The only thing that’s keeping me reading Life A User’s Manual (Georges Perec) are these effusive Amazon reviews, which promise that if I just stick it out a bit longer all will become clear and wonderful and no longer stupefyingly boring. I’ve been reminding myself of all this for 78 pages now, which is not unreasonably long for a book to get going (many others have wonderful beginnings and then meander into mediocrity), but I must say that much of what’s keeping me grimly soldiering on is the need to believe that I’m still an intellectual being in fields other than the law.
Another obstacle to my making headway with the book is the presence of White Fang on my bedside table. Somewhere in Spain, talking about childhood reading, we discovered that we both really loved White Fang but were less enthused with The Call Of The Wild, because White Fang was way cooler than Buck, who sometimes tended towards wussiness. But despite the fact that I knew I’d always had a definite preference, and I’d probably read both books over ten times each when I was younger, I couldn’t actually remember distinct plotlines for each one any more. These memory lapses tend to trouble me quite a lot, less because of the simple argh-it’s-on-the-tip-of-my-tongue aspect of trying and failing to remember, more because of that old worry I have about how much I’ve forgotten – that I haven’t just forgotten particular nuggets of knowledge, but that I’ve also forgotten I ever possessed the knowledge at all.
So I got the book out of the UCL library the other day, and it’s honestly been like a homecoming. What’s fascinating is that standard aspects of narrative like plot and the names of characters are still hazy. What swims back to me with startlingly familiar clarity are little, relatively insignificant things. At the beginning, the revelation of the lone man battling the pack of wolves with firebrands, of the wonderful intricacy of his being – the way his little finger, too close to the flame, automatically re-adjusts itself on the wood. I used to be able to see that little finger shrinking from the flame, the wolves skulking in the darkness out of the corner of my eye. When the puppy later named White Fang first ventures out of the den where he was born, tumbles into a nest of baby ptarmigans, picks one up in his mouth and naturally begins to eat it, I could always taste the salt of its blood, feel the splintering of delicate bones.