Oct/Nov 2023  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris

Review by Gregory Stephenson

An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris.
Georges Perec (translated and with an afterword by Marc Lowenthal).
Wakefield Press. 2010. 55 pp.
ISBN 978-0-9841155-2-5.

Georges Perec is perhaps best known for having written a novel of nearly 300 pages (La Disparition, 1969) without once using the letter "e." Such self-imposed technical constraints are a stylistic trait in his writing, while disappearances, absences, contingencies, and arbitrary intersections are recurring motifs throughout his idiosyncratic literary corpus. Those arbitrary intersections are many in his recently reprinted non-fiction work, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. Perec's inventory of mundane yet ultimately enigmatic occurrences can be read as a kind of metaphoric condensation of the terms and nature of human life in time.

In October of 1974, Perec set himself the task of observing and recording for three consecutive days what he terms the "infra-ordinary" occurrences or micro-events taking place within his field of vision on the Place Saint-Sulpice in Paris. Perec defines "infra-ordinary" as "that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens."

This curious project yielded a curiously engaging, poetically evocative, and poignant short prose piece, consisting of a meticulously recorded catalog of vehicles, passersby, signage, litter, and weathers, as observed by the author from vantage points situated behind the windows of three cafés and a bench on the Place Saint-Sulpice. The author witnesses children's games and a funeral, prosperous and purposeful men bearing briefcases, and down-and-outs on public benches knocking back bottles of cheap wine. He observes gusts of wind and spells of sun, lulls and flurries of activity, scores of diverse pedestrians, striders and strollers, young and old, flocks of pigeons sitting strangely immobile or inexplicably rising and taking flight, circling the square before returning to their previous perches and positions; the regularly timed passing of numbered buses, and the random passing of automobiles, mopeds, and motorcycles. He notes the presence of metro tickets and cellophane candy wrappers on the sidewalk, attends to the sounds of car horns, spoken words, sirens, church bells, crying children and barking dogs. Each occurrence is discrete, fleeting, irrevocable, and will in time come to be unremembered.

Individual observations made by Perec are caught with quick, vivid precision by his pen, but occasionally the author's objective notations give way to subjective impressions as he wearies somewhat of the task he has undertaken and instead generalizes about and categorizes what he sees: "elegant women, aging beaus, old couples, groups of children, people with bags, satchels, suitcases, dogs, pipes, umbrellas, potbellies, old skins, old schmucks, young schmucks, idlers, deliverymen, scowlers, windbags." At other times, Perec's depictions possess the potent compression of haiku: "A car goes by, its hood covered in dead leaves." Nor does the author/observer fail to include his own presence among the phenomena transpiring on the square. He notes when and what he eats and drinks, and once, as darkness falls outside and the café in which he sits is lit from within, he records seeing reflected in the window, an image of himself, seated, writing.

There is an underlying sense of the sheer strangeness of existence in this work. A strangeness ordinarily concealed from us by life's regularity and repetition. Implicit in each life, each act, each incident, Perec suggests, is an element of unfathomable mystery. The woman holding two baguettes, the man with a bowtie, the lost Japanese man, the young girl with a tennis racket, the man with his left arm in a cast, the meter man with a bad cough, the man carrying a plank, the little girl with a blue balloon: what were their thoughts, where did they go, what were their fates in this world?

Admirably rendered into English by Marc Lowenthal, this edition includes an informative Afterword, situating the work within Perec's oeuvre and within the context of literary currents and antecedents, including Edgar Allen Poe's "The Man of the Crowd," which, like this short work, features a narrator seated in a café, observing the street outside. In the face of our common human confinement in time, and in view of our transient lives, reading Perec's precise, poetic documentation of a place and its temporal occasions would represent, in my view, time well spent.


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