurean philosophers, who held that the undeviating determinism of Democritus’s theory could not account for the existence of free will, let alone matter.
In 1969, Gilles Deleuze revitalized the concept of the clinamen in his The Logic of Sense, claiming that it is neither contingent nor deterministic and presents only the “irreducible plurality of causes or of causal series, and the impossibility of bringing causes together in a whole” (270). In 1977, a year before the publication of Perec’s Life a User’s Manual, Michel Serres extended Deleuze’s critique, arguing that, while the clinamen resists totality, it can nonetheless bring about a form of “reunification” through the combinatorial “conjunction” of its elements (129). In the turbulence of the clinamen are joined “movement and rest, […] constancy and variation, life and death” (129), and it is this conjunction of opposites that for Serres defines a “living thing”: a “thing in equilibrium and in disequilibrium, a flow, a vortex, heat” (122). The clinamen is ultimately “transport in general,” the “deviation” that forms the “primary space in which every metaphor finds its place and time” (150).
OuLiPians, and in particular Perec and Calvino, placed great importance upon the clinamen, for it allowed a swerve or a bending in the structural, often mathematical, constraints placed upon their work. The only rule that governed their use of the clinamen was that it could be employed only if it was not required-in other words, the rules could be bent only if the constraints could actually be fulfilled (Mathews 126). Thus the clinamen becomes, for OuLiPians, analogous to the creativity that emerges from the bending of constraints, and, indeed, according to Calvino, it is the only device that “can make of the text a true work of art” ( 152).
In Life a User’s Manual, the clinamen takes two forms. First, the constraint of the bi-square is not fully realized, for Perec abandons, and even appears to mock, his rigorous series of lists (Hartje et al. 29). second, while the knight’s tour is completed, not every room in the apartment is visited-the novel has only ninety-nine chapters, and the cellar that lies at the Cartesian coordinates (0,0) is missing. Ironically,Perec’s architectural triumph is missing its cornerstone, its origin. Thus, as Bellos writes, the only things that are present in the novel “are absences: absence of completeness, absence of perfection, absence of unison” (“Literary” 192). Moreover, it is these gaps, opened up by the clinamen, that once more reassert the productive nature of reading and the reader’s role as bricoleur. As Bernard Magne maintains, the deconstructive power of Perec’s clinamen “intervient alors comme ultime mise en garde: la lecture n’est pas reconstruction, mais construction” (238).
The grid-Perec’s rational architecture-has failed, as have the Cartesian plans of both Bartlcbooth and Haussmann. However, there is one final plan, whose failure is yet to become apparent. The unfamiliar narrative voice of the novel’s epilogue informs the reader that the house’s oldest inhabitant, Valene, died peacefully in his sleep but a few weeks after Bartlebooth, having left his own magnum opus incomplete: “A large square canvas with sides over six feet long stood by the window, halving the small area of the maid’s room in which he had spent the largest part of his life. The canvas was practically blank: a few charcoal lines had been carefully drawn, dividing it up into regular square boxes, the sketch of a cross-section of a block of flats which no figure, now, would ever come to inhabit” (500).
Perec’s novel is a concatenation of failures, itself but one of them. However, Life a User’s Manual is not nihilistic, and it is not an outright negation of order or form per se. What Perec does reject is a facile opposition between order and chaos. It is this very opposition that Jane Jacobs railed against in her 1961 work of avant-la-lettre urban theory, The Death and Life of Great American Cities: The Failure of Town Planning. Jacobs maintained that city planning movements-such as Daniel Burnham’s “City Beautiful” and Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City”-failed because they mistook the dynamism and diversity of the urban environment for a disorienting chaos that could be countered only through the imposition of an intensely rational visual order. These Utopian movements, she claimed, failed to see that cities are not essentially chaotic or ordered but are instead intricate “systems of functional order” that require understanding on the part of the urban dweller (389). In the same way, Perec’s use of the clinamen reveals the complex forms of order that result from chaos entering a regulated system. More importantly, Perec’s Life a User’s Manual reveals the quotidian and social nature of this interrelationship of order and chaos, of rectilinear grid and inscrutable labyrinth.
Life a User’s Manual is thus an exemplary architext, self-reflexively articulating the impossibility of a totalizing architecture. While the novel at first seems to force a rational-modernist structure onto the lives of its inhabitants, the enclosure of meaning implied by the apartment building’s classical architecture is shown to be impossible. The total structure fails, and the knight’s tour is rendered incomplete. Thus the novel frees the reader from the “tyranny of the straight line” by positing the idea of architecture and literature as a game to be played between author-architect and reader-inhabitant. Moreover, Life a User’s Manual presents itself as a Yatesian “theatre of memory”—a space in which lives are played out. Above all, the novel is a celebration of the quotidian, enquiring into the way in which people-readers and dwellers-experience and negotiate the architectures of their everyday lives.