My wife and I have just finished reading Life: A User’s Manual, and we’re still reeling and wondering what just happened. (Why were there all those detailed descriptions of paintings and tabletops?) Wonderful book, but we need to let it settle and maybe do some research.
Anyway, from a Languagehat point of view, the standout chapter was undoubtedly 60: Cinoc, 1. First there’s a discussion of his name:
He provided the inhabitants of the building, and especially Madame Claveau, with an immediate, difficult problem: how was his name to be pronounced? … As a result of which, a delegation went to ask the principal person concerned, who replied that he didn’t know himself which was the most proper way of pronouncing his name. His family’s original surname, the one which his great-grandfather, a saddler from Szczyrk, had purchased officially from the Registry Office of the County of Krakow, was Kleinhof: but from generation to generation, from passport renewal to passport renewal, either because the Austrian or German officials weren’t bribed sufficiently, or because they were dealing with staff of Hungarian or Poldavian or Moravian or Polish origin who read “v” and wrote it as “ff” or who saw “c” and heard it as “tz,” or because they came up against people who never needed to try very hard to become somewhat illiterate and hard of hearing when having to give identity papers to Jews, the name had retained nothing of its original pronunciation and spelling…
Then we move on to the really good stuff:
Cinoc, who was then about fifty, pursued a curious profession. As he said himself, he was a “word-killer”: he worked at keeping Larousse dictionaries up to date. But whilst other compilers sought out new words and meanings, his job was to make room for them by eliminating all the words and meanings that had fallen into disuse.
When he retired in nineteen sixty-five, after fifty-three years of scrupulous service, he had disposed of hundreds and thousands of tools, techniques, customs, beliefs, sayings, dishes, games, nicknames, weights and measures; he had wiped dozens of islands, hundreds of cities and rivers, and thousands of townships off the map; he had returned to taxonomic anonymity hundreds of varieties of cattle, species of birds, insects, and snakes, rather special sorts of fish, kinds of crustaceans, slightly dissimilar plants and particular breeds of vegetables and fruit; and cohorts of geographers, missionaries, entomologists, Church Fathers, men of letters, generals, Gods & Demons had been swept by his hand into eternal obscurity.
Who would know ever again what a vigigraphe was, “a type of telegraph consisting of watchtowers communicating with each other”? … Where had all the abunas gone, patriarchs of the Abyssinian Church, and the palatines, fur tippets worn by women in winter, so named after the Princess Palatine who introduced their use into France in the minority of Louis XIV, and the chandernagors, those gold- spangled NCOs who marched at the head of Second Empire processions?
Eventually “he decided to compile a great dictionary of forgotten words, … simple words which still appealed to him. In ten years he gathered more than eight thousand of them…” And the chapter ends with thirty such words, e.g. BEAUCEANT “Name of the Knights Templars’ standard” and VIGNON “Prickly gorse.” Wonderful stuff! (Incidentally, “Poldavian” is an inside joke: Poldavia is the putative homeland of the imaginary Nicolas Bourbaki, the tutelary spirit of the Bourbaki group after which Perec’s Oulipo was modeled.)
Addendum. I knew there must be a site that detailed all the constraints on each chapter and (most importantly from my point of view) identified the numerous quotations within the novel, and here it is. It’s in French, but it shouldn’t be too hard to use even if your French is fairly minimal. [Rats, a little further investigation has shown that in fact hardly any of the quotes are identified; I just happened to hit first on the Borges page, which did identify some. Ah well, I will continue to search; if anyone knows of a good resource, please share.]