Following my recent post on the meaning of life, I recalled Georges Perec’s great novel, Life: A User’s Manual, which I first encountered in a 1987 book review by Paul Auster in the New York Times, here.
If anyone can be called the central character in this shifting, kaleidoscopic work, it would have to be Percival Bartlebooth, an eccentric English millionaire whose insane and useless 50-year project serves as an emblem for the book as a whole. Realizing as a young man that his wealth has doomed him to a life of boredom, Bartlebooth undertakes to study the art of watercolor with Serge Valene for a period of 10 years. Although he has no aptitude whatsoever for painting, he eventually reaches a satisfactory level of competence. Then, in the company of a servant, he sets out on a 20-year voyage around the world with the sole intention of painting watercolors of 500 different harbors and seaports.
As soon as one of these pictures is finished, he sends it to a man in Paris by the name of Gaspard Winckler, who also lives in the building. Winckler is an expert puzzle-maker whom Bartlebooth has hired to turn the watercolors into 750-piece jigsaw puzzles. One by one, the puzzles are made and stored in wooden boxes. When Bartlebooth returns from his travels and settles back into his apartment, he will methodically go about putting the puzzles together in chronological order. By means of an elaborate chemical process, the borders of the puzzle pieces have been glued together in such a way that the seams are no longer visible, thus restoring the watercolor to its original integrity. The painting, good as new, can then be removed from its wooden backing and sent to the place where it was originally executed. There it will be dipped into a detergent solution that eliminates all traces of the painting, yielding a clean and unmarked sheet of paper.
In other words, Bartlebooth will be left with nothing, the same thing he started with.
The idea of wasting the second half of your life trying to make sense of all you did in the first half I have found to be increasingly insightful as I age.
FWIW, Auster’s 1987 review appears to have been plagiarized, without any acknowledgement, in this 1999 post.
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