by Georges Perec is set in 11 rue Simon-Crubellier at 8pm, June 23, 1975.
It tells you all you need to know about life.
It contains algorithms and puzzles too.
"Life A User’s Manual" is the book I’d take to a desert island. As its title suggests, it tells you everything you need to know about life. It’s also packed with great stories, and hidden inside are secret algorithms and mind-bending puzzles.
The book’s author Georges Perec was — and still is — a member of OuLiPo, a literary collective of writers and mathematicians who apply algorithms and formal constraints to works of fiction. For example:
Life A User’s Manual is a tour de force of such techniques. It’s also a knight’s tour. The diagram above shows the layout of 11 rue Simon Crubellier, Paris, where the action takes place. It’s a 10 by 10 grid. On floor 3, Percival Bartlebooth inhabits a large flat. Serge Valene, the artist, has a bedsit. Smautf, Bartlebooth’s man-servant, lives in an attic room. The basement contains cellars, lift machinery. And so on.
The knight starts in the centre of the building, on the stairs, where chapter 1 begins. Taking a step, the knight arrives in Madame de Beaumont’s flat, where chapter 2 is set. Now to chapter 3, the Foreau’s; 4, Marquiseaux; eventually finishing at chapter 99, located in the room where Percival Bartlebooth is struggling to finish a jigsaw puzzle made by the late Gaspard Winckler.
The knight’s tour will visit each square exactly once, providing an elegant route through the novel. Perec devised a more intricate scheme to furnish the chapters. Here’s an Euler square of order 5. The Latin characters A to E and the Greek α to ε are arranged so that each pair occurs once and each letter appears exactly once on every row and column.
Now imagine a 10 by 10 Euler square. Euler himself couldn’t construct one and conjectured none existed, and it took 200 years before a computer program proved otherwise. Just what Perec needed! He overlaid his chess board with an Euler square of order 10 populated not by 2 lists of letters, but by 42 lists of 10 things.
The knight’s tour and Euler square form an engine which generates a text like no other. If Perec’s User Manual sounds like an elaborate catalog, well, in a sense it is; but Perec is a story teller of genius and his solution to the combined constraints is a web of interlocking stories. A page turner! If, on the first read, you can’t stop to savour the details, never mind: there’s a comprehensive index so you can return to a favourite section later. Besides, you’ll have time on your island.
Of course there’s a bug: the OuLiPo know all about the clinamen, the deviation exhibited by even the smallest sub-atomic particles. Wind the knight back to chapter 65. On the next step the knight fails to visit the bottom left corner, instead making an illegal move to a diagonal neighbour. This twist is what makes the book truly lifelike. As software developers, maybe Perec and the Oulipo have a lesson for us. Rather than despair of the bugs in our work, perhaps we should celebrate them for keeping our products real.
Icons: glyphicons.com, license: CC BY 3.0.