I’ve just got back from doing a ‘Conservation Dinner’ for the School of Life in London, themed around the work of the French author Georges Perec.
Perec’s stories and essays often engage in encyclopaedic listings of mundane places, objects and activities. In Espèces d’espaces [Species of Spaces, 1974], he makes a series of inventories of his neighbourhood in Paris, and urges his readers to think critically about how streets are named, houses are numbered and cars are parked: ‘You must set about it more slowly, almost stupidly. Force yourself to write down what is of no interest, what is most obvious, most common, most colourless.’ Perec’s method is a bit similar to the I-Spy Books, those monuments to trivia which have sent many a postwar British schoolchild on the pointless quest for a ‘no loading’ sign or a mini-roundabout. But in Perec the aim of this pained, excessive attention to apparently unpromising material is to access what he calls ‘the infra-ordinary,’ the sphere of daily existence that lies beneath notice or comment, and within which ‘we sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep’.
The point of making lists is that it forces you to observe the world as neutrally and contemplatively as possible, without pretensions or prejudgements. ‘Make oneself into the court stenographer of reality, let reality impose itself without intervening,’ writes Perec, ‘… and thereby found our anthropology.’
Some of the things Perec wrote:
‘The Rue Vilin’. Over a five year period from February 1969 to November 1974, he periodically chronicled the life of the street in north-east Paris where he spent the first five years of his life, from 1936 to 1941.
‘An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris’. One weekend in October 1974, Perec set out to record ‘what happens when nothing happens’. He sat in a café window on the Place Saint-Sulpice and spent three days recording everything that passed before his eyes: people walking by, buses, cars, pigeons, advertising hoardings. This short book is certainly exhaustive and, to be honest, a bit exhausting as well.
‘Attempt at an Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy Four’. Self-explanatory.