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'

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