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From its founding by the poet Raymond Queneau and writer François Le Lionnais in 1960, the French OuLiPo sought to create new literary structures through the introduction of mathematics into the writing process. Among the works generated through the OuLiPian process is La vie mode d’emploi by Georges Perec, a novel of considerable depth describing the lives of residents in an apartment in Paris and weaving throughout numerous themes and leitmotifs. In his preface to the novel, Perec implicitly invites the reader to approach its elements just as they would a puzzle, fitting them together in a ludic search for meaning. Two such elements are the theme of l’inachévable and the leitmotif of life-consuming projects. In this paper, I will investigate these two elements as a means to comprehending the novel’s approach to life, death, and the absolute. By examining on the three primary projects that lie at the center of the novel — Bartlebooth’s self-effacing world tour, Valène’s painting of the same apartment which is the novel’s setting, and Winckler’s artisan puzzles — we find a recurrent pattern. Restrictions on experience through careful aesthetic devotion will, they hope, clear the way to an absolute — or, at the very least, a “personal absolute.” However, these regimens, meant to manage reality by trimming it, merely reveal that even strictly framed experience contains more depth than an individual can know. Upon their death, all three leave behind evidence to the unachieved state of their work: evidence which then will become part of La vie mode d’emploi’s world and contribute greater depth to its reality. Through this process, Perec establishes a view of the absolute as too dense to become coherent, while also explaining this density by relating it to the human artifacts created in order to dilute it.

Publication Date



Logan, UT


literary structures, mathematics, writing process, novel


French and Francophone Language and Literature

Puzzling Failure in Life: A User's Manual/La Vie Mode d'Emploi