One of the most important of the Oulipian writers, Georges Perec is best known for Life: A User's Manual - a collection of interlinked stories about the inhabitants of an apartment block - and A Void - a novel most famous for having been composed without the use of the letter e. The translation, which repeats the feat, is well worth reading.
This volume collects Perec's non-fiction work, though 'non-fiction' is perhaps not the best term for such a parade of flights of fancy, odd word games and barely-contained lunacy. There's also a clever Borgesian short story, 'Le Voyage d'hiver', in which an academic searches for the provenance of a mysterious book.
As I've said, there's plenty of silliness here and some of it is a little tedious. 'Two Hundred and Forty-three Postcards in Real Colour', for example, is simply a recitation of the messages from 243 postcards. It's fair to say that after about 43 postcards the point is made and the remaining 200 messages are a slog. 'Attempt at an Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-Four', meanwhile, is exactly that: a list of everything Perec ate over the course of a year.
Elsewhere though, Perec's obsession with life's tiniest details is entertainment and thought-provoking. 'Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One's Books' is comical in its absorption with the task of maintaining a personal library. Anyone who has ever attempted such a task will be able to relate to Perec's problem, while also being pleased that they are not anywhere near as anal as the author, who offers 12 different ways of ordering one's books.
'Species of Spaces', the 1974 book which takes up the first third of this volume (and lends it its name), is a wonderful meditation on the world around us. Beginning with a contemplation of the space on the page before him, Perec gradually moves outwards to look at the bed, the bedroom, the apartment, the apartment building and so on, until he reaches the Earth itself and then, once again, space. It's an endearing combination of the comprehensive addresses that small children are inclined to give themselves and a scientific undertaking.
In amidst Perec's pendantry - why do we assign rooms based on their function, rather than, say, mood or days of the week? - are some genuinely illuminating observations. In being forced to look so closely at the things that surround us, it's impossible not to notice those things that we've taken for granted. It's a fascinating exercise and Perec is a brilliant guide, always writing with a smile.
That lightness of touch is extraordinary given Perec's upbringing. He was orphaned by the Second World War - his father died fighting the Nazis in June 1940 and his mother is presumed to have died in Auschwitz. Though little in this collection is autobiographical, the fate of Perec's parents is implicit in many of the pieces.
Perec's own career was a short one. He died in 1982, 17 years after he was first published. He was 45.