[N]othing seems simpler than making a list, but in fact it’s much more complicated than it seems: you always leave something out, you’re tempted to write etc., but the whole point of an inventory is not to write etc. Contemporary writers (with few exceptions, such as Michel Butor) have forgotten the art of enumeration: Rabelais’s list, the Linnaean enumeration of fish in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the listing of geographers who explored Australia in The Children of Captain Grant…
This essay was originally published in French in 1976. It was republished in a collection of essays by Georges Perec after his death first by Hachette in 1985 and again by Edition du Seuil in 2003 (see below for the original French version of the quote).
Translator David Bellos is Professor of French and Italian and Comparative Literature at Princeton. Among many things, he wrote a biography of Georges Perec title Georges Perec. A Life in Words which won the Prix Goncourt for Biography in 1994 (Boston: David R. Godine, 1993; Google Books).
Here’s how David Bellos introduces the collection of essays assembled under the title Thoughts of Sorts:
Thoughts of Sorts gathers a baker’s dozen of Georges Perec’s essays and occasional pieces written in the last seven years of his sadly short life, which ended in 1982. It was the first collection of his writings to be published posthumously; the selection was made mainly by his fellow-Oulipian, Marcel Bénabou. Its aim was to rescue these varied pieces from the mostly small-circulation periodicals in which they were first published, and also to give a more rounded portrait of Perec’s quirky, unorthodox intelligence than was available from his major book-lenght works. The collection covers the main kinds of writing that interested and attracted Perec outside of his major fiction between the writing of W, or the Memory of CHildhood (1975) and the (unfinished) composition of his “literary thriller”, “53 Days”, published posthumously in 1989. (Thoughts of Sorts, “Introduction”, p. vii)
Here’s the same quote from Perec’s original essay in French “Les objets sur ma table de travail”:
[R]ien ne semble plus simple que de dresser une liste, en fait c’est beaucoup plus compliqué que ça n’en a l’air: on oublie toujours quelque chose, on est tenté d’écrire etc., mais justement, un inventaire, c’est quand on n’écrit pas etc. L’écriture contemporaine, à de rares exceptions (Butor), a oublié l’art d’énumérer: les listes de Rabelais, l’énumération linnéenne des poissons dans Vingt Mille Lieux sous les mers, l’énumération des géographes ayant exploré l’Australie dans Les Enfants du capitaine Grant… (Penser / Classer, Paris: Edition du Seuil, 2003, p. 21)