Listed and Archived, the Mundane Defies Familiarity
A Contrary Lost Classic renewed by David M. Smith


Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces (Espèces d'espaces, 1974) is not a long work—or rather, it's a long essay—yet it concludes with an index. In most books, the index is the most unassuming part, reassuringly there in case we don't know our way about. In Species of Spaces, where not knowing one’s way about is the point, one wonders why Perec provides an index; perhaps we’re meant to read the index from start to finish, or use the rest of the book as a reference point for finding elements of the index. In doing so, we'd be mimicking the process whereby indices are created, whereby order is grafted onto an uncharted space—whether written or physical. 
	Species of Spaces can be seen as a field guide of sorts. A field guide is, of course, the pre-inscribed scheme we use to orient ourselves in an unfamiliar place. However, Species of Spaces is meant to direct us around places we already know, or think we know. This calls for some pretty unorthodox methods to break down the sense we’ve already made of our natural habitats. 
	Given Perec’s lifelong profession as an archivist, it makes sense that he would be interested in reading an index for its own sake. Much of Species of Spaces is taken up with other lists, like the one that enumerates all the tasks involved in moving out of a home and into a new one: “…bracing yourself  rinsing out  unblocking  completing  sorting  sweeping  sighing  whistling while you work  moistening…” This goes on for two pages.  
	The impulse to make lists may seem especially tedious when we compare it to the style of one writer whom Perec quotes, Marcel Proust, but the two writers can actually be seen as thematically similar. For Proust, in Samuel Beckett's words, “Habit is a compromise effected between the individual and his environment...the guarantee of a dull inviolability." Perec’s aim is to unsettle these habits, to see through these compromises in our everyday environments, by pointing to the very tedium to which habit was our response in the first place: “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," he writes. 
	This last sentence is characteristic of Perec’s mode of addressing his audience; in addition to an essay and a field guide, Species of Spaces can be seen as a long exhortation. It’s a quick read if all you do is read it, period, without following Perec's prescriptions for defamiliarizing our homes, hometowns, home countries, and so on. At one point Perec invites us to try to imagine a completely (that is, intentionally) useless room. Our efforts to envision this purposeful lack of purpose yield a blank while revealing a limit of language, the enclosure language effects in the realm of blank, uncharted space: “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.”


David M. Smith is a writer who divides his time between Norway and the United States.


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Species of Spaces
by Georges Perec
1974
commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | winter 2008

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Lost Classic