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'

Arts and Entertainment
The Rolling Stones at the Roundhouse in London in 1971: from the left, Keys, Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor and Mick Jagger

Music ...featuring Eric Clapton no less
Arts and Entertainment
In the dock: Dot Branning (June Brown); Union boss claims EastEnders writers are paid less than minimum wage

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Roger Christian wrote and directed the 1980 Black Angel original, which was lost until 2011

film
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Green (Hand out press photograph provided by Camilla Gould)

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones reviewWarning: Spoilers aplenty
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
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.

    Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

    ‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

    Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

    ... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
    12 best olive oils

    Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

    Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back