‘A bedroom is a room in which there is a bed.’ Species of Spaces and Other Pieces by Georges Perec contains quite a few statements so obvious it seems possible that no one else in the history of the world has ever actually said them out loud. ‘We use our eyes for seeing’. ‘Fashion is generally seasonal’. ‘We live somewhere.’
In Perec’s hands, these divulgences are turned into something, if not actually revolutionary, then potentially so. ‘Question your teaspoons,’ Perec writes in ‘Approaches to What?’ (see p. 209 in this collection). Never become so distracted by ‘the big event, the untoward, the extra-ordinary’ that you forget about what’s directly in front of you: those things which Perec calls the infra-ordinary.
To be fair, the book also contains many insights of the put-down-your-coffee-and-think-about-it-for-ten-minutes kind. And there are a lot of lists. One is ‘Books Very Easy to Arrange’. Another is ‘Attempt at an Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-Four’.
Species of Spaces, which takes up the first 95 pages of this book, considers the qualities (poetical, philosophical, personal) to be found in different kinds of place or space. There is a chapter on ‘The Page’ then one on ‘The Bed’, ‘The Bedroom’, ‘The Apartment’ and so on, zooming episodically all the way out to ‘Space’ itself. These and many of the Other Pieces are split into short numbered chapter-ettes, which, to be honest, makes them look a bit like this newsletter. In ‘The Bedroom’, Perec considers a project to describe every bed he’s ever slept in. In ‘The Countryside’, he composes an inventory of the mythological traits a city dweller like himself thinks of when he thinks of living in a village: ‘You’d have been at school with the postman’, ‘You’d watch out for the 7 o’clock bus to come past’, ‘You’d know each one of the trees in your orchard’.
Happy Readings: So, what did you make of that chapter?
Conor O’Brien from the band Villagers: I read it twice. The first time, I didn’t get as much out of it. The second time, I really enjoyed it because I started noticing that it begins just giving these absolute truths — that he’s just telling you things about the countryside — but you start to realise it’s his own personal memories. I just really enjoyed it. I liked the way, at the end, it’s about whether you live in structure, or as a nomad.
HR: Some of your songs come with reading lists, right?
C: I’ve done two of them so far, one sort of very loosely connected to the song ‘So Simpatico’ but I also did one for ‘The First Day’ as well.
HR: I’m looking at the ‘So Simpatico’ one… Giovanni’s Room, Dear Ijeawele by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Old Man and the Sea, The Collected Poems of Federico García Lorca, also a book with a title in Spanish by Maripi Morales…
C: I can’t really speak Spanish but the Morales one is an art book. It’s actually mainly just for paintings. She was a sort of surrealist painter, but a bit more like L.S. Lowry in that she would paint things from her hometown of Granada and have lots and lots of little people in the city, but every now and again, one of the children would just be floating in the sky beside the moon or something. I came across her because, when I was writing ‘So Simpatico’, I was in Granada for the first time. I’d never been there and I was just wandering around and I ended up staying in this house that I found out afterwards was her son’s house because he sent me an email. I just told him I loved the paintings on the walls and he went, oh, that was my mother.
HR: Do you have a specific place where you read at home?
C: I got a reading chair as a lockdown treat for myself. It really helped.
HR: Tell me what it’s like.
C: It’s a nice, Danish, leather armchair. Dark brown, like luscious chocolate. It’s surrounded by two alive plants and one fully dead plant. There’s a big pile of books on the back, which are read, and then a big pile of books on the front, which are unread.
HR: In one of the chapters of Species of Spaces, Perec writes about an unfinished project to describe, in great detail, every bedroom he ever slept in. I was wondering if you could describe your bedroom to me a little bit.
C: Well, I have this thing about my bedroom in that I always want it to be the blankest room. I never want things on the wall. I have plants and things but I don’t like having paintings or photographs. It needs to be this completely neutral space.
Happy Readings: Why do you feel like that? Why is that the way you want your bedroom to be?
Conor O’Brien, whose fifth album with Villagers, Fever Dreams, is out tomorrow: The rest of my apartment is usually just so full of crap I can hardly move. There are records and too many pictures on the walls but I always need a space which is empty, to go back to, and that’s what my bedroom is. There is one bookshelf with a few books, but they’re all the books that I just never take off a bookshelf. I’ve barely touched it in years. There’s carpet and there’s a rug, white walls and one corner light. And that’s it.
‘Reading isn’t merely to read a text, to decipher signs, to survey lines, to explore pages, to traverse a meaning; it isn’t merely the abstract communion between author and reader, the mystical marriage between the Idea and the Ear. It is, at the same time, the noise of the Métro, or the swaying of a railway compartment, or the heat of the sun on a beach and the shouts of the children playing a little way off, or the sensation of a hot bath, or the waiting for sleep.’ (‘Reading: A Socio-Physiologoical Outline’, p. 181)
Perec once spent a day on a café terrace noting down absolutely everything he saw, which became the book An Attempt to Exhaust a Place in Paris. He also wrote a novel without the use of the letter ‘e’. He was a member of Oulipo, the literary movement which explores the use of constraints as a way of composing new work, the one where a single letter is avoided at all costs being called a lipogram (a relevant, instructive and exhilarating book published last year is The Penguin Book of Oulipo). His day job was as an archivist in a science laboratory. He loved pinball machines. He was four days shy of his forty-sixth birthday when he died of lung cancer in 1982. Two years later, in his honour, an asteroid previously known simply as ‘2817’ was given a new name: ‘Perec’.
Perec is a member of the main asteroid belt. It circles between Mars and Jupiter and has an orbital angle of 2.73 degrees, a brightness of 14 and an eccentricity of 0.178.
Last month’s newsletter requested news of Café Orquídea, the central café in the novel Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabbuchi. Subscriber Børge Skråmestø, it turns out, has been a regular and has lately published a fictitious diary in which the establishment features (it’s in Norwegian only, for now). ‘Café Qrquídea is a very typical Portuguese café,’ he says. ‘Exactly the way they should look when they don’t style them for tourists… They serve everything from classic pastries, like pastéis de nata, to classic and sturdy Portuguese dinners.’
As for this month’s newsletter, it was composed at the Café Floréal on Rue des Couronnes in Paris, a five-minute walk from where I live and a mere hundred metres from the Rue Vilin where Georges Perec spent the first five years of his life (see his essay ‘Rue Vilin’ on p. 212). Next month’s newsletter will address Anna Kavan’s 1967 novel Ice. Please do read along, and, as ever, send comments and thoughts to [email protected].
Enjoy the summer!
Editor-in-chief, The Happy Reader