Perec and Lists, Again

I wrote a week or so ago about a list that Georges Perec includes in his book Species of Spaces.  I had not read very far in Perec’s text when I wrote that post or I would have realized that his style, at least in this particular work, the only one that I have read, is largely dominated by the form of the list, which becomes a kind of stylistic motif. Vast portions of the book are made up of lists, and Perec’s descriptions of the spaces that he is contemplating almost always take this form. He even instructs his readers to approach the world in the mode of the list.

For example, in the section on “The Town”, he says, “Make an inventory of what you can see.  List what you’re sure of.”  Earlier, in a section on “The Street”, he describes the literary observation of an urban landscape in precisely the same way.  He instructs his audience to list the items around them, not the uncommon things, but the obvious and seemingly unimportant things.  “Make an effort to exhaust the subject, even if that seems grotesque, or pointless, or stupid.  You still haven’t looked at anything, you’ve merely picked out what you long ago picked out.”  A few pages later, he describes the purpose of this process: “Carry on,” he admonishes, “until the scene becomes improbable, until you have the impression, for the briefest of moments, that you are in a strange town or, better still, until you can no longer understand what is happening or what is not happening, until the whole place becomes strange, and you no longer even know that this is what is called a town.”  What is being articulated here is a practise of writing that is explicitly concerned with the form and the function and the aesthetics of the list as a literary form.

It interests me that Perec locates the function of the list in its ability to defamiliarize what it is describing.  He suggests that, by attending to the common place, by itemizing, inventorying, cataloguing what is commonplace, the list, at least in the extreme and desirable case, makes these things strange. The items in the list become suddenly foreign, unrecognizable, incomprehensible.  In this way, at least according to a certain formalist tradition of literary criticism, Perec is making an argument for the list as a legitimate literary genre, since formalist critics often identify defamiliarization as one of the primary functions of literature and art.  By demonstrating that the list is capable of this kind of literary effect, not occasionally, but in a sustained way, Perec is essentially showing that the list should be understood as a literary form, as an artistic form.  Considering the affection that I have for the well-written list, I appreciate Perec’s efforts on its behalf.

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