Book//mark - Things: A Story of the Sixties | Georges Perec, 1965

Les Choses : Une histoire des années soixante                                                                                                  Georges Perec, 1965

“They lived in a quaint, low-ceilinged and tiny flat overlooking a garden. And as they remember their garret - a gloomy, narrow, overheated corridor with clinging smells - they lived in their flat, to begin with, in a kind of intoxication, refreshed each morning by the sound of chirping birds. They would open the windows and, for many minutes, they would gaze, in utter happiness, at their courtyard. The building was old, not yet at all at the point of collapse, but dowdy and cracked. The corridors and staircases were narrow and dirty, dripping with damp, impregnated with greasy fumes. But in between two large trees and five tiny garden plots of irregular shapes, most of them overgrown but endowed with precious lawn, flowers in pots, bushes, even primitive statues, there wound a path made of rough, large paving stones which gave the whole thing a countryside air. It was one of those rare spots in Paris where it could happen, on some autumn days, after rain, that a smell would rise from the ground, an almost powerful smell of the forest, of earth, of rotting leaves.

They never tired of these charms and they always remained just as naturally responsive to them as they had been on the first days, but it became obvious, after a few care-free, jaunty months, that these attractions could in no way suffice to make them oblivious of the inadequacies of their dwelling. Accustomed to living in squalid rooms where all they did was to sleep, and to spending their days in cafes, they took a long time to notice that the most banal functions of everyday life - sleeping, eating, reading, chatting, washing - each required a specific space, the manifest absence of which then began to make itself felt. They found consolation where they could, congratulated themselves on the excellent neighborhood they were in, on the proximity of Rue Mouffetard and the Jardin des Plantes, on the quietness of the street, on the stylishness of their low ceilings, and on the magnificence of the trees and the courtyard through all the seasons; but indoors it all began to collapse under the heaps of objects, of furniture, books, plates, papers, empty bottles. A war of attrition began from which they would never emerge victorious.” 

“In advertising circles – which were generally located by quasi-mystical tradition to the left of centre, but were rather better defined by technocracy, the cult of efficiency, modernity, complexity, by the taste for speculating on future trends and by the more demagogic strain in sociology, as well as by the still very widespread opinion that nine-tenths of the population were fools just able to sing the praises of anything or anybody in unison – in advertising circles, then, it was fashionable to despise all merely topical political issues and to grasp History in nothing smaller than centuries.” 

“Impatience [...] is a twentieth-century virtue. At twenty, when they saw, or thought they saw, what life could be, the sum of bliss it held, the endless conquests it allowed, they realised they would not have the strength to wait. Like anyone else, they could have made it; but all they wanted was to have it made. That is probably the sense in which they were what are commonly called intellectuals.” 

“People who choose to earn money first, people who put off their real plans until later, until they are rich, are not necessarily wrong. People who want only to live, and who reckon living is absolute freedom, the exclusive pursuit of happiness, the sole satisfaction of their desires and instincts, the immediate enjoyment of the boundless riches of the world [...] such people will always be unhappy. It is true [...] that there are people for whom this kind of dilemma does not arise, or hardly arises, either because they are too poor and have no requirements beyond a slightly better diet, slightly better housing, slightly less work, or because they are too rich, from the start, to understand the import or even the meaning of such a distinction. But nowadays and in our part of the world, more and more people are neither rich nor poor: they dream of wealth, and could become wealthy; and that is where their misfortunes begin.”

“The enemy was unseen. Or rather, the enemy was within them, it had rotted them, infected them, eaten them away. They were the hollow men, the turkey round the stuffing. Tame pets, faithfully reflecting a world which taunted them. They were up to their necks in a cream cake from which they would only ever be able to nibble crumbs.”

“What they liked in things they called luxury was only the money behind them; they loved wealth before they loved life.” 

“But money creates new needs.”

“They lived in a strange and shimmering world, the bedazzling universe of a market culture, in prisons of plenty, in the bewitching traps of comfort and happiness.”

“They were in the centre of a vacuum, they had settled into a no man’s land of parallel streets, yellow sands, inlets and dusty palms, a world they did not understand, that they did not seek to understand, because in their past lives they had never equipped themselves to have to adapt, one day, to change, to mould themselves to a different kind of scenery, or climate, or style of living… Jerome could easily seem to have brought his homeland, or rather his quartier, his ghetto, his stamping-ground, with him on the soles of his English shoes… Sfax simply did not have a Mac Mahon, or a Harry’s Bar, or a Balzar, or a Contrescarpe, or a Salle Pleyel, or Berges de la Seine une nuit de juin. In such a vacuum, precisely because of this vacuum, because of the absence of all things, because of such a fundamental vacuity, such a blank zone, a tabula rasa, they felt as if they were being cleansed.”

Things: A Story of the Sixties, Georges Perec, 1965


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