Return to Equinoxes, Issue 11: Printemps/Été 2008
Article ©2008, Sophie Sapp
Eleven rue Simon-Crubellier, the setting of Georges Perec’s 1978 novel La vie mode d’emploi, is the site of an immense puzzle. A nearly infinite mise-en-abîme, this novel seems to reflect, echo, and reproduce itself like a textual hall of mirrors. The novel is permeated with the trappings of detective fiction – but the nature of the crime is itself hidden. Perec uses the structure of the apartment building as a detective space, both constructing a puzzle and inviting the reader into this architecture in order to solve it. Perec’s detailed invocation of a very specific physical structure opens the narrative to the reader’s exploration, allowing her in a sense to inhabit this building that is really a puzzle of infinite dimensions. The precision of Perec’s narrative perambulation of 11 rue Simon-Crubellier reveals the shadowy structure of daily human life, a puzzle that can only be retrospectively completed as the narrative draws to a surprising circular close. 11 rue Simon-Crubellier provides the space of contact for Perec’s characters, as well as the opportunity for a detective story constructed in the mind of the reader. The reader’s long exploration of this architecture finally proves its impossibility, revealing that the mystery at the heart of this carefully constructed narrative is in fact a profound silence, a crime of absence. This is an impossible space that is realized only in the interval between the reader and the narrative, allowing Perec to create a kind of dynamic fiction, a flexible narrative that changes its architecture depending on its inhabitants.
Eleven rue Simon-Crubellier is a building that is at once a story, a painting, a puzzle and an absence. Perec uses these layers to construct an intricate edifice through which the reader travels, only to find, at the end, that these 651 pages collapse into the span of a few moments. In this collapse lies the crime, but also the poignant beauty of Perec’s novel. I will first explore the structure of Perec’s text, and the detective work it demands, and then I will examine the mystery at the heart of this narrative.
The central obsession of La vie mode d’emploi is certainly the puzzle. The Préambule introduces it as a structure in which “l’ensemble détermine les éléments,” and in which “chaque geste que fait le poseur du puzzle, le faiseur du puzzle l’a fait avant lui” (15), suggesting the carefully engineered construction of the novel to follow. The epigraph – “l’oeil suit les chemins qui lui ont été ménagés dans l’oeuvre” (15) extends this early invitation to the reader. With these opening statements, Perec at once brings the reader’s attention to the conscious construction of this text, and implies that there are other, more obscure paths to be followed in La vie mode d’emploi. The elements of the world of this novelmay change their shape and their significance depending on the nature of their perception by the reader. The action of the novel also centers on the puzzle, but first let us examine its technical usage.
Perec’s process is too complex to explore in detail here, but let the following suffice. Based on a chess maneuver called the knight’s tour, wherein the knight touches each square of a 10X10 board only once, the narrative moves through the one hundred rooms of the building. Through a mathematical correspondence, Perec chooses certain elements from a number of lists (such as furniture, fabric, color, body position, animals, artistic style, etc.) to include in each chapter, each chapter demanding certain components from a certain list. Inspired both by the Saul Steinberg drawing “The Art of Living” and by Michel Butor’s Emploi du temps, Perec situates the chess board to represent the façade of an apartment building of one hundred rooms. Thus the fundamental structure of the novel is itself a puzzle and a game, installed by Perec and played by the reader. I would assert, however, that not knowing the nature of the novel’s construction does not detract from the playing of the novel’s game; it is not necessary to know all the rules in order to play with enjoyment. The more the reader knows, the more his detective role is expanded; not only is there a crime to be discovered within the narrative, but there is also a technical crime in the structure of the text itself.
Knowing that 11 rue Simon-Crubellier represents the dimensions of the game Perec played in making it, we would expect this apartment building to have one hundred rooms, as it represents the knight’s movement across a 10x10 chessboard. But there are only ninety nine chapters, and many have suggested that the clue to the missing chapter lies buried at the end of Chapter 65. The narrator describes “une vieille boîte à biscuits en fer-blanc, carrée, sur le couvercle de laquelle on voit une petite fille mordre dans un coin de son petit-beurre” (372). The text has swallowed this missing chapter, bitten off the corner of the narrative and digested it somewhere amongst these hundreds of pages. So what is this missing story? Is it present somewhere in the text and how can the reader find it?
Perhaps the first question to ask is, does the missing story want to be found? Ultimately, what would be the result of completing this impossible puzzle? Paul Harris calls Chapter 51 “the point that enacts the production of the entire text,” the book’s “soul” (74). In this chapter, the lines describing the painter Serge Valène’s imagined painting are sixty spaces long, and the letters a-m-e successively travel from the 60th space to the first. Each line describes a person to be found inhabiting some other chapter of this book, providing a sort of summary of the life that fills this building. In the last pages of La vie mode d’emploi, we learn that Valène’s canvas is in fact nearly blank, and the painter is dead. This reveals the impossibility of the painter’s dream. He imagines a painting that could only ever be a book; in fact, it is the book that the reader has just finished. In the same way that the missing chapter represents the absence that is the mystery at the heart of this novel, the unrealized painting defines the nature of this absence.
If Valène’s imaginary painting is the soul of La vie mode d’emploi, the final chapter’s revelation that his canvas is blank projects its beloved contents elsewhere. But where are these missing persons? We have met them, followed six hundred pages of their stories, lived moments of their lives, and seen the details of their lives as if they were painted before us. The first line of Chapter 51 confides that “il [Valène] serait lui-même dans le tableau” (274). The final line of this chapter notes the last element of the painting – “le vieux peintre faisant tenir toute la maison dans sa toile” (281). This chapter, its verbs predominantly in conditional tense (of note in this novel primarily in passé simple), provides a strong sense of the painter’s impossible dream, his desire to definitively contain and elaborate the world around him. And therein is the slippery paradox of La vie mode d’emploi; this world is defined by this building, but its stories radiate from it. This is a profoundly human world, mutable and subjective. It cannot be completely written, nor completely painted, but perhaps it can be completely imagined, if only we had infinite time and patience to construct these pages over and over.
As Harris suggests, the soul of this novel is inscribed in the text, yet also imperceptible, the sort of enigma that disappears when focused on too directly. To focus entirely on the rules of this game is to lose the pleasure of playing it, but to ignore the rules and the secrets they unlock is to miss the subtle soul of the novel. As the narrative’s time collapses at the end, and the reader finally discovers the “crime” that has trailed through these pages, it is revealed as a crime of silence and of absence. Amidst all this meticulous detail and careful progression, something has happened and we didn’t notice. The soul of the text is not hidden, but it also cannot be entirely grasped; it cannot be totalized, in the same manner that one’s existence cannot be totalized in a lifelong project, no matter how rigorously executed. Perec suggests an impossible narrative space, one that can never be fully realized, always demanding an absence – the missing chapter, the blank canvas, the unfinished puzzle. This impossibility requires that, as Harris writes, “the virtuality of the text only actualizes itself in the forms that it takes in the minds of readers” (81).
One of the novel’s main characters, Percival Bartlebooth, enacts the puzzle theme of La vie mode d’emploi. In 1935, he embarks on a fifty-year project, wherein he reconstitutes jigsaw puzzles created by his neighbor, artisan Gaspard Winckler, from watercolors Bartlebooth has painted of five hundred seaports. Another resident of 11 rue Simon-Crubellier, Serge Valène, has taught Bartlebooth the art of watercolor, a ten-year process due to Bartlebooth’s unfortunate lack of natural talent. The puzzles, completed in chronological order in Bartlebooth’s apartment, meet their end when they are plunged into a detergent solution, at the same port where they were painted, producing an intact, virgin sheet of paper. Bartlebooth’s plan is, however, riddled with problems from the start. On the technical level, he must first overcome his innate lack of talent, soon followed by the hardships of travel to five hundred ports, and the difficulties of coordinating the artisans’ work so that each watercolor is dissolved exactly twenty years after its birth (this quickly proves impossible). Beyond these logistical problems, Bartlebooth begins to go blind in 1972, after eighteen years of puzzles, a problem directly exacerbated by his painstaking toil. This slows his progress and challenges his rigidly structured plans. Perec writes, “[Bartlebooth] voulait que le projet tout entier se referme sur lui-même sans laisser de traces, […] il voulait que rien, absolument rien n’en subsiste, qu’il n’en sorte rien que le vide, la blancheur immaculée du rien, la perfection gratuite de l’inutile” (455). Bartlebooth’s project is profoundly concerned with the exact balance between construction and destruction, ceaseless activity with absolutely no physical trace to show for it.
As Perec writes, the reality of this project demands a sort of surrounding vacuum, unattainable in real life: “il est difficile de dire si le projet était réalisable, si l’on pouvait en mener à bien l’accomplissement sans le faire tôt ou tard s’écrouler sous le poids de ses contradictions internes ou sous la seule usure de ses éléments constitutifs. Et même si Bartlebooth n’avait pas perdu la vue, il n’aurait quand même peut-être jamais pu achever cette aventure implacable a laquelle il consacrait sa vie” (455).
This essential impossibility brings us to the great mystery of La vie mode d’emploi, the moment that turns these stories into a detective novel. The ninety-ninth chapter collapses the time span of the entire novel into the single moment of Bartlebooth’s death, at or around 8:00 pm on the twenty-third of June 1975. The eleven paragraphs of this chapter are a sort of “countdown” to the revelation in the final paragraph. We learn the setting – Bartlebooth’s study; the focal point of the scene – “un puzzle presque achevé;” the scene depicted on the jigsaw – the mouth of the river Meander, a reference to Greek mythology, probably expressing what David Bellos calls “the tortuousness of attempts to defer the moment of dying and the impossibility of doing so forever” (635). We also learn the second focal point of the scene – “Bartlebooth est assis devant la table;” and his physical appearance and position – “Bartlebooth est assis devant son puzzle. C’est un viellard maigre, presque décharné, au crâne chauve, au teint cireux, aux yeux éteints […] sa main gauche, posée sur la table dans une posture peu naturelle, presque à la limite de la contorsion, tient entre le pouce et l’index l’ultime pièce du puzzle” (568). Paragraphs six through eleven each begin, “c’est le vingt-trois juin mille neuf cent soixante-quinze” and indicate a time of nearly eight o’clock at night. All but the last of these paragraphs describes the activities of the residents of 11 rue Simon-Crubellier at this particular time; these are the very same actions described when their respective scenes were introduced in the preceding chapters. In the eleventh paragraph, we learn that “Bartlebooth vient de mourir” (566-570).
At some moment, Bartlebooth has died, and we did not notice. Suddenly, with the last paragraph of this chapter, the preceding pages become the narration of the circumstances of his death. This shift highlights the clues laid for a detective throughout the text. As the reader enters the rooms of 11 rue Simon-Crubellier, particularly on a second reading, the narrative is rife with disappearances, crooked schemes, and sordid pasts. Not to mention that a great many of the residents are engrossed in reading romans policiers. A rereading of La vie mode d’emploi, after this revelation of Bartlebooth’s imperceptible death, reveals a narrative of absence, of blanks and of impossible spaces.
In a brief walk-through of 11 rue Simon-Crubellier, a rereading of a few of the novel’s spaces reveals the importance of the absent, the in-between, and the mysterious. Especially in the earlier parts of the novel, the chapters Dans l’escalier are particularly important in the construction of this building. In the first chapter, the stairway is described as an “endroit neutre qui est à tous et à personne,” and Perec writes “ça commencera içi” between the 3rd and 4th floors (20). This is a false neutrality, however, as this central stairway is charged with the spectral presence of all who have passed through it. The reader feels the weight of this effect as each story adds a layer of human presence to this building. We are informed that Winckler has been dead for nearly two years, but that “la longue vengeance qu’il a si patiemment, si minutieusement ourdie, n’a pas encore fini de s’assouvir” (22). Without having read the last paragraph, we cannot know that this revenge is in motion right now, at the moment of Bartlebooth’s death. This “now” is profoundly ambiguous – its expansion encompasses the time of the entire novel, while its contraction collapses the narrative at the end of the book. Many of the chapters begin with “maintenant nous sommes…” establishing “now” as the moment of reading, of inhabiting a certain room. The stairway persists as a location of emptiness, memory, and traces of lives lived in this building. In Chapter 17, we read “Dans les escaliers passent les ombres furtives de tous ceux qui furent là un jour” (85), and later the narrator (an ambiguous “il,” perhaps Valène, constructing this imaginary building) notes that there is “un insupportable silence” (88) in the stairway.
In Bartlebooth’s first chapter, his room is almost empty, and the narrator tells us that he almost never leaves his apartment: “il reste parfois plus de quarante-huit heures sans donner signe de vie” (146). With a touch of black humor, the idea that Bartlebooth may in fact be dead may cross the mind of the still-naïve reader. The 28th chapter is particularly illuminating as to the ambiguous time and the impossible architecture of La vie mode d’emploi. The narrator has noticed something that may be a “signal de détresse” in Bartlebooth’s gaze – “quelque chose de beaucoup plus violent que le vide” (159). Perhaps the knowledge that one’s life leaves an indelible trace, that the construction of a life’s narrative must persist, even in the imagination of others. Also, “Valène, parfois, avait l’impression que le temps s’était arrêté, suspendu, figé autour d’il ne savait quelle attente” (161). Prefiguring the dissolve at the end of the novel, the narrator warns, “un jour surtout, c’est la maison entière qui disparaîtra, c’est la rue et le quartier entiers qui mourront” (162). If not for the sustaining boundaries of this story, that is. This is a house that can be constructed and destructed over and over, that is visible only when its architecture is inhabited by the imagination of the reader.
The one hundred rooms of the building push against the boundaries of the ninety-nine stories told, inviting the reader’s detective work. She is invited to unravel the impossible architecture of a space that projects infinite lifetimes of stories from all over the world, yet occludes the one story that contains the only real event of the novel’s temporal span. This missing story is the last room of La vie mode d’emploi, the room that is open only to the reader’s imagination. Returning to the narrator’s reminder that “chaque geste que fait le poseur de puzzle, le faiseur de puzzle l’a fait avant lui,” (18), this absence represents the one gesture not guided by the author as puzzle-maker.
There is one explicitly impossible space at the end of the novel, a space created as the puzzle-maker Winckler’s revenge. Perec writes, “sur le drap de la table, quelque part dans le ciel crépusculaire du quatre cent trente-neuvième puzzle, le trou noir de la seule pièce non encore posée dessine la silhouette presque parfaite d’un X. Mais la pièce que la mort tient entre ses doigts a la forme, dépuis longtemps prévisible dans son ironie même, d’un W” (570). The W of this last piece is Winckler’s signature; the X “marks the spot,” as they say. The spot marked here is that one essential moment that cannot be grasped, in which Bartlebooth slipped out of the story.1
As noted above, the rigidity of Bartlebooth’s plan makes failure inevitable. A life cannot be totalized in a fifty-year project, and traces remain of one’s life regardless of the desire for total effacement. In the same manner in which the remaining puzzles are artifacts of Bartlebooth’s travels, this novel inscribes the traces of his existence. As in his final, fatal puzzle, X, the symbol of the unknown, of absence, of silence, marks the spot. Bartlebooth has died, but his surroundings remember him; this whole building is in a sense built around and of him. His absence from it is, on one hand, of little consequence – it provides the occasion for these stories. But, on the other hand, it is the poignant heart of this narrative, written in memoriam. Perec is inviting the reader to search for a way to build the imperceptible into the experience of reading, to complete the construction of narrative space with imagination. La vie mode d’emploi contains so many impossibilities – fantastic tales, an imaginary painting, abandoned projects, and projects that could never be completed. And of course its ultimate impossibility – the architecture of a building, constructed over hundreds of pages and infinite stories, that cannot lodge its inhabitants. This is an imaginary house, containing and contained in an imaginary painting, whose structure is established as the reader walks through its halls and rooms, only to dissolve as, on the last page, the painter Valène lies dead by his nearly-blank canvas.
1 As Heather Mawhinney notes in her essay “Death by Jigsaw,” the essential paradox of fitting together a jigsaw so that the one remaining piece does not match the gap in the puzzle, or of being able to cut a puzzle so that this happens, is intriguing (181).
Bellos, David. Georges Perec: A Life in Words. Boston: David R. Godine, Inc., 1993.
Harris, Paul A. “The Invention of Forms: Perec’s Life a User’s Manual and a Virtual Sense of the Real.” SubStance 23.2 (1994): 56-85.
Mawhinney, Heather. “Death by Jigsaw: La vie mode d’emploi by Georges Perec.” Crime Scenes: Detective Narratives in European Culture Since 1945. Eds. Anne Mullen and Emer O’Beirne. Amsterdam: Éditions Rodopi B.V., 2000.
Perec, Georges. La vie mode d’emploi. Paris: Hachette, 1978.