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on books #2
an attempt at exhausting a place in paris by georges perec
For on books #2, I want to discuss a short book I love called An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec. In this text, Perec catalogs the people, objects, and environments of a particular square, in his particular line of sight, over the course of three particular days. My copy is a lovely little paperback with flaps from Wakefield Press.
When introducing this book, there are a lot of ways to get tripped up. It’s very short, so you wonder if “book” is the appropriate word. I almost said that Perec catalogs “everything,” which would have been a shorthand way of getting the premise of the text across, but can’t be said in truth. It’s impossible for Perec to capture everything; the exercise is simply an attempt. This is part of the point.
The best way I can think of to write about a book I love is to offer questions and see how the book might answer them. The first question I have is: What do I notice about this book?
The most obvious thing to notice is the specificity of time and place. Each entry begins with a date, a time, the weather, and a location—each location is within sight of the square of Saint-Sulpice. This feature was what made me buy the book immediately. I’m always drawn to temporal markers in literature (diaries, correspondence, etc.). Perec’s experiment took place on October 18th, 19th, and 20th, in 1974. In the brief introductory paragraph, he explains that his intention was to describe “that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds.” The promise of a distinct kind of observational writing about the most common parts of life within a specific time and place (not to mention weather, ugh!) was irresistible. It felt like this book was written for me.
The second thing I noticed was the end of that sentence in the introduction: “weather, people, cars, and clouds.” The rhythm of the words felt familiar somehow, and I realized they were reminding me of a refrain in the poem “anyone lived in a pretty how town” by e. e. cummings. To get a sense of the rhythm, you have to read at least one stanza:
Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they showed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain
I learned this poem in high school and it has lived in my head ever since. Especially the last line, in its variations throughout the poem: sun moon stars rain. I wrote those four words in my journals through the years, drew iconographic doodle versions (a sun, crescent moon, cluster of star-shapes, teardrops falling from a cloud). I even once considered getting it as a tattoo. Something about the sound is so close to how time feels for me; it’s potent and heavy and perfect.
“Weather, people, cars, and clouds” carried a similar cadence. I should admit I was slightly disappointed when I copied down the line and noticed that Perec included a “the”: “the weather, people, cars, and clouds.” I wish there was no “the.” But the point stands! The four elements of each phrase seem to serve similar purposes: to suggest time passing in an ordinary, inevitable way. Perec is accentuating the ordinary, while cummings accentuates the inevitable.
I also notice that I feel a kinship with this writer. I recognize the writer’s feelings in the piece: his pauses, his floating errant memories, his desire for movement. The moments when he pauses (sometimes indicated by the word “Pause,” on its own line) have a build up to them; he catalogs, catalogs, getting briefer, until there is a rhythmic need for change. I used to write in the same cafe every Saturday while my partner took a 4-hour painting class. Four hours is a long time to fill. There is boredom. There is blankness and fatigue. Small details catch the eye. The tea goes cold. It’s possible to feel walled off, impervious somehow, as if the world around you is muffled, just out of reach; and also extremely vulnerable, every sound bearing down on you, a person brushing against your elbow as they walk by. Many of the free writes I did in this cafe—where I, in my own exercise, documented what I saw—have a similar rhythm to this text. The rhythm must be one of the most important parts. I feel I am missing something when I stumble over words in French that I can’t pronounce. In general, the text seems to have more in common with music than prose. By the end, it’s like a song that you want to hear again.
He describes people by their clothing and expressions. I wonder who, unbeknownst, has been immortalized here.
He is always sure to mention when he sees a dog.
Upon returning to the square, he notices a flock of birds moving from place to place. He figures this is the same flock as the day before. I think it’s funny how I never imagine I'm seeing the same flock of birds, even when I return to the same place—every flock registers as a different flock. Now I may see it differently, I think.
Another question I can ask is: Why was this text written?
Of course there’s no one “why,” no one reason that leads people to do anything. The purpose probably can’t be known until after the work is done. While the work is happening, the point is only to do it. To return to the cafe for three days and look. At face value, an inattentive reader could probably say that there “is no point” to this text. It is exceptionally brief, often takes the form of a series of thin lists, and comes to no conclusion.
To address the question of “why,” the best thing to do is pay attention to the words, and see what connections can be made.
Perec lets his feelings and inclinations guide his experiment. He feels some pressure to sort the things he sees, to create categories (perhaps the impulse that drives all of Perec’s work). His very first entry is called “an outline of an inventory” of only the things he can see (a lovely, awkward category—is it an outline, or an inventory? And what is it in French?). From there, he creates a new category, “Trajectories,” which charts various bus routes passing through the square. Then he moves on to “Colors” (red [Fiat, dress…]; blue bag; green shoes).
But he questions those impulses, and changes course. After these initial categories, he starts writing longer sentences that are not as sortable: “Most people are using at least one hand.” “From a tourist bus, a Japanese woman seems to be taking my photograph.” He continues in this more descriptive way throughout the first day, taking rhythmic lulls from descriptions to list the buses that pass by. In a parenthetical, he questions the whole endeavor (“Obvious limits to such an undertaking; even when my only goal is just to observe, I don't see what takes place a few meters from me…”).
On the second day, his impulse is to compare. There’s a new category—“In search of difference”—where he tries to catalog what has changed since the day before. He never gives up his short lists of buses and movements (the final day is the most telegraphic), but as the experiment continues, I notice more speculation and questioning, more context-seeking. When he sees people enter a church, he wonders, “Is it time for mass?” He wonders if the tourists are the same as yesterday’s (“does a man who goes round Paris on a Friday want to do so again on a Saturday?). He sees strangers who remind him of his friends. And my very favorite: “A little girl, flanked by her parents (or kidnappers) is weeping.”
So what do we do with all of this? Are we closer to “why?” Maybe “why” was the wrong question. What stands out to me is the way that Perec, when looking, almost immediately seeks relationships: contrasts and connections. He sees a man who holds a cigarette in the same unusual way that he does. He sees a dog that reminds him of a dog he knows. Then he spontaneously creates narratives—stories and suspense (a little girl being kidnapped). Look what one man can invent just by paying attention to a small part of a city for a weekend! Perec’s perspective, his unique field of vision, marks the experiment from the beginning. Perec himself sees this on the first day. Complete exhaustion, any sense of totality, will be fundamentally impossible.
You can certainly expect that every person’s attempt at exhausting a place will be different. But then I remember sun moon stars rain. I remember my own free writes, following a familiar rhythm of movement and stillness. I remember the feeling of wanting to hear a song again. I think there is a crucial, mysterious commonality here. We can catalog differences, but perhaps there’s a shared thread; running through any attempt to see the world.