It feels like that wooden jigsaw I left unfinished in Maine in August has been haunting me. I’m seeing puzzles everywhere, even in books. First, there’s the invention of mass-produced cardboard puzzles in Betsy Carter’s novel about Jewish immigrants who escape Germany for New York during the 1930s. Drawing on her own family’s trials, tribulations, and triumphs, Carter has written an absorbing historical saga, in which the title character’s brainstorm plays a consequential role:
“A jigsaw puzzle makes good sense,” he said. “Right now, nobody has the money to spend on movies or any other outside entertainment. A family can take days putting together a good jigsaw.” It would be a great escape, he reasoned, and best of all, finishing it would give everyone a sense of accomplishment, something that was hard to come by with unemployment rate creeping up toward 25 percent.
The puzzling thing about puzzles for Carter’s protagonist is how to manufacture them in a way that doesn’t involve the intricate — and costly — sawing of wooden pieces. What’s puzzling about puzzles for novelist Margaret Drabble, as related in her new memoir, The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws, is psychological rather than mechanical, and deeply entwined with both her childhood memories and the emotional and practical demands of her husband’s battle with cancer. Concluding her Foreword, she writes:
Doing jigsaws and writing about them has been one of my strategies to defeat melancholy and avoid laments. Boswell regretted that his friend Samuel Johnson did not play draughts after leaving college, ‘for it would have afforded him an innocent soothing relief from the melancholy which distressed him so often’. Jigsaws have offered me and many others an innocent soothing relief, and this is where this book began and where it ends.
You’d think that would be enough jigsaws to encounter in a fortnight of reading, and I certainly expected that to be the case — until I opened, with great eagerness, a new paperback edition (for which David Bellos has revised and corrected his own exquisite translation from the French) of Georges Perec’s sui generis novel, Life: A User’s Manual.
The pieces are readable, take on a sense, only when assembled; in isolation, a puzzle piece means nothing — just an impossible question, an opaque challenge. But as soon as you have succeeded, after minutes of trial and error, or after a prodigious half-second flash of inspiration, in fitting it into one of its neighbours, the piece disappears, ceases to exist as a piece. The intense difficulty preceding this link-up — which the English word puzzle indicates so well — not only loses its raison d’être, it seems never to have had any reason, so obvious does the solution appear. The two pieces so miraculously conjoined are henceforth one, which in its turn will be a source of error, hesitation, dismay, and expectation.
I am sure I will be piecing my way through Perec’s monumental storytelling puzzle — an anatomy of a single moment in time (8:00 p.m. on June 23, 1975) in a Parisian apartment building — for the next several weeks. With pleasure.