Percival Bartlebooth is an English millionaire who realizes as a young man that his wealth has doomed him to a life of boredom. He decides to study watercolor with Serge Valene for 10 years, although he has no talent for painting. Accompanied by a servant, he sets out on a 20 year voyage around the world with the intention of painting watercolors of 500 different harbors. The entire book is constructed like a jigsaw puzzle. Perec uses an apartment building in Paris as the background and writes 99 short chapters, in addition to a preamble that is repeated twice, and an epilogue, to detail each room as well as the lives of all the buildings’ residents, past and present.
When he finishes a painting, he sends it to a man who also lives in the apartment building, Gaspard Winckler. He is a puzzle maker who Bartlebooth hires to turn the paintings into 750-piece puzzles. When Bartlebooth returns from his travels he puts the puzzles back together in chronological order. The painting is then sent to the place where it was originally painted. There it is dipped into chemicals that eliminate every trace of the painting. However, Winckler made the puzzles too difficult, and Bartlebooth does not live long enough to finish all 500. As Perec writes in the last paragraph of the 99th chapter: “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