"Originally published in French in 1978 as La Vie mode d'emploi by Editions Hachette Litterature, Paris"--T.p. verso.
Similarities between this book and the Goldberg Variations are, of course, not so striking at all, when keeping in mind that Perec' masterpiece is dedicated to Oulipo's founding father Raymond Queneau. After being deeply moved by a performance of Bach's Art of the Fugue, Queneau came up with a new approach to literature with a strong emphasis on structure and the "language material". While Queneau's own "Style Exercises" may be the best known Oulipo work, Perec' Users Manual, digs infinitely deeper.
Like all masterworks, the basic idea of the User's Manual is simple. Divide an imaginary apartment building into a two-dimensional 10x10 grid. Use a chess' knight's jump to move from space to space without visiting one spot twice and use a variety of other rules governing the various elements within the rooms and let the imagination run "wild".
Perec' uses the jigsaw puzzle as leitmotiv of this book.
Perec's genius - and, contrary to what one reviewer has written, it's precisely his very human, and very warm and tender understanding of humanity that generates this - is his keen insight that everything contains a story, be it the postcard on the desk, or a particular painting on a wall, or a puzzle piece that just doesn't fit. Perec takes an apartment building and jumps from room to room, grabbing at these bits of minutae, following their backstories, and creating one of the most complex and beautiful mosaics of life that's ever been put into words. As each room yields its secrets, we see that a tiny apartment building in Paris really does contain the whole world - a huge swath of history, languages, peoples, and cultures; comedy, tragedy, mystery, and drama; personal and public; fiction and nonfiction; poetry, prose, lists, games, recipes, articles, signs, crossword puzzles...
Flip to the back and check out the index - it's intimidating, and yet - it's all there, in one building, waiting to be discovered and explored.
I can't comment on the translation, unfortunately - I've only read it in the original. But Perec's language is always tight, witty, and deeply insightful. This is certainly one of the great works of world fiction, and absolutely not to be missed.