Friday 10 April 2020


Species of Spaces by Georges Perec    {Reviewed by THOMAS}
The page. The bed. The bedroom. The apartment. The building. The street. The neighbourhood. The town. The mind moves out from its location, its centre, towards the universe, towards 'outer space', through a series of conceptual concentric 'spaces', and whatever is beyond the mind presses in upon it, from these and through these concentric spaces towards their conceptual centre, the mind of whoever conceives of spaces, towards, ultimately, the page. Georges Perec, amiable company for a mind out for some local exercise, is ever aware of the peculiar relationship between objects and language (could we conceive of one without the other?), ever aware of the freighting of objects both with memories and with preconceptions. He treats the objects on his desk or the contents of his street as would an archaeologist, carefully recording both their objective qualities and the associations and memories that adhere to them. What is an object divested of memory, association, meaning, preconception? We cannot see clearly because we have become habituated to what we find familiar, we have become blind to precisely what is essential about our situations, we notice only the exotic and not the endotic, we crave the extraordinary and no longer see the ordinary other than an absence of the extraordinary, we do not look within the ordinary to discern the infraordinary particulars that are the true texture of our lives. Why should only the abnormal be significant? “(In spite of yourself, you’re only noticing the untoward, the peculiar, the wretched exceptions; the opposite is what you should be doing.)” Perec strives in writing for “true realism: to rely on a description of reality divested of all presumptions.” He instructs us to “get rid of all preconceived ideas. Stop thinking in ready-made terms. Force yourself to see flatly. Carry on 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 know that this is what is called a town, a street, buildings, pavements…” The truths revealed by this observatory rigour are not profound but banal (there are no profound truths), never unfamiliar but often surprising. In only this way can text become evidence of what it is like to exist, clutchings of moments and particulars in the face of forces of erasure. Evidence persists where memory fails to suffice, or fails to suffice without it. The penultimate section in Species of Spaces reproduces a letter from an SS officer at Auschwitz detailing the trees required to provide Nos 1 and 2 crematorium ovens with “a green border”. This letter has particular if unstated relevance for Perec, whose mother was consumed in one of Auschwitz’s crematoria when he was a child (his father had already been killed). The final sequence intimates the desperate poignancy that underlies all of Perec’s writing, even his most linguistically playful: “I would like there to exist places that are stable, unmoving, intangible, untouched and almost untouchable, unchanging, deep-rooted; places that might be points of reference, of origin: my birthplace, the cradle of my family, the house where I may have been born, the tree I may have seen grow (that my father may have planted the day I was born), the attic of my childhood filled with memories. 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. My spaces are fragile: time is going to wear them away, to destroy them. Nothing will any longer resemble what was, my memories will betray me, oblivion will infiltrate my memory.” For Perec there was only one possible response: “To write: to try meticulously to retain something, to cause something to survive; to wrest a few precise scraps from the void as it grows, to leave somewhere a furrow, a trace, a mark or a few signs.”

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