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The transition from W to M in 'Life a User's Manual.' (Georges Perec/Felipe Alfau)

The "classic" palindrome is a great deal different, because in each direction its component letters and signs are identical, although such a symmetry does not of course make them (all) invariable. Only in the sequence does a true symmetry exist; the elements of the sequence are themselves not penetrated by the mirror transformation.

It was then possible to conceive of a linguistic palindrome that more closely approximated a total visual symmetry, the letters reflected in relation to flat horizontal or vertical surfaces playing roles that differ with each reading (the reader must assume the central existence of a horizontal mirror of this sort for the crucial transition from W to [right arrow] I [sub-section] 143 M in Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec). The imaginary languages sprung from the dream and speaking to each other in the dissymmetrical double of the ("real") Project and of the ("mirror") novel could permit themselves this appropriate constraint.

My assumptions went even further: it is obvious that the visual palindromic relationship is reversible, but what's not reversible is that each language can be created as a reflection of the other. I saw myself "in" the project, for example, looking at the written novel, in the mirror language, in its language as a mirror-image, and vice versa. I saw the parlance, or discourse, of each as a translation derived from the other language and therefore never speaking either of these two languages as a natural language, but always as seen from another vantage, in the mirror, darkly.

I would be a translator, my task twofold. Like all translators, I would pass through to the other side of the looking glass of my own language, toward the other, which is only its reflection.

143 ([sub-section] 61) The transition from W to M in Life A User's Manual

W/M

W is mirrored by M on the page; on each side of the line the two letters stand facing each other.

In Life A User's Manual, W, the signature of "The Memory of Childhood" by way of a name, Gaspard Winckler, recurs as the sign of the failure of a plan, the hero's plan, the plan of Bartlebooth (principally, in fact, beneath "Winckler's ... hidden and subtle attack").

It is eight o'clock in the evening. Seated at his jigsaw puzzle, Bartlebooth has just died ... somewhere in the crepuscular sky... of the puzzle, the black hole of the sole piece not yet filled in has the almost perfect shape of an X. But the ironical thing, which could have been foreseen long ago, is that the piece the dead man holds between his fingers is shaped like a W.

The abstract account of the motives behind Bartlebooth's grand plan - brought to ruin by a W - makes it look just like a work in prose to be written under constraint:

Three guiding principles.

The first was moral: the plan ... would be difficult of course, but not impossibly so, controlled from start to finish and conversely controlling every detail of the life of the man engaged upon it.

The second was logical: all recourse to chance would be ruled out, and the project would make time and space serve as ... abstract coordinates ...

The third was aesthetic: the plan would be useless ... its perfection would be circular ... starting from nothing, passing through precise operations on finished objects, Bartlebooth would end up with nothing.

Figure in the carpet: the plan which inscribes Bartlebooth inside itself as an allegory of the self-same plan "chooses every word, sets every comma, dots every i" of the whole novel.

There can be no doubt that what is at stake here is a metaphor of Oulipo, of all writing in constricted form; but also at stake is a recognition of the failure (at least as far as the fictional character is concerned) of the planned constraint, of the impossibility of its completion.

The figure of this impossibility in Life A User's Manual is Meander: "a little port in the Dardanelles at the mouth of the river which the Ancient Greeks called Maiandros." The river Meander was allegedly the son of Ocean by his sister Thetys, the goddess of the sea's riches, and the sibling of the world's three thousand waterways that flow into the sea. Meander was the only one amongst them to be reluctant and to delay his unavoidable end - to put off meeting his father Ocean and his mother the mother of the sea, to mingle with them "in the dusk-charged air."

The M, the M of Meander and Mortality, the mirror-image of W, leaves the "black hole" of its signature in Bartlebooth's puzzle, the signature which constraint - any constraint - forever attempts to show and to hide by leaving a void.

That is the set of images and image-deductions to which I refer, with my mind on imaginary languages emerging from dreams, on the "Adamic" language of dream.
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Author:Roubaud, Jacques; Di Bernardi, Dominic; Bellos, David
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Words:813
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