Posts Tagged ‘Georges Perec’

The Top 12 List of the Favorite Fiction I Have Read in 2020


This being the year of the lockdown, I had time to read a couple of lengthy doorstop novels (‘The Maias’ and ‘Life A User’s Manual’) just like I used to do before I began writing regular blog posts. Also this year I discovered that there was some amazing fiction from the past which I had missed previously.

Click on either the bold-faced title or the cover image to see my original review for each work.


The Maias’ By Eça de Queirós (1888) – ‘The Maias’ is a jaunty vastly pleasurable trip in mid-to-late 19th-century Lisbon, Portugal society with some lively quick-witted companions. Readers new to Eça de Queirós can start with the short novella ‘The Yellow Sofa’ to determine if you like his style of writing or not.


‘A Burning’ by Megha Majumdar (2020) – ‘A Burning’ is a vivid powerful novel which focuses on one of the major crises in our world today, racial hatred. ‘A Burning’ is a world-changer if enough people read it and take it to their minds and souls.




‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell (2020) – A most intense depiction of family life and death in the late 16th century. Imagine an entire novel about William Shakespeare that contains not one line from his plays or his sonnets.




‘Tyll’ by Daniel Kehlmann (2017) – ‘Tyll’ is a sometimes light, sometimes black comedy which entirely suits the Thirty Years War. This novel is fascinating at the sentence level, a real accomplishment for both the author and the translator. Daniel Kehlmann brings a smart playful quality to his fiction that makes his writing well nigh irresistible.


Missionaries’ by Phil Klay (2020) – ‘Missionaries’ is a novel about the United States’ never-ending, misbegotten wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, and now Yemen. It is most focused on the drug wars in Colombia. ‘Missionaries’ opened my eyes to what is really happening in this world. It is a novel that will change your entire worldview.


‘Woe From Wit’ by Alexander Griboedov (1823) – From the very first words in the prologue of this verse play in four acts you can tell that it is going to be sharp and special:

Fate’s a mischief making tease,

That’s her character in brief,

a fool is blissfully at his ease,

a man of spirit comes to grief.


‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman (2017) – Someone could argue that the story in ‘Eleanor Oliphant’ is not very sophisticated. I do not see sophistication as a necessary or even desirable attribute of literature. Rather I see stating situations as simply and clearly as possible as one of the hallmarks of good literature, and that ‘Eleanor Oliphant’ does. Eleanor Oliphant’ is a poignant and affecting story.


‘Hurricane Season’ by Fernanda Melchor (2016) – ‘Hurricane Season’ is not for the squeamish or easily offended. The characters in this novel tell the truth about some very rough things. They are angry and the words they use are coarse and direct. Read ‘Hurricane Season’ if you are brave and honest enough to take it.



Other People’s Love Affairs’ by D. Wystan Owen (2018) – These eloquent stories go deeper into the circumstances and the psyches of their main characters than most stories do. People in them almost connect but not quite. This is a collection of short stories which will move you if you are willing to be moved.


‘Such a Fun Age’ by Kiley Reid (2020) – ‘Such a Fun Age’ is a novel with a light touch that captures the dialogue of people socializing, whether it be a group at a party or dinner or just two people alone. Rather than an individual character contemplating a problem or situation, we get the interplay of many voices. What this novel really excels in are exchanges between groups of young women, whether young mothers or young single women. Kiley Reid’s enthusiasm for her story rubs off on the reader.


Indelicacy’ by Amina Cain (2020) – ‘Indelicacy’ is a powerful novella about creativity. Can a woman who cleans toilets and mops floors for a living have strong ambitions to be a writer? ‘Indelicacy’ answers that question with a resounding “Yes”. ‘Indelicacy’ is a novel about the struggle to create. One gets the impression that Amina Cain carefully chose each precise word in this unusual novella ‘Indelicacy’. It is a work that captures you on a visceral level rather than an intellectual level, which is always a good thing.


‘Life A User’s Manual’ by Georges Perec (1978) – I just cannot leave this novel off my year’s best list even though at times I loathed, loathed it and at other times I loved, loved it.






Also this year I read two excellent works of non-fiction – ‘The Splendid and the Vile’ by Erik Larson and ‘Chronicles: Volume One’ by Bob Dylan.





My favorite collection of poems in 2020 is ‘Failing Heaven’ by Charles Behlen.










‘Life A Users Manual’ by Georges Perec – A More Traditional Review


‘Life A Users Manual’ by Georges Perec (1978) – 568 pages         Translated from the French by David Bellos

Reading ‘Life A Users Manual’ was an exasperating yet rewarding experience.

I am not going to pretend that I loved every one of the interminable lists of objects that Perec inundates us with or all the ornate or banal items on these lists. I remember one time when Perec is enumerating and lengthily describing all the appliances in a home improvement catalog, I skipped a couple of pages until the list finally ended. And I’m someone who usually has to read every word of a fictional work in order to feel that I’ve given it a chance. I certainly felt bad about skipping whole pages, but I could not see the point in reading them.

It took me awhile to discover the playful, antic, mischievous spirit of this work.

In the chapter “Valene (Servants Quarters, 9), Perec gives us a list of 179 story ideas including:

82 The lady who was interested in hoarding clockwork mechanisms

108 A painstaking scientist examining rats’ reactions to poisons

Some of these story ideas Perec later uses in ‘Life A Users Manual’.

At one point, Perec includes in one of his tales the story of someone who works for a company that produces a dictionary. New words are constantly being added to the dictionary, but Perec imagines someone whose job it is to remove words from the dictionary in order to make room for the new words. How do you decide that a word is no longer of use, for example a locomotive horse for children called a velocimane? Of course Perec gives us other examples of words which are removed.

LOUPIAT (masc. nn) Fam: Drunk “She was bloody stuck with her loupiat of a husband.” (E. Zola)

Georges Perec is the kind of writer who can find the magic in old dictionary definitions of obsolete words.

A Bedroom at 11 Rue Simon Crubellier

You must approach Perec with the spirit that he might just be putting you on, playing a trick on you. He might be taking advantage of your good intentions as a reader. You might not get the joke right away, but when you look back on it you might figure out that he was fooling you. The last thing you can assume is that Georges Perec is being straight with you. There is always a twist.

At last ‘Life A Users Manual’ with all of its endless lists and misbegotten tales broke down my resistance to it.


Grade:   A-


The Distinguishing Characteristics of ‘Life A Users Manual’ by Georges Perec which I Have Now Read


Some of these items may be contradictory. So be it.

In ‘Life A Users Manual’, the lives of all the people who lived in the apartment building at 11 Rue Simon Crubellier in Paris fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

We are introduced to the residents of each apartment in the building by a description of the furnishings in the apartment. Georges Perec takes a sensuous pleasure in describing the objects in the rooms of the various flats in the building. These descriptions of objects are opulent, colorful, exquisitely detailed, and exceedingly long. There were such greater varieties of objects back in the days before all our products became mass-produced, uniform, and always the same with little diversity or spirit.

George Perec is a completist. Perec cannot mention anyone drinking whiskey without describing the picture on the label of the whiskey bottle (“a jovial wench giving a dram to a mustachioed grenadier in a bearskin hat”).

When Perec makes a list, it is sure to be exhaustive and exhausting. When listing all of the food provisions stored on the left hand wall shelves of the Altamonts’ cellar, he lists (I counted; I may have miscounted, but this number is close) 121 items including large jars of mustard and gherkins to sardines in oil to vermicelli to sausage and lentil stew. I found these massive lists which go on for pages and pages quite exasperating. The lists for furniture and room decorations and clothing tend to be somewhat more interesting, but the list of home decorating and outfitting appliances found in a catalog was even less engaging and more lengthy.

This is the busiest novel I have ever read. It wears you down, your resistance.

For some time, I considered the possibility that Perec created these interminable lists of sometimes banal items as a sly comic trick on his readers, and I still believe that may be partially true.

The reader can’t be sure if he is being conned or enlightened. In the long run, it probably doesn’t matter.” – Paul Auster

With his elaborate lush descriptions and long, long sentences, Perec’s style is the opposite of minimalism. I will call his style maximalism.

In many of the sentences I would often lose track of what Perec was first discussing as he moved on to involved situations of his many, many characters or long lists of ornately described objects. This was quite vexing for me.

If you could make your way through each long sentence without getting distracted, you are a better reader than I.

Georges Perec was a member of Oulipo, the Parisian group which had/has as its goal “constrained writing”. One of Perec’s constraints must have been that before telling his characters’ story, he had to describe all the flat’s furnishings and objects of interest. I can see how describing these objects in the rooms could be a spur to creating an interesting story.

I much preferred the sections in the novel where Perec tells a straightforward story without all the clutter.

Certainly ‘Life A User’s Manual’ is often quite annoying for the reader, but it is also endlessly inventive.

Life A Users Manual’ gives the lie to the literary trend of minimalism. Sometimes more is more. Sometimes more is better.

When Perec finally gets around to telling stories about his characters, they are quite fun and humorous to read. If you are not overwhelmed by all the ornate description of objects in front of them, you will probably enjoy them.

Perec expends seven pages capturing the high drama of one of his main protagonists Bartlebooth fitting the 750 pieces of a wooden jigsaw puzzle into a finished picture.

His characters tend to be hugely successful at first but ultimately come to a disappointing end or visa-versa. Many of these human endeavors screw up.

To read Georges Perec one must be ready to abandon oneself to a spirit of play.” – Paul Auster

‘Life A Users Manual’ gives the lie to the literary trend of realism. Sometimes the more far-fetched, the better. Take, for example, when Perec likens the apartment building to an iceberg. I have rarely read anything so humorous as what Perec describes as being in the basement of the building. I’m learning to love lists.

Finally ‘Life A User’s Manual’ is a collection of tales. In the last index in the novel he lists all of the 108 tales therein and in which chapter they can be found.

Perec is mischievous. In the chapter titled “Foulerot, 3” after spelling out all of the other objects in the apartment, Perec spends a couple pages lavishing attention to a painting sitting on the floor of the apartment. Then he proceeds to tell the detective story which is depicted in the painting, a ridiculous story where all three of the suspects have murdered the Swiss diamond trader Oswald Zeitgeber who also commits suicide. The story has nothing to do with the apartment building besides being depicted in that picture, but it is fun to read anyhow.

Perec’s theme in ‘Life A User Manual’ appears to be the uselessness of human endeavor, perhaps starting with reading this novel. One could spend years tracking all the obscure references that Perec makes in ‘Life A User’s Manual’, but that would also be useless.

Here is what Perec seems to be really telling us. The main point in both literature and life is not the end destination but the trip along the way. You and I might as well take our time and enjoy the objects, people, and stories around us.

A more traditional review of ‘Life A User Manual’ will soon follow.


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