Book Of A Lifetime: Life: A User's Manual, By Georges Perec

The index of 'Life: A User's Manual' ('Life', for short) is enough to hook me again. How many novels have an index? And 58 pages long! I dip in at random to the letter D and find:

"DEMOCRITUS, Greek philosopher, 460-370 BC, 14.

Dempledorf (Nebraska), 499.

DEMPSEY (William Harrison, called Jack), American boxer, 83, 175

De natura renum, by Blancard, 478

DENIKIN (Anton Ivanovich), Russian general 1872-1947, 151."

A little further on, Dundee gets a mention. Georges Perec makes it sound exotic. Everything becomes more curious seen through this French writer's eyes. The opening quotation is from Jules Verne: "Look with all your eyes, look." I think that is what the novel gave me. There is Dundee, and there is 'Dundee'.

I discovered 'Life' by chance in a bookshop on Market Street in St Andrews as an undergraduate. It was 1989. It was just a punt; the day was grey and the cover was red and blue. It was published in French in 1978. An English translation by the excellent David Bellos appeared in 1987. Perec himself died from too many cigarettes in 1982, aged 45.

He was a member of Oulipo, an experimental writing group that included Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino (the Italian I count as a big influence on my own writing). Oulipo toyed with writing constraints. Perec wrote a novel without using the letter e and another where e was the only vowel. Life is also subject to lists, arrangements of chapters according to Graeco-Latin squares (don't ask), even crossword puzzles.

It doesn't matter if you never notice these strictures (I didn't). What matters is the storytelling. It is just before eight in the evening on 23 June 1975 in 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, a fictitious apartment building in the XVIIth arrondissment in Paris. Perec stops time. An old, blind English millionaire, Bartlebooth, is just about to die at his desk. He holds in his hand a piece of a jigsaw puzzle.

In the quiet, like a surveying ghost, Perec moves through every room in the building and spins out stories on the characters stopped there. The effect is ever-changing. The stories cover several genres: romance, mystery, thriller, essay and comedy.

Throughout the knowledgeis arcane, brilliant and mischievous. In the internet age Perec may have fallen through the trapdoors of hyperlinks. Here, the scholarship feels substantial. In my first reading, 'Life' seemed celebratory and playful. As I went on, as a political and war correspondent, the world here and there cut to the bone, the book felt darker. People die alone, schemes fail. I thought this was Perec the orphan speaking, the desolate boy whose mother was killed in a Nazi death camp.

Now I prefer a more positive feeling. Perec is showing that life is precious – time, people, even objects – and is precious because they cannot last.

JM Ledgard is the author of 'Submergence' (Cape) and Africa correspondent of 'The Economist'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea