Cataloguing as Art


An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec
Translated, with an afterword, by Marc Lowenthal

Well, as I said recently, there are plenty of smaller Perec texts that I’ve still to read, and this is one of them! I picked it up on a whim recently – I’d been intending to buy a copy for ages – and it was ideal to polyread along with “War and Peace”.

“An attempt…” is a short work published in 1975, and it has an interesting history. In October 1974, Perec sat in the Place Saint-Sulpice over three days, and simply observed, writing down what he saw. So buses would pass by regularly, people would come and go, the weather would change, a friend would wave through the cafe window, a flock of pigeons would take flight. All of these small happenings were recorded, in his attempt to pin down and fix the existence of one place at one time.

Well, that sounds like it could be dull, but it really, really isn’t. I’ve commented before about Perec’s use of an almost catalogue-like style of writing, which perhaps drew on his early day job as an archivist. And here, the simple repetition of certain phrases, the seemingly straightforward recording of ordinary, everyday actions builds up a surprisingly compelling picture of the ebb and flow of human life.

But the book is not simply a catalogue, as Perec can’t help but let his personal reactions sneak in: for example, early in the book he notes the regular appearance of a specific of car and later comments:

Weary vision: obsessive fear of apple-green 2CVs

By focusing so closely on the ordinary it becomes extraordinary – what Perec called the infraordinary – and it makes you realise that how we see the world is specific to us. Perec realises that one person cannot see everything and so his recording of the scene is very different from how someone else would respond to a similar exercise. And although things happen again and again, these repetitions are not the same; for example, each 96 bus is a 96 bus, but it’s a different vehicle with different people inside it.

Perec in Place Saint-Sulpice, Café de la Mairie – 18 October 1974 – photo c. Pierre Getzler

As you read on through the book, the text becomes oddly thoughtful and philosophical, often approaching the beauty of haiku or found poetry:

Colors blend: a grayness that is rarely lit

Yellow patches. Reddish glare

The repetition of certain elements, the short, clipped segments and the description of where he is and what he sees, all tends to build up a hypnotic kind of narrative which is absorbing and engrossing.

The afterword by translator Lowenthal is intriguing, discussing the book and drawing parallels with Perec’s fellow OuLiPan Queneau; and also commenting on Perec’s fascination with the ordinary. In fact, Perec wrote a work simply called “L’infraordinaire”, part of which is extracted in “Species of Space”, and he says in it at one point:

What we need to question is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms. To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us. We live, true, we breathe, true; we walk, we go downstairs, we sit at a table in order to eat, we lie down on a bed on order to sleep. How? Where? When? Why?

Describe your street. Describe another. Compare.

Certainly he makes a case for paying more attention to the everyday, perhaps in an endeavour to realise the sheer wonder of the fact that we are alive in the world. “An attempt…” is another fascinating and thought-provoking book from Perec, and I can see that I’m going to have to read everything I can get hold of by him that’s been rendered in English…

Jane Austen week at #ShinyNewBooks


Tomorrow is the 200th anniversary of the beloved English author, Jane Austen, and Shiny New Books is hosting a week of posts celebrating her life and work.

I spent some happy hours encountering Austen’s juvenilia recently, courtesy of a beautiful review copy from Oxford University Press, and my review is up on Shiny today. Do go and check it out here, and also keep an eye on their posts for the week – there’s bound to be some fascinating reading!

Checking in for week 2 of the #WarandPeaceNewbies readalong!


After the issues with the translation from last week, things have settled down a bit and I’ve now finished part 2, the first ‘war’ section of the book. I was a little apprehensive about this, to be honest, as battle scenes are not normally my thing. However, I needn’t have been, as Tolstoy, in his wisdom, focuses on more than just fighting and this part of the book was fascinating.

At the end of part one, Prince Andrei set off to war, abandoning his beautiful, young and pregnant wife – which possibly tells you a lot about Tolstoy’s attitude to marriage! Also setting off to battle was young Nikolai Rostov, eager to prove himself. This section of W&P follows both of their experiences, although they are moving in very different spheres: Nikolai is a mere cadet, but Prince Andrei has been attached to the higher ranks and is thriving.

Alan Dobie as Andrei in the BBC’s 1972 adaptation

Inevitably, we see more of Andrei’s adventures: throwing himself into battle, watching the troops move and fight, mixing with the high and mighty; and all through this his emotions fluctuate wildly. He’s obviously happy to be away from the restrictions of home and society, and in many ways has found himself within the manly structure and discipline of the army; but he has noble notions that are often dashed. Andrei has studied battle strategies and imagines these things take place like clockwork, following a plan; and his ideals are somewhat shaken by the reality of the conflict and the chaos around him.

Because chaos it certainly is, and Tolstoy captures this disorder brilliantly in a series of vignettes, conveying how it feels to be caught in the middle of a conflict with one element not knowing what the others are doing and no real cohesive command. He paints a vivid picture of the chain of command, from the generals at the top working on strategies down to the common soldier who’s the one who bears the brunt of the battle, often with his life. No-one in that chain really knowing what the overall picture is, instead dealing simply with their small area of the fighting. And it became obvious that the inability to communicate effectively was a major element in the failure of a battle – often nobody knew where they were and who they were meant to be fighting. The one successful action in this particular battle was because of a small battalion with an inspired captain who ignored orders and just fought.

However, just because this was a ‘war’ section didn’t mean there was no character development, because there was. We met a wonderful mixture of soldiers and civilians of all types, all memorable and well-drawn. I particularly warmed to Captain Tushin, the maverick soldier who kept his battalion fighting away when all around him were withdrawing; and Dolokhov, an officer reduced to the ranks, determined to redeem himself.

Somehow, despite his close-up view of the fighting, Tolstoy manages to convey the wide panorama and the sheer scale of the war. He doesn’t stint on his description of the conflict and portrays a muddy and bloody reality. Both Andrei and Nikolai enter the battle expecting one thing, some kind of nobility, and finding a very different reality. Nikolai, in particular, has his first skirmish and it’s anything but glamorous; and we leave him in a rather precarious situation at the end of the section.

So, a gripping and thrilling read, wonderfully written and capturing the gritty and confusing reality of being in the middle of an old-style battle. I found I really enjoyed it, which I wasn’t expecting – so that bodes well for the rest of the book, in particular the war sections!

A Trio of Treats


Three by Georges Perec
Translated by Ian Monk and E.N. Menk…. :)))

I guess that by now I’ve read all of those books which are regarded as Perec’s major works; but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still treasures available by him for me to discover. One such is “Three”, an old volume which collects together – yes, you’ve guessed it! – three short pieces by Perec. I dipped into these as a distraction from “War and Peace”, because I’m trying to pace myself with that; and I found some fascinating reading, and also something unexpectedly graphic!! The stories are rather cleverly translated by Ian Monk and each has an informative preface by Perec’s biographer, David Bellos.

The first short piece is “Which Moped with Chrome-plated Handlebars at the Back of the Yard?“, an early work which reminded me of Raymond Queneau, a fellow OuLiPo member. It tells, in a digressive and funny fashion, the story of the attempts of a young soldier, Karathingy (the spelling of his name changes regularly), to avoid being sent away to the Algerian war, with the help of his good friend Sgt. Henri Pollak. The latter is the owner of the moped of the title, which he uses to buzz about between the barracks and Montparnasse, location of his love nest and his group of friends (including the narrator). The whole group becomes involved in the plot to save Karathingy from war, which hilarious and bizarre results; but what stands out is the use of linguistic devices in the book. Helpfully, Perec gives an index of these at the back, and there were more I’d never heard of than I had. Nevertheless, it’s a funny and pithy read, and according to Perec’s biographer David Bellos, draws on events in the author’s life.

Remember all those letter ‘e’s that went missing in “A Void”? I did say what happened to them was another story, and it’s featured in this collection under the title “The Exeter Text”; a rather vulgar work that by necessity only features that one vowel. The plot, such as it is, concerns an attempt to steal jewels from an Archbishop in Exeter which doesn’t go quite to plan and ends up involving a rather lively orgy… The constraint of using only one vowel is obviously much more difficult to handle and the spelling and grammar get more and more extreme as the story goes on, so that it’s sometimes hard to read or to follow what’s happening – which is possibly a good thing, as the story is VERY graphic and not for the faint-hearted. In fact, some of the strange spellings worked better when read aloud phonetically than when viewed on the page, which was perhaps the point. I could appreciate what Perec was doing here – and apparently the jewel-theft element draws from his life too – but it’s probably the work of his that I’ve enjoyed the least.

The third piece, however, was just brilliant and classic Perec. “A Gallery Portrait” was the last work Perec completed before his early death in 1982 at just 46, and not only does it draw on his magnum opus “Life: A User’s Manual”, it also has connections with his first book, which was only recently translated under the title of “Portrait of a Man”.

“Gallery” begins with the story of a painting called, oddly enough, “A Gallery Painting”. This work is owned by a beer baron, Hermann Raffke, patron of the artist Heinrich Kurz, and it depicts Raffke’s collection of works and the man himself. However, within the painting is a representation of the painting itself, which also has a representation of the payment and then again and again – recursion them, but recursion with a difference. The painting attracts a horde of obsessives who study it from every angle, close up with magnifying glasses and attempting to work out which paintings are represented. However, it seems that there are variances between the original paintings and the version on the “Gallery” canvas… As the story continues, Perec not only spins a marvellous tale for each work of art mentioned, but takes the reader through the twists and turns of Raffke’s life to its rather dark end in a way that left me as a reader quite breathless.

“A Gallery Portrait” is a dazzling feat of storytelling which showcases all Perec’s talents fully. The stories behind paintings, the pitfalls of authenticating a work, the whole concept of fidelity in art, are all elements of the plot; and the subject of forgery, the main strand in “Portrait of a Man”, comes to fore in surprising ways. “Gallery” shows Perec at his strongest, and it’s just a tragedy that he died so young – who know what books he would have gone on to write.

So, overall an excellent collection, with two out of the three being marvellous and enjoyable, and one being – interesting! Fortunately, Perec was mightily prolific during his 46 years and there are a number of other little books available in English which I haven’t read – and I can see myself picking them up soon…. 🙂

A beguiling poetry collection


The Met Office Urges Caution by Rebecca Watts

There’s nothing like an unexpected bookish surprise, and one of these occurred recently when OH presented me (for no particular reason!) with an impromptu gift in the form of Rebecca Watts’s first collection of poems. Watts is a name new to me, but OH had come across mention of her as she was born locally and is making something of a name for herself. Always happy to receive an unanticipated book… 🙂

Watts is an alumnus of Trinity College, Cambridge, and now lives in that city; and she made the local news recently with the publication of “Trinity Poets”, the first ever anthology of poems by nearly 50 authors from Elizabethan times to the present, all members of the College. Watts is one of only a few women featured (although as she points out, it’s only recently that women were allowed to enter the College…); and it’s something she’s justly proud of. However, on to her own book…

“The Met Office…” is a lovely slim volume from Carcanet Press (with a really beautiful cover, BTW); issued last year, it’s garnered a lot of praise and I can see why. Rebecca Watts writes the kind of poetry I like; it speaks to me, I can relate to it, I don’t struggle with it, and it leaves me thoughtful afterwards. Her topics are wide-ranging: nature features (as you would imagine from somebody who comes from a rural location), as well as feminism, relationships, weather (of course!) and basically the whole human condition.

I tried to do the sensible thing when reading this collection, spacing it out so I read a few poems at a sitting, and this seemed to work. It would have been easy to rush through the book, as it was so good and so readable, but I think that would have spoiled my overall enjoyment and stopped me really appreciating each particular piece.

There is an immediacy about Watt’s writing which is refreshing, which is not to say that the poems are simple; but they have a directness that belies the complexity of the composition and meaning. Her link with nature is a particularly strong one, with Watts recording her experiences with wildlife – bats, birds, hares – as well as her responses to the landscape and the sea. Some of these are free form, some prose, some highly structured into particular shapes or complex rhyme schemes. However, she’s equally capable of knocking out a short, wry and witty rhyming verse about the different types of partying that take places at different stages of life. Some of my favourite poems were “Insomniac” about a woman pacing the night landscape, desperate for sleep; “Party”, the aforementioned witty verse; and “Aldeburgh Beach”, a beautifully constructed short work which captures the sound of the sea wonderfully.

The blurb on the back compares Watts with Simon Armitage and Stevie Smith, and although I can see where they’re coming from with the former I wouldn’t necessarily agree with the latter. For my money, Watts has a distinctive poetic voice of her own, one that makes you look at the world around you with new eyes: and I can’t recommend this rich, diverse and thought-provoking collection highly enough.

A Poet’s Legacy – #ShinyNewBooks #SylviaPlath


A quick heads-up about a review I’ve done for Shiny New Books which is now live. The book this time is a fascinating volume which looks at the archival legacy of Sylvia Plath, one of my favourite authors, and it’s an intriguing and involving read.

Plath’s archive is vast and very spread out, and following the adventures of the authors as they explored the many aspects of it was a wonderful experience. You can read my full review here.


#warandpeacenewbies – Week 1 update


Ermmmm – what was that I was saying about the Maudes’ version? 😦

Lovely as it is, I hit a major snag fairly early on with the Everyman volume of “War and Peace”, despite finding the book readable and easy to handle… Unfortunately, the Maudes render Prince Andrei as Prince Andrew, and that’s going to be a deal-breaker.

Maudes version with Andrew and Pierre….

Pierre is left as Pierre and not Peter, and as OH commented when I mentioned this problem to him, it sounds like the Prince belongs in Scotland and not Russia. And then I discovered that Kirill is rendered as Cyril…  No. I want my Russian characters to sounds as if they *are* Russian. So I switched to the Edmonds version, as she has the Prince as Andrei, and once I settled down again, the reading has gone swimmingly!

The Edmonds version character list

So, putting these irritations aside, how have I got on with my first week of reading “War and Peace”? Quite well, actually. I’ve found the reading easy and very enjoyable, and boy am I impressed again with Tolstoy’s storytelling abilities. He plunges straight into the action, right into Russian society of the era, and in the first part we get introduced to what I believe are most of the main players. Instantly, we learn about the kind of behind the scenes machinations that go on, favours being called in to get your son into the right regiment, or your idiot son married off. The war against Napoleon is on everyone’s lips and Andrei (as we shall correctly call him) is heading off to fight, mostly it seems to get away from his young and light-headed pregnant wife. Pierre, our other main character, comes into money and title through to even more machinations on his behalf. And Natasha is still a young girl.

I love the way Tolstoy moves the action on, with the result of the actions in one chapter being revealed almost in passing by a character in the next. And all of the players are leaping off the page, wonderfully realised, so that’s a plus.

I think these posts are not so much going to be a review as such (how can you encapsulate such a massive work in some blog posts, after all?); but I shall probably be more using them to record my reactions as I read. What’s clear is that Tolstoy is very good at observing the small details in life, using his snapshots of relationships to build up a bigger picture. He captures the interplay between characters brilliantly and is not afraid to build up to a dramatic climax, such as the one which occurs at the end of the first part of the book.

So I’m about 100-odd pages in, and so far loving “War and Peace” – let’s hope all continues this well!

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