George Perec is an author whose work fills me with delight, Species of Space and the other pieces found in this collection are wonderful. Insightful. Playful. Everyday. Extraordinary. Not least because he loves lists as much as I do, more perhaps. I read his piece on the Place Sans-Sulpice, and meant to read this too before going to Paris. So now it calls me back.
I particularly love how Perec is obsessed with space, but approaches it completely differently than would a planner, an architect, an urbanist. He approaches it from multiple directions, but almost none of them overlap with such work. The whole of Species of Space is to be found in this compilation, and excerpts from a few other works. I am almost annoyed at this stolen peek at them, because I loved this so much I shall have to go back and read all the rest.
Species of Space
It opens with this:
In short order you have a wonderful definition of our experience of space.
In short, spaces have multiplied, been broken up and have diversified. There are spaces today of every kind and every size, for every use and every function. To live is to pass from one space to another, while doing your very best not to bump yourself. (6)
There are poems from Paul Eluard, playful drippings of words and letters across the page, plenty of empty white space between black typography.
This is how space begins, with words only, signs traced on the blank page. To describe space: to name it, to trace it, like those portolano-makers who saturated the coastlines with the names of harbours…
Space as inventory, space as invention. Space begins with that model map in the old editions of the Petit Larousse Illustre, which used to represent something like 65 geographical terms in 60 sq, cm., miraculously brought together, deliberately abstract. (13)
I remember my own childhood pouring over something like the English equivalent of such a book, full of maps and descriptions and magic. A memory of being inordinately proud of a map of South America I drew. I feel as though that memory is housed in the trailer, which means I was not more than five.
Perec gives us this, a gift:
Sitting deep in thought at their tables, writers are forming lines of words.
An idealized scene. Space as reassurance. (15)
Is this partly what I love about writing?
From here he starts on the spaces of lived experience. He starts from the inside out so to speak, with the bed itself. An interesting choice, I feel a good one. Each thing he describes, he begins with the most banal and simple of descriptions, but it serves to take something familiar and make it suddenly unfamiliar — and because the time and space between us, what is familiar to Perec is in fact not always familiar to me.
A few other banalities:
We spend more than a third of our lives in bed. (19)
Moves on to the bedroom, notes the curious fact that he can visually reconstruct every room he’s ever slept in. A few observations:
What does it mean, to live in a room? Is to live in a place to take possession of it? …
Placid small thought no 1
Any cat-owner will rightly tell you that cats inhabit houses much better than people do. Even in the most dreadfully square spaces, they know how to find favourable corners. (24)
That is honestly one of the most insightful things I have ever read … because of course cats do. The question is, how?
From there to the apartment.
I don’t know, and don’t want to know, where functionality begins or ends. It seems to me, in any case, that in the ideal dividing-up of today’s apartments functionality functions in accordance with a procedure that is unequivocal, sequential and nycthemeral. (28)
The footnote? ‘This is the best phrase in the whole book!’
I might agree. I had to look up nycthemeral:
Adjective — Designating or characterized by a variation that occurs in a period of twenty-four hours, especially corresponding to the contrast between day and night. (Oxford Dictionary)
From here he proceeds to give an outline in three columns — time | activity | room. Again, the taken-for-granted of French housewife– working husband–child in school becomes estranged, and for me now so removed from such a life, really quite interesting.
The final section:
We don’t think enough about staircases.
Nothing was more beautiful in old houses than the staircases. Nothing is uglier, colder, more hostile, meaner, in today’s apartment buildings.(38)
I suddenly thought what a difference it would make to give modern apartment buildings wonderful, beautiful staircases.
We move on to the apartment building. Then to the Street.
The buildings stand one beside the other. They form a straight line. They are expected to form a line, and it’s a serious defect in them when they don’t do so. They are then said to be ‘subject to alignment’, meaning that they can by rights be demolished, so as to be rebuilt in a straight line with the others. (46)
I can’t believe this is a thing everywhere, it definitely was in LA.
He looks at ‘practical exercises’ for understanding the street —
Until the scene becomes improbable.
until you have the impression, for the briefest of moments, that you are in a strange town or, better still, until you can no longer understand what is happening or is not happening, until the whole place becomes strange, and you no longer even know that this is what is called a town, a street, buildings, pavement… (53)
On to the neighbourhood.
Death of a Neighbourhood
What I miss above all is the neighbourhood cinema, with its ghastly advertisements for the dry cleaner’s on the corner. (58)
A curious question, a provoking question that immediately raises in me a great rushing of answers:
Why not set a higher value on dispersal? Instead of living in just one place, and trying in vain to gather yourself together there, why not have fix or six rooms dotted about Paris? (59)
On to the Town. On to the countryside.
I don’t have a lot to say concerning the country: the country doesn’t exist. It’s an illusion.
For most people of my kind, the country is a decorative space surrounding their second home…(68)
That I find rather hilarious. As I do the whole section on the ‘Village Utopia’ (70), where you know everyone, live happily, recognize all the birds. It kind of reminds me of the Stuart Lee sketch about the family who leave London for the country and start by praising the pony and end begging for him to visit and to bring cocaine. This is not nearly as obvious, however. The next section is on the ‘Nostalgic (and false) alternative’ (71) — between putting down roots or living completely rootless. They are interesting posed this way.
On to the country. Europe. Old Continent. New Continent. The World.
In getting to know a few square meters, Perec writes
And with these, the sense of the world’s concreteness, irreducible, immediate, tangible, of something clear and closer to us: of the world, no longer as a journey having constantly to be remade, not as a race without end, a challenge having constantly to be met, not as the one pretext for a despairing acquisitiveness, nor as the illusion of a conquest, but as the rediscovery of a meaning, the perceiving that the earth is a form of writing, a geography of which we had forgotten that we ourselves are the authors. (79)
And on to space. A quote from Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. I don’t really like Italo Calvino, but I love Lawrence Stern’s Tristram Shandy, which Perec seems to love as much as I do and quotes from often and at length.
Then there is this extraordinary list, already pulled out and set in a blog alone because I treasure it, but repeated again in its context, where perhaps it sits a bit differently:
The uninhabitable: Seas used as a dump, coastlines bristling with barbed wire, earth bare of vegetation, mass graves, piles of carcasses, boggy rivers, towns that smell bad
The uninhabitable: The architecture of contempt or display, the vainglorious mediocrity of tower blocks, thousands of rabbit hutches piled one above the other, the cutprice ostentation of company headquarters
The uninhabitable: the skimped, the airless, the small, the mean, the shrunken, the very precisely calculated
The uninhabitable: the confined, the out-of-bounds, the encaged, the bolted, walls jagged with broken glass, judas windows, reinforced doors
The uninhabitable: shanty towns, townships
The hostile, the grey, the anonymous, the ugly, the corridors of the Metro, public baths, hangars, car parks, marshalling yards, ticket windows, hotel bedrooms
factories, barracks, prisons, asylums, old people’s homes, lycees, law courts, school playgrounds (89-90)
Followed by another disquieting paragraph
Such places don’t exist, and it’s because they don’t exist that space becomes a question, ceases to be self-evident, ceases to be incorporated, ceases to be appropriated. Space is a doubt: I have constantly to mark it, to designate it. It’s never mine, never given to me, I have to conquer it. (91)
Species of Space closes with the best index I have ever seen.
Penser / Classer (1985)
In ‘Notes on What I’m Looking For’, Perec describes four modes of his work, and this makes great sense of Species of Space and the other things I have read — and have yet to read. They are
‘sociological’: how to look at the everyday.
an autobiographical order (141)
The third is ludic and relates to my liking for constraints, for feats of skill, for ‘playing scales’….
the fictive, the liking for stories and adventures, the wish to write the sort of books that are devoured lying face down on your bed. (142)
Then there is ‘Notes Concerning the Objects that are on my Work Table’, a list, a thinking through of all the ways to arrange a desk (he has an ammonite in his desk!). There is ‘Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books. The stacks of books to read, half read, to be shelved…the constant rearranging by theme, by author. It is such an intimate look at a life so like mine it is uncanny, a friendship across years and miles.
A little later on you discover in ‘Reading: A Socio-physiological Outline’ that when Perec visits a friends house he raids their bookshelves for all the things he has long wanted to read, then retreats with a stack of them to his room to read through the night.
From ‘Approaches to What’, one of my very favourite quotes from the book, one that unexpectedly captures as well as Rob Nixon’s concept of ‘slow violence’ the difference between the spectacular and the everyday:
In our haste to measure the historic, significant and revelatory, let’s not leave aside the essential: the truly intolerable, the truly inadmissible. What is scandalous isn’t the pit explosion, it’s working in coalmines. ‘Social problems’ aren’t ‘a matter of concern’ when there’s a strike, they are intolerable twenty-four hours out of twenty-four, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. (209)
He perhaps captures even better at the level of the individual why these kind of problems are not better understood, better struggled against.
To question the habitual. But that’s just it, we’re habituated to it. We don’t question it, it doesn’t question us, it doesn’t seem to pose a problem, we live it without thinking, as if carried within neither questions nor answers … This is no longer even conditioning, it’s anaesthesia. We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep. But where is our life? Where is our body? Where is our space? (210)
A final, brilliant admonition that shall remain with me forever in the daily rituals of life.
Question your tea spoons. (210)
He wrote an amazing piece on the Rue Vilin — where I am headed next time I am in Paris. The street his family lived on, where he lived until he was five. He returns and describes it shop by shop, building by building, sign by sign, at different times of day (all noted of course) in February 1969, June 1970, January 1971, November 1972, November 1974, November 1975. We witness the death of the street as it was. It is poignant, extraordinary, while it never rises above concrete description.
A collection of postcard messages rendered extraordinary by being grouped together. A puzzle, recurring styles, so many good meals and sunburns.
A list of everything Perec has ‘ingurgitated’ over the whole of 1974. What struck me most? He gives years for each of the wines.
All together, as I say, this was a book combining delight and insight. I also loved that this ended with some of Perec’s (impossible, also slightly problematic) word games constructed for his friends, and a few from the translator.
I will now go read everything else he has written. Except maybe the novel without the letter e.
[Perec, Georges (1997) Species of Space and Other Pieces, edited & translated by John Sturrock. London: Penguin Books.]