When you try to describe this book to someone you realise the ambition of Georges Perec. He describes a Parisian apartment block and then goes through it room by room describing the notable features and objects and telling the stories of those who lived in the rooms both past and present. At points he goes off on long interesting tangents and at others he concentrates of a developing story that concludes the book. In between he redefines the reading experience with lists of the tales that feature in the book as well as illustrations of the words that occasionally pop up on books and papers in the apartment.
There is no chance that this review can do the book justice, not because it is some work of genius that is above criticism, but because it is in place indefinable and as a result you might be able to pin down one part that works or doesn’t work but there are 100 other parts that are different.
There are several different things going on here with a story of the puzzle maker and the puzzle solver with Winckler and Bartlebooth; a comment on the state of Paris by the way the building is threatened by destruction; along with that there are lots of different stories, some short and some long, about the people who live in the flats. But at the end he manages to compress it all into seconds and that is one of the most powerful moments of the book, when you realise that all of these observations have been made without time passing more than a fraction of a few seconds. But the story that you are left with is one of a rich Englishman Bartlebooth who spends ten years learning how to paint watercolours, twenty years painting 500 different ports and then sending them back for Winckler to make into 750-piece jigsaw puzzles. Bartlebooth then solves the puzzles at a rate of one a fortnight and sends them back to where they were created and they are dipped into the water and the blank sheet of paper is sent back to him – a pointless life’s work but one that is completely harmless. But in the end it is made hazardous by the interest from the media, the personal cost to Bartlebooth with blindness and the almost bitter battle he plays out against Winckler who puts traps into the puzzles with the way he shapes the pieces. There are a hundred plus stories that run alongside this one but ultimately it is the Bartlebooth story you remember and it is with his death that the book concludes.
IS it well written?
You will probably struggle to find a book that is similar to this in ambition and style. It is brilliant at weaving a web that maintains the interest and continues to show what life is like in Paris and how it has changed. In a way this is a psychological battle over a jigsaw, a social history of Paris and a series of tales that are of differing interest. But it is never dull and you have to credit Perec with a style that keeps it going. Part of the reason it does keep going is because unlike Proust, who is equally ambitions in using objects to describe an era or a person, Perec reels off long lists of paintings and books but in a very detached way that allows the reader to walk through the apartment block almost like a museum or in some ways as a ghost travelling between the past and the present.
Should it be read?
This should be tackled by anyone who wants to see what French literature had to say for itself in the 1960s and 70s. There is a hint of the heavy war time legacy with a couple of characters having wartime obsessions but most of the book illustrates a society that is class ridden, based on money as well as heritage, and although living in a community still deeply individualistic. From a budding writer point of view it shows how far you can push a style, from a reader’s point of view makes you dwell on the thin line between a tale and real experience and from a sociologist point of view provides a great idea of the differences between people living all within a few metres of each other.
A society is shown through the world of an apartment block with the puzzle of life never quite being solved
Version read – Harvill paperback