Oulipo and Word Games – reading Species of Space and Other Pieces by Georges Perec


There’s something about having a literary crush (and goodness knows I’ve had enough in my time!) that makes it hard for me to write rationally about an author or explain why I think they’re so wonderful – and I’m at that point with Georges Perec’s works at the moment! Instead of being able to discuss things in a sane manner I shall go all fangirl and rant on about how utterly brilliant his books are and how everyone should read them – which is really not constructive, is it??

However, I shall do my best….

In retrospect I’m surprised I came across Perec so late, as he seems so closely linked with Calvino (one of my biggest author loves). Nevertheless, I adored “Life: A User’s Manual” and I’ve since read “W” which was also pretty impressive. “Species of Space” is a collection of mainly non-fiction works (the title piece plus excerpts from others) and in many ways these defy classification. Perec turns his eye to all manner of subjects, from space itself to a collection of holiday postcard texts to a list of what he had eaten throughout a whole year, lists of objects on his work desk and thoughts about how to classify books in your library.

This is such a fascinating book, with so many quirky unusual pieces, all in Perec’s trademark tone. Several pieces prefigure other works such as “Life” and “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris”, and they all have the effect of making the reader look at things with fresh eyes as if from the outside or for the first time. We’ve all had that experience where if you look at a word for long enough it becomes strange and loses its meaning; in the same way, Perec is urging us to look at things until they are no longer familiar, until we lost a little of our grip on reality and the world becomes odd.

As with “W” Perec’s work seems very much informed by his past and it definitely helps to know some of the facts of his life, ably provided in the introduction by his biographer (and translator of this selection) David Bellos. Perec has a way of circling round the facts and approaching them obliquely, which may be his way of trying to deal with things when it is too painful to do so head on.

This is fiction and reminiscence as classification;  Perec’s day job for a large part of his life working as an archivist in a science laboratory and its often reflected in the structure of his work and the way in which he presents his writing. It could of course be argued that this is his way of trying to exert control over a life which was blighted by trauma and loss, a way of trying to classify his life so it makes sense. And there is the sense that from the very act of classification comes clarity, as if it teaches us to *really* look at things, really see them.

I was thinking how much his narrative voice reminded me of my beloved Calvino, when lo and behold Perec dropped a quote in from Italo’s “Cosmicomics” – synchronicity or what! In fact, the presence of Calvino permeates the book; apart from two parts that refer to or quote his works, “Two Hundred and Forty Three Postcards in Real Colour” is dedicated to him, and there is a quote from him on the back of the book.

There is much that is moving here, in particular the section “The Rue Vilin” where Perec makes several visits back to the street where he spent the first five years of his life. Each time, more has changed and more decay is evident – it’s as if he’s trying to gain a sense of place, to grasp hold of the memories before the tangible evidence is gone. This work sent me off to the Internet, looking up the street, and I found several astonishing things: firstly, the steps at the end of street are really iconic and have featured in a number of French films (see here). Secondly, the place no longer exists (which was quite shocking) and is now a modern park….. But thirdly, there is film of Perec visiting the Rue Vilin and then being interviewed here – I only wish my French was better….

The Rue Vilin Steps

The Rue Vilin Steps

“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. I shall look at a few old yellowing photographs with broken edges without recognising them.”

I’ve always liked ‘clever’ writers – ones who play with words, twist the genre, taking writing somewhere unexpected. And I love Perec’s playfulness and his profundity; and the fact that reading his work makes you look at the world completely differently. He’s definitely going to be one of my favourite writers for a long time to come.

Primo Levi : 31 July 1919 – 11 April 1987



“You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find warm food
And friendly faces when you return home.
Consider if this is a man
Who works in mud,
Who knows no peace,
Who fights for a crust of bread,
Who dies by a yes or no.
Consider if this is a woman
Without hair, without name,
Without the strength to remember,
Empty are her eyes, cold her womb,
Like a frog in winter.
Never forget that this has happened.
Remember these words.
Engrave them in your hearts,
When at home or in the street,
When lying down, when getting up.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your houses be destroyed,
May illness strike you down,
May your offspring turn their faces from you.”
― Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz


I first read Primo Levi’s work when I spotted a copy of “The Periodic Table” in a local bookshop in the mid 1980s – the cover was emblazoned with a recommendation from Italo Calvino, which was enough to make me pick it up instantly. The bulk of the body of his work concerns the Holocaust and its survivors, a constant reminder of the horrors of the past which we must never forget lest they be repeated.

Levi was a troubled man and died in 1987 after a fall from the landing of his third floor apartment. The death was ruled as suicide, but as fellow survivor Elie Wiesel put it, “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years earlier”.

For much of his life post-War Levi seemed plagued by the guilt of a survivor, stating “We who survived the Camps are not true witnesses. We are those who, through prevarication, skill or luck, never touched bottom. Those who have, and who have seen the face of the Gorgon, did not return, or returned wordless.”

Levi was never wordless, and his books remain as a testament. Happy birthday Primo Levi.

A lost Calvino interview

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The great writer interviewed by the BBC (in English!) just before his death and shown in 1985 shortly after he passed away:

Recent reads – Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec


Despite being a long-term reader and lover of Italo Calvino’s books, it was only relatively recently that I discovered the existence of the OULIPO group, and then one of their best-known proponents, Georges Perec. OULIPO is described by Wikipedia thus: “(short for French: Ouvroir de littérature potentielle; roughly translated: “workshop of potential literature”) is a loose gathering of (mainly) French-speaking writers and mathematicians which seeks to create works using constrained writing techniques. It was founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. Other notable members have included novelists Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, poets Oskar Pastior, Jean Lescure and poet/mathematician Jacques Roubaud.”


Of Perec, Wikipedia says simply “Georges Perec (7 March 1936 – 3 March 1982) was a French novelist, filmmaker, documentalist and essayist. He was a member of the Oulipo group.” That bald statement doesn’t give a hint of his complexity as a novelist, and his most notorious book might well be “A Void” which avoids the use of any word containing the letter ‘e’! However, I was fortunate to pick up the chunky volume that is “Life: A User’s Manual” in the local Oxfam charity shop last year, and suddenly the time was right to read it. I confess I was a little intimidated, and I still don’t know quite how to do it justice, but here goes…

Of “Life”, Wikipedia neatly sums it up so: “Life A User’s Manual (the original title is La Vie mode d’emploi) is Georges Perec’s most famous novel, published in 1978, first translated into English by David Bellos in 1987. Its title page describes it as “novels”, in the plural, the reasons for which become apparent on reading. Some critics have cited the work as an example of postmodern fiction, though Perec himself preferred to avoid labels and his only long-term affiliation with any movement was with the Oulipo. La Vie mode d’emploi is a tapestry of interwoven stories and ideas as well as literary and historical allusions, based on the lives of the inhabitants of a fictitious Parisian apartment block, 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier (no such street exists, although the quadrangle Perec claims Simon-Crubellier cuts through does exist in Paris XVII). It was written according to a complex plan of writing constraints, and is primarily constructed from several elements, each adding a layer of complexity.”

Knowledge of the writing constraints did make me a little nervous about reading the book, but they really aren’t a problem. The volume is divided up into 6 sections, each with numerous chapters, and each chapter bears the title of the apartment it’s ostensibly about (e.g. Moreau 1, On the Stairs 3). So if you’re unsure of what you read earlier about that particular person or place, it’s easy enough to check the chapter titles and go back to the previous one. And as if acknowledging the complexity of his novel, Perec provides a helpful index at the back of the people and places, real and imaginary, who haunt the book, plus a chronology and a diagram of the house with its occupants (past and present) marked.

“Life” appears random initially, moving from one apartment to another, relating something about the occupants, or the furnitures, or the pictures, or the books, or anything in the room(s). And the sequence is not obviously logical (and is apparently based on a famous chess board sequence of moves, which Perec used to decide the order in which he would visit the apartments). So we initially move from apartment to apartment, being introduced to a variety of characters – their current status is related in present tense, but Perec uses any excuse to go off at a tangent, telling of their past history, or the history of the apartment, or the story behind a book or a painting. It’s a remarkably rich narrative, very readable, and surprisingly enjoyable. And as you progress through the book, you gradually build up a picture of the various occupants and their lives – as of course they are interrelated – and gain and overall picture of the building and the  people.

Central to the book is the character Bartlebooth and his quest for order. One of the recurring motifs of the book is jigsaw puzzles – in fact, the introduction muses on them in detail – and Bartlebooth has taken it upon himself to spend his life producing a series of paintings, having them turned into jigsaws and then completing the puzzle before returning the picture to its original state. His motivation for this is stated clearly:

“Let us imagine a man whose wealth was equalled only by his indifference to what wealth generally brings, a man of exceptional arrogance who wishes to fix, to describe and to exhaust not the whole world – merely to state such an ambition is enough to invalidate it – but a constituted fragment of the world: in the fact of the inextricable incoherence of things, he will set out to execute a (necessarily limited) programme right the way through, in all its irreducible intact entirety.

In other words, Bartlebooth resolved one day that his whole life would be organised around a single project, an arbitrarily constrained programme with no purpose outside its own completion.”

His life’s work involves other characters who are housed in the building, and much of the life of the place is interlinked. Of course, it is easy to start seeing metaphors everywhere here, with this emphasis on puzzles: the obvious one being that life is a puzzle and that there is some cosmic puzzle maker in charge somewhere. As Perec acknowledges:

“… despite appearances, puzzling is not a solitary game: every move the puzzler makes, the puzzle-maker has made before; every piece the puzzler picks up, and picks up again, and studies and strokes, every combination he tries, and tries and second time, every blunder and every insight, each hope and each discouragement have all been designed, calculated, and decided by the other.”

Bartlebooth finds that, however much he tries to impose order, life has a way of throwing up unforeseen obstacles which hamper his plan; and if his ultimate quest is for understanding it will fail – we cannot understand the puzzle of life. His journey may be an attempt to impose order on a chaotic world but he (and we) will find that life is *not* a puzzle that can be controlled or solved.

Bartlebooth is the lynchpin that holds the whole structure of the story together, but there is a dazzling array of fellow players: Valene, the painter who taught Bartlebooth his craft; Smautf, Bartlebooth’s loyal servant; Gaspard Winckler, the puzzle maker; Madame de Beaumont, the widow of an Egyptologist; Dr. Dinteville, a GP who is a frustrated  academic; the Bergers, a hard-working couple; the Altamonts, an estranged couple with a sad past; and so on. These are just a few of the occupants of the building; I could list many, many, more but you would be better off reading the book!  All of the rich variety of human beings, some of whom make substantial contributions to the plot and some only fleeting appearances, are memorable and compelling. There are stories of murder, lies and deception, love and loss; and throughout there is an underlying sadness to many of the tales.

This really is a remarkable book. Perec is nothing if not playful; about halfway through the book he contrives to provide a list of characters in one of Valene’s paintings and as you read through you realise that these are in fact all the characters in the book – and what an intensely detailed list that is. Then it strikes you that some of the characters aren’t entirely familiar and realisation dawns in the next chapter, when Perec cheekily introduces one of those characters for the first time!

And then there are the cultural references… LAUM is stuffed to the gills with them: detailed descriptions of paintings or illustrations; historical figures; musical works; books and literary characters. I didn’t always *get* the references, but I did some of them, and in the end I don’t feel it entirely matters. A book like this is blurring the lines between reality and fiction anyway, and this all adds to the intense richness of the narrative. As an online source says: “Through stories both ordinary and fantastic, Perec explores issues of class relations, romantic love, urban development, and spatial memory… Life is a masterpiece whether or not one is aware of the rules of the game”  which I found myself agreeing with entirely. I know that I will have missed many allusions but that didn’t in any way spoil the reading experience for me. I marvelled at Perec’s skill in weaving together complex and kaleidoscopic multiple narratives into a coherent whole. He gradually lays bare the occupants’ lives, past and present, capturing them all at one fixed point in time, when a particular event has taken place. He brilliantly uses this device to tell not only their stories, but myriad other ones, creasing a huge and complex story which shows human existence in its many and varied forms. “Life” is incredibly wide-ranging, both physically (the characters cover the globe) and philosophically (all shades of opinion and  thought seem to be covered). The stories vary from farcical to tragic, and I came out of the book feeling that the answer to the meaning of life is that there is none – so you might as well just try to enjoy yourself.

I was going to say that this was like nothing else I’d ever read before, but that isn’t quite true. I kept getting little hints of things that made me think of Italo Calvino, a fellow member of OULIPO and another master of complex and varied narratives. Both were amazingly skilled at telling tales, subverting the reader and producing brilliantly written books. At the end of the day, it seems to me (with my limited knowledge of OUILIPO!) that they are all about storytelling – both Calvino and Perec love to play with stories, twisting the reader’s expectations but always supplying delights. I was absolutely knocked out by “Life” and it’s sent me off to raid the local library to have a look at some more Perec. And if I’ve learned anything from reading this book, it’s not to be intimidated – however ‘difficult’ a book might appear, it probably isn’t because at the end of the day the author wants to communicate with you – and Perec certainly does here! I suspect “Life: A User’s Manual” will be haunting my thoughts for some time to come.

Birthday of a Genius


It’s all birthdays at the moment, but today is a really special one – that of one of my favourite ever writers – Italo Calvino.


A quick reminder from Wikipedia:

Italo Calvino (15 October 1923 – 19 September 1985) was an Italian journalist and writer of short stories and novels. His best known works include the Our Ancestors trilogy (1952–1959), the Cosmicomics collection of short stories (1965), and the novels Invisible Cities (1972) and If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979).

Lionised in Britain and the United States, he was the most-translated contemporary Italian writer at the time of his death, and a noted contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

I would love to have seen Calvino get the Nobel – in my view he was richly deserving of it. There are few writers I’ve read who have been so imaginative, inventive and captivating in their fictions.


“Don’t be amazed if you see my eyes always wandering. In fact, this is my way of reading, and it is only in this way that reading proves fruitful to me. If a book truly interests me, I cannot follow it for more than a few lines before my mind, having seized on a thought that the text suggests to it, or a feeling, or a question, or an image, goes off on a tangent and springs from thought to thought, from image to image, in an itinerary of reasonings and fantasies that I feel the need to pursue to the end, moving away from the book until I have lost sight of it. The stimulus of reading is indispensable to me, and of meaty reading, even if, of every book, I manage to read no more than a few pages. But those few pages already enclose for me whole universes, which I can never exhaust.”
― If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

Happy birthday Italo Calvino!

Recent Reads: Collection of Sand by Italo Calvino


As I’ve rambled on before on this blog, Italo Calvino has long been one of my favourite authors – since my discovery of his work in 1982 in fact – so I was delighted to find that a new English translation of a book of his essays would be available this year (along with a collection of his letters, which I’ve yet to get my hands on!) “Collection of Sand” was published during Calvino’s lifetime, so approved by him, but has only just been made available in English, translated by current Calvino supremo Martin McLaughlin.

Calvino at work

Calvino at work

Calvino was a remarkably versatile writer, probably best know for his fictions, but he was also an essayist and lecturer. “Collection of Sand” brings together a number of short works in different sections. The first, entitled “Exhibitions-Explorations” consists of pieces he wrote for the newspaper la Repubblica while living in Paris, and they are stimulated in the main by cultural events and exhibitions in that city. The second, “The Eye’s Ray” contains further pieces written for the newspaper, a little wider in inspiration and themed around the visual. Thirdly, we are treated to a series of meditations entitled “Accounts of the Fantastic” which is just that. The last section “The Shape of Time” deals with travelogues, jottings and thoughts from Calvino’s journeys.

Italo Calvino is always a delight to read – he has such a unique outlook on life, and I picked up echoes of his fictions in the thoughts he shares here.

“In the Library of the Superfluous, which I would like all our bookshelves to find a space for, it seems to me that a Dictionary of Imaginary Places would be an indispensable reference work.”

And he’s a writer whose work always changes your worldview – after reading him, I always end up looking at things in a different way. Many of these essays articulate feelings I have myself as a reader; for example, on the subject of maps (which have always fascinated me), he says:

“… it is precisely these deserted, uninhabited maps that arouse in our imagination the desire to live inside them, to grow small enough to find one’s way amid the dense signs, to run through these maps, to lose oneself in them.”

As so often with a Calvino book, I end up with a sheaf of pieces of paper sticking out of the pages, marking quotes I like – far too many to reproduce here!

“Over and over the stars continue to burn their fuel through century after century. The firmament is made of braziers that light up and go out, incandescent supernovae, red giants that slowly die out, burnt-out relics of white dwarves. The earth too is a ball of fire that is expanding the crust of the continents and the ocean sea-beds. What will happen when all the sandal-wood of atoms has disappeared in the stars’ crucibles?”

The young writer

The young writer

Much of this work is the fruit of his travels, and a life spent living in different cities. He moved from Italy to Paris and back to Italy again, and also visited countries as diverse as Japan, Mexico, America, the USA and the country of his birth, Cuba – where he met Che Guevara. His view is always European and much of the delight of this book is seeing things through his eyes.

“Travelling does not help us much in understanding (I’ve known this for a while; I did not need to come to the Far East to convince myself that this was true) but it does serve to reactivate for a second the use of our eyes, the visual reading of the world.”

“Seeing” is the operative work here, in a book which *is* quintessential Calvino. Whichever method of travel he’s using – whether literally, to Japan, Mexico or Iran; or metaphorically, via books, art and exhibitions – he is always considering the process of looking at things. What we see and the way we perceive life and existence is a constant theme in his work and it is distilled in these essays, beautiful little ruminations on maps, cities, stamps, obsessive collectors and much more – and underneath it all, humans and their relationship to the world.

“The human is the trace that man leaves in things, it is the work, whether it is a famous masterpiece or the anonymous product of one particular epoch. It is the continuous dissemination of works and objects and signs that makes a civilization the habitat of our species, its second nature. If we deny this sphere of signs that surrounds us with its thick dust-cloud, man cannot survive. And again: every man is man-plus-things, he is a man inasmuch as he recognises himself in a number of things, he recognises the human that has been in things, the self that has taken shape in things.”

Calvino is an impeccable guide to the world of signs, a writer who always stimulates the mind and sets the eye looking at things differently. I really can’t wait to read his letters!

The best laid plans…


As the tbr is getting to be a bit of a mountain, teetering on the point of collapse, I had rather resolved that I must not make any more purchases before shrinking it a little. Why did I bother? It’s always when I’ve made that sort of resolution that things go pear-shaped!

The first chink in the armour was on Wednesday. Middle Child was home for a few days as Youngest Child was due for A level results and they popped into the nearest Big Town for a shop (as girls do!) Hence a phone call to me (I have them well-trained!) while they ran through every Virago in the Samaritans charity bookshop. They came home with one green Virago I didn’t have, which I’m almost afraid to admit to owning as it gets such bad press on LibraryThing:


Oh dear. But I will give it a try myself as I’m willing to try most books once.

Next day, Youngest Child went off into town with some friends to celebrate good A Level results – yet another phone call followed and she came home clutching a nice green copy of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s “Mr. Fortune’s Maggot” – at only £1 it was nice to have this to replace my later copy. So nothing to get too guilty about really.

On Friday, after doing a good Samaritan act and escorting an Aged Relative to a hospital appointment, I was dropped in a different part of town and visited a newly-revamped charity shop. The local branches seem to be cottoning on to the appeal of many books, and they had a separate book section at the back which held “The Virago Book of Women Gardeners” and the second volume of Storm Jameson’s autobiography. Since they were 90p each and in lovely condition I didn’t feel it would be right to resist. I was particularly intrigued by the gardening collection – it does seem that Virago have put out a lot of themed collections (of which I have a few!) Of course, this does mean that I’ll now have to track down volume 1 of the Storm Jameson!

So to Saturday. Youngest Child, who normally accompanies me on book hunts, had gone off to visit friends so for a change I visited a Proper Secondhand Bookshop I hadn’t been in for a while and did a good trawl of all the charity shops. This was despite her warning me that I Did Not Need Any More Books until I had  read some of the ones I’ve acquired recently.  Somehow, I wasn’t expecting to find much – how wrong I was.

First up, a couple of lovely vintage Penguins – “Pigeon Pie” by Nancy Mitford and “The Pumpkin Eater” by Penelope Mortimer (which I think ended up as a Virago). Pigeon Pie was a bit of a bargain at £1 so I was quite happy with that!

Next, a couple of volumes I already have – “Invisible Cities” by Calvino and “To The Lighthouse”. The Calvino is one I want to re-read and I don’t want to mess up my old and fragile copy. Likewise the Woolf – this copy claims to be the definitve edition and as mine is very, very old I thought it was worth 95p for a newer one (and how the various shops decide on their prices, I have no idea!!):

On LibraryThing, one of the discussion threads has centred on Joyce Carol Oates and her name has come up on quite a few blogs I read recently, so a couple of bargains didn’t go amiss:

And finally, I headed for the Oxfam bookshop, somewhat weighed down and thinking that Youngest Child would be a little stunned. Even more so after the Oxfam, which had just restocked their Modern Classics shelf so it contained four – yes, four! – Sylvia Townsend Warner titles. Since I enjoyed “Mr. Fortune’s Maggot” so much and since STW books never seen to turn up I’m afraid I didn’t resist.

Bearing in mind that yesterday was one of the hottest days of the year, getting them home was no fun. But I’m not sorry, really – the cheapest was 90p, the most expensive (only one of them) £4 and as YC points out, bookaholism is a fairly harmless vice!!

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