From the favourer: "For me, it's a guidebook to the everyday; a framework for our immediate spaces; an elevation of the small things into special things; a gentle reminder that we create our own worlds everywhere, all the time, in all the smallest ways. Sometimes I read it just to reset my mind. It's a favourite because it makes new things possible."
Is it wrong that I decided to read this book next because the author has cool hair? It's in pretty good shape on the cover of the book, but there are other, even more spectacular versions:
And he obviously loves his cat:
So basically I was already rather fond of Georges Perec before I even started reading this collection of his non-fiction pieces. He's probably best known for his novel La Disparition - English title 'A Void', a novel of more than 300 pages that completely avoided using the letter 'e'. He also wrote a palindrome of more than 5000 characters!
The title piece Species of Spaces, is a gentle exploration of everyday surroundings and objects, starting with the page (that is being written on) and gradually moving outwards to examine the apartment, the street, the town, the country, the world, and outer space. Perec looks at common objects and places (the bed, the staircase) and the worlds we create around them. I suppose it's essentially a kind of philosophical exploration of our ordinary spaces, but it's written with such lightness that it's fun to read, rather than being...well...'improving'. Those of you who know me will know I'm a bit over Being Educated, so for me to persist with a non-fiction book it has to be accessible, and preferably funny. This book is often both.
There are lovely asides, such as the sub-section of the 'Bedroom' chapter, delightfully entitled: 'Placid small thought no. 1'. It reads:
"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."
Some sections are quite touching, even if you can't quite pinpoint why: "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. We should learn to live more on staircases. But how?"
(Actually, I think the answer to this 'how?' is to live for a while in a residential college - most of your time is spent sitting, lying or hovering on staircases, not-quite-willing to part from new friends when you should have gone back to your room to study or sleep.)
Like Alain de Botton in The Art of Travel, Perec suggests ways to look at our surroundings in new ways - to really notice what is around us, rather than just assuming we have seen it before:
"Force yourself to write down what is of no interest, what is most obvious, most common, most colourless...antique shops, clothes, hi-fi, etc. Don't say, don't write 'etc'. Make an effort to exhaust the subject, even if that seems grotesque, or pointless, or stupid. You still haven't looked at anything, you've merely picked out what you've long ago picked out."
A section on tourism recalls Des Esseintes' discovery (in Huysmans' Against Nature): "Rather than visit London, stay at home, in the chimney corner, and read the irreplaceable information supplied by Baedeker" (a travel guide).
(An aside - isn't it funny how the more favourite books I read, the more they connect up? Or is it just that I remember books better if I write about them?)
Just as Perec can make a bedroom seem as vast as a planet, he can also make the world at large as relevant to us as our own bedrooms. Even though the keenest travellers will only ever see a fraction of the world's umpteen objects and corners, we each make our own world from what we do see. From cats in corners and beds to countries and continents, we create our own personal sense of "the world, no longer as a journey having constantly to be remade, not as a race without an 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."
(I had a little cry when I read that passage.)
Species of Spaces is undoubtedly the centrepiece of this collection. The rest of the pieces in the book (some of which grabbed my interest more than others) all show Perec's love of play - both wordplay and playful writing. My favourite pieces are (typically) the more flippant ones - like his list of 'Some of the Things I Really Must Do Before I Die', which reaches point #37 ("Make the acquaintance of Valdimir Nabokov") and then promptly concludes:
There are lots of others for sure.
I gladly stop at 37."
There is a brief musing on American and French verbs - Perec notes that while the French have no verb for zip fastening (while Americans have the verb "to zip up"), neither Frenchmen nor Americans have a verb that means "to drink a glass of white wine with a friend from Burgundy, at the Cafe des Deux-Magots, around six o'clock on a rainy day, while talking about the non-meaningfulness of the world, knowing that you have just met your old chemistry teacher and that next to you a young woman is saying to her neighbour: 'You know, I showed her some in every colour!' "
A piece examining small, everyday things ('l'infra-ordinaire' or the 'infra-ordinary'), challenges the reader to "question your teaspoons." Ours are quite questionable, having been mostly nicked from cafes by Luka, when we give him our coffee spoons to play with and he tucks them quietly behind his knees in the pram, only to be discovered once we get home again. Perhaps we will be able to measure out his childhood with coffee spoons.
There are even examples of the intricate wordplay puzzles Perec would send his friends at New Year, and 'indexes' that place "Freud, Sigmund" between "Fat men" and "Fruit jelly".
But my favourite moment is in Species of Spaces itself, where a particularly impenetrable sentence displays a footnote sign "1." at its conclusion. Oh good, I thought, he's going to explain it and I won't have to look up any of the words.
I look down to the 'explanatory' footnote, and it reads:
"1. This is the best phrase in the whole book!"
Georges Perec: Word-tease.
And what was this 'best phrase in the whole book'?
I suppose you'll have to read it for yourself.*
*I can be a word-tease too.