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An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris

by Georges Perec

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    Novels in Three Lines by Félix Fénéon (sriq)
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    Paris by Julien Green (vpfluke)
    vpfluke: Both of these books were written by long-time inhabitants of Paris, who have considerable powers of observation. They allow us to see details of Paris that we would normally miss on our own. Both are almost lonely, while being very perceptive. Perec is pretty much in the St-Sulpice area, where Green has a broader canvas.… (more)
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When my daughter was born last year we were living in Paris's sixth arrondissement, and every weekend, while my wife was at work presenting the news, I would walk up the rue du Cherche-Midi with the pushchair, cut right down rue du Vieux Colombier, and then circle round and round the Place Saint-Sulpice for hours on end waiting for Clementine to go to sleep.

The church there is my favourite in Paris, as beautiful as Notre-Dame but much quieter, and with an amazing organ whose organist used to practise sometimes on quiet Sunday afternoons. This was where Talleyrand was christened, and the Marquis de Sade, to name but two. Outside in the square is a well-known fountain and a few trees that provide some slowly-revolving blocks of shade during the day.

I must have seen that square in every weather and from every angle – I've sat on every stone bench and I've had a coffee at every table in the one remaining café. I've watched a priest trip on the church steps and go flying into a cyclist, and I've been laughed at by unsympathetic tourists when my daughter projectile vomited all over herself, all over me, and all over the paperback I was reading at the time (Nightwood, which not incidentally is largely set in an apartment above the café on this very square).

I feel, therefore, uniquely qualified to review this little extrait de carnet from Georges Perec, who set himself the task of simply observing everything that he could see in the Place Saint-Sulpice as he sat there with a notebook over a weekend in October 1974.

It's the sort of exercise you might do quite regularly as a writer, but it's not the sort of thing you'd normally publish raw. And I did go back and forth with this short book: at first I found it just as banal as it sounds; then I started to find it all rather invigorating; and then unfortunately by the end I started to find it all a bit pointless again.

This is a book whose value resides almost entirely in your own head, and not in the words on the page – which of course is true for all books, but sometimes it takes a minimalist text like this to remind you of the fact.

Perec's descriptions are extremely bare, almost catalogic. He is weirdly obsessed with the buses:

A 96 goes past. An 87 goes past. An 86 goes past. A 70 goes past. A ‘Grenelle Interlinge’ truck goes past.
Calm. No one at the bus stop.
A 63 goes past. A 96 goes past.


If you are waiting for him to start reflecting on what he sees, to speculate in some way or to draw inferences about the scene – basically, to make things up – you will be waiting a long time. There is not much of that; which I found strange, because after twenty minutes sitting there rocking a pushchair with my foot, I had already given all the pigeons names and invented a lubricious back-story for the brunette waiting outside the town hall. If I had written this book it would doubtless be filled with a lot of that kind of thing, but Perec either has a less wandering mind than I do or (more likely) he is keeping himself deliberately restrained, factual, camera-like. By the end of the book we are still being fed such apparent banalities as:

The traffic lights turn red (this happens to them often)

I was interested to see how much of the scene I recognised, and certainly a lot has not changed: the descriptions of women coming out of mass holding pyramidal packets from the local patisserie, or of men outside the tabac tearing the cellophane off cigarette packs, could have been written yesterday.

He kept talking about deux-chevaux going past, and I was idly wondering was this meant until suddenly as I read it for the fifth time I realised he was talking about those old Citroën 2CVs. Man, those things used to be everywhere, didn't they!? That suddenly made it all feel a lot more seventies. And then this got me wondering about dog-shit, which Perec does not mention; but I'm sure dog-shit used to be everywhere in Paris – right? I mean I wasn't around in 1974, but I'm sure I remember from holidays in the 80s that there was A LOT of it. Perec apparently doesn't see any. J'accuse, Georges!

Anyway, you can see some of the value this might have for future generations. God knows it would be great to read a document like this written in, let's say, 1874, or 1574 for that matter.

Beyond that, your reaction to Tentative d'épuisement will depend on many factors. I no longer get excited about experimentation for its own sake, nor do I think this is a very innovative project in the first place. Nevertheless parts of it, with their dedication to developing awareness and observation, won me round, and the final few lines started to read like free verse; I was unexpectedly moved.

Oh. And on the last page, I suddenly read this:

Passe un jeune papa portant son bébé endormi sur son dos (et un parapluie à la main)

and oh god I know it's stupid, but I suddenly couldn't help imagining that Georges, sitting there at his café in 1974, squinting out through the rain, was watching me trudge into his field of vision from 2012, hugging my baby with one hand, and with one of his books, or something very like it, jammed in the back pocket of my jeans. ( )
1 vote Widsith | Dec 19, 2013 |
Update 8/1/2012: I have revised this Goodreads book review into a proper essay, now published on the Eyeshot website (thanks to Lee for taking an interest! And thanks to all of you for for your likes and comments). I am leaving my original Goodreads review below, as a document of the first draft of this essay, flaws and all.

An Attempt At Exhausting A Book On Goodreads

Date: June 30, 2012
Time: 11:00 a.m.
Location: Kavarna (Cafe), Decatur GA
Weather: Sunny, Record Breaking Heat

A small book.

The pages are stiff.

Translator's acknowledgment is short, about an inch down the page, and relatively forgettable.

Some kind of introduction in a bold sans serif font, 2.5 inches down the right side. The left side of the page is blank.

Page 5, first solid page of text.

Date, Time, Location and Weather are given at top.

Many bullet points.

Bus observations.

Page 6, observations go on.

A title: "Trajectories" in bold.

Sentences follow predictable form describing the destination of bus routes: "The (#) goes to (place)".

Short blocks of indented text, perhaps more personal observations?

Bus observations repeat.

I lose concentration slightly and have to re-read a sentence twice.

Another title: "Colors" in bold.

Page 9: last word is "Pause." about halfway down the page.

Page 10: part 2 is indicated with another set of Date, Time, Location. No weather this time. Does this mean it hasn't changed?

Sentences starting without a capital letter, erratic indents, what do they mean?

Page 11: back to normal format. Capitals at beginning of sentences.

Bus observations repeat.

An Attempt At Being Serious...

OK I was going to write a review of the entire book like that, but I don't think I have the stick-with-it-ness that Perec does. And it wouldn't be worth it just for a joke review, although I am not entirely joking... I did want to see how it would feel to inventory the normally un-noticed. Answer: it is exhausting and I started getting a heavy feeling in my stomach at the thought of finishing this exercise.

In case you haven't figured out by now, this short book is an experiment by Georges Perec to, as the title suggests, exhaust a place. That place is the Place Saint Sulpice, a busy corner in Paris both for car traffic, people traffic, animals, and inanimate objects (churches, cafes, candy wrappers). Perec says "My intention in the pages that follow 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."

This was much more interesting than I had expected it to be from that description. Of course it was boring! Descriptions of people walking around looking not extraordinary in any way, buses passing by, pigeons landing, buses passing by again, he notices these things without attempting to select or curate them based on their interesting-ness, but just based on them happening. But 'curate' is exactly what he does, because he could easily have noticed and written about a completely different set of non-occurences: a bug flying by, or the color of the floor in the cafe he was sitting in, or the speed of the blue Mercedes truck instead of its color. Because the world has so much information in it, it is simply not possible to not select when writing, and this alone is interesting to me.

But it was interesting on a different level as well: what I started to notice through the boredom was that the smallest alteration of his syntax or the smallest change in what he noticed became a much bigger deal than if the book were full of interesting variety and non-boring content. So the reader is observing Perec's tiniest changes while Perec is observing the street for the tiniest changes (thus my review up top was not totally in jest). I started noticing things like:

- he would repeat things like the bus passing by, always with a complete identical sentence like "A 70 passes by" but by the end he shortens this to just "A 70"

- interesting word choices pop out more, like when some cars "dive" into the parking lot. Or when two tourist buses pass by "with their cargoes of photophagous Japanese" (guess what my new favorite word is)

- he visits the same place over 3 days, and is very concerned with the differences between the three days. What has changed since yesterday?

- this different-times/same-place obsession reminded me of Jenny Erpenbeck's book [b:Visitation|8638226|Visitation|Jenny Erpenbeck|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1327920715s/8638226.jpg|10864336], which has a similar obsession, and starts with this epigraph: "As the day is long and the world is old, many people can stand in the same place, one after the other." -- Marie in Woyzeck by Georg Buchner

- he starts out being completely objective, sticking to the facts, but soon he starts tossing subjective things in like "A lady who has just bought an ugly candleholder goes by"

- I loved that I could see his thought processes come through every once in a while, like when he muses on the difference between busses passing by and everything else passing by. Several other times he analyzes why he has chosen a particular detail to write about rather than another detail. You get a sense that he is figuring out how he wants to conduct his experiment even as he is conducting his experiment.

Perec's saving grace here is probably that he didn't have too strict of a methodology. He had an idea, but he allowed himself to stray from it occasionally if he wanted to. This provided points of relief, humor, light, and variety (though you should not read this if you're mainly looking for variety) to keep a reader going despite the monotony of the endeavor as a whole.

Lastly: I enjoyed this book thoroughly, but I would never recommend it to anyone without a signed affidavit saying they won't blame me later.

An Attempt at Re-Exhausting a Place

Here's an idea: there is no reason I can't continue Perec's grand experiment by revisiting the very corner where he made his observations! Perec was interested in the passage of time. Well, it's been 38 years plus or minus some months now, and I will go to Saint-Sulpice myself, to see if anything has changed. Have the people become more ordinary, have the pigeons flown off for good? What, if anything, is the weather doing? And I will do all this not by sitting in that spot over three days, but by examining that spot in one specific moment, an instantaneous flash captured on top of a little car with the word "Google" written on the side. Surely Perec would have noticed such an out of the ordinary car, with a camera on top of it? But maybe he's fallen asleep. Or maybe it's too out of the ordinary, and he only notices 'infra-ordinary', boring things. So let's take a look, shall we?

http://goo.gl/maps/tYMk

It seems like Café de la Mairie is still in the same spot. And what is this? A bus, you say? "The 87 goes to Champ-de-Mars" Perec says on page 8. "The 87 goes to Champ-de-Mars" Perec says again, just to be sure, on page 9. Now I can repeat it: "The 87 goes to Champ-de-Mars" on page 2012!

And the people! Yes, there must be at least 50 people within view if I do a quick 360. Mopeds and bicycles everywhere. I don't remember Perec mentioning bicycles, but he did say he saw a few mopeds. One of them is going down the road right now in a business suit. Taxis lined up across the street from the cafe. "Agence de V---" my view is blocked. I'm clicking the arrows now, going up and down the street. A woman with red hair is standing in the bus, carrying several green plastic bags. A younger, perhaps asian woman (photophagous Japanese?) sits at the very back of the bus, her left hand on her chin. Oh, I can see the sign now in this view, it says "Agence de Voyages", possibly a travel agency. Among the list of things Perec mentions in the beginning is a travel agency. I have a hard time believing that a travel agency has survived so long.

A woman in a light brown trenchcoat is crossing the street. There are about 50 empty yellow foldout chairs in front of the Cafe de la Mairie, all facing outward. No, not all of them are empty. Will there be a concert across the street? Maybe this is just a form of compact outdoor seating, for maximum capacity/profit. Next to the cafe, two white trucks are at loggerheads.

'Sortie de Camions' My French is awful, I would be so lost in this country. I wonder what Perec would think about Google Streetview. He'd probably write 500 books based on it. A sign says 'Antiquaires.' Underneath it sit two men and a woman on a bench. A narrow alley is blocked off from construction, one side of an old building seems to be worked on. It looks like a government building, a courthouse maybe, but what is it doing with this tall section? http://goo.gl/maps/uuYY I don't remember Perec mentioning this.

The letter 'P' is still here. Perec noticed this too, maybe because his last name starts with a P. More mopeds, everyone is wearing helmets: good. The side of a blue truck advertises 'Bieres de Paris'. Next to the 'P' and the parked taxis is what appears to be a subway station. Was the subway here when Perec wrote in 1974? More trenchcoats, do the French love trenchcoats or what? Perec noticed several in his book.

Two men in light brown jackets walking down the street briskly (I can only assume, from their postures) one is carrying a plastic bag, can't make out the contents. Are they trying to catch one of these taxis? The trees are leafy, green. I don't know when this photo was taken, but probably spring, judging from the clothing and the lack of orange leaves. What appears to be tin huts: stalls in some kind of antique street market? Google won't let me go there to see.

Oh my. It suddenly looks like these photographs were not taken sequentially. This view shows the tin huts http://goo.gl/maps/ZPRL but this one from a few more feet down (meters? they're metric over there, right?) shows white tents in the same spot. Some sort of arts fair must have taken its place. http://goo.gl/maps/SJLe

Two large women are crossing the street, one is dragging behind her some luggage on wheels. Traffic light is red. A larger woman stands at the median. A man in a blue shirt stands waiting to cross the street with a manilla envelope in his left hand. What, pray tell, has happened to all of the pigeons of 1974? An ad reads 'GLAMOUR'. Oh, I have spotted a pigeon in the air! http://goo.gl/maps/8M7E Are you perhaps one of Perec's pigeon's great great grandchildren? Or maybe you're not a pigeon at all, too far to tell what kind of bird you are.

A black SmartCar, parked in front of what appears to be residences. I am moving down the street now, closer to Rue Bonaparte. A woman in a white sleeveless shirt and a blue purse next to men in coats. An apple green moped. Perec mentions a fountain decorated with the statues of four orators, but I cannot find it. Surely that would have survived if the travel agency survived. Where is it? Maybe it has migrated with the pigeons?

Still more Google-time has passed as I go down the road. Suddenly the residential building http://goo.gl/maps/u7eg is now covered in construction plastic http://goo.gl/maps/5wdZ it says: "traitement de facades" and even I can figure that one out despite my poor French. A woman with a very similar blue purse as the woman in the white sleeveless shirt is walking beside the building under construction. Now she is wearing many more layers. A traffic light is green.

I found it! The fountain and the statues! http://goo.gl/maps/Qvbx it seems that the white tents and (earlier/later... time is impossible in streetview) the tin huts had surrounded it and were obstructing its view. I'm so glad it's here, even though I had never seen it before. Why do I feel such relief? It is too far to make out the pigeons. Let me navigate to a better view. http://goo.gl/maps/SVO9 Incidentally, no pigeons.

At the end of the road, suddenly the white tents reappear. 'Alsacez-VOUS! a Paris..." it says. 20 or so mopeds and motorcycles have been cordoned off on the side of the street. A woman in a fierce violet jacket is walking fiercely. http://goo.gl/maps/xcG9 She is carrying an orange shopping bag. Her body, in the act of shopping, has the propulsive thrust of an Olympic gymnast. She is not ordinary or infra-ordinary, she is extraordinary.

DAY TWO.

I'm back on Google Streetview, feeling re-energized.

Not far from the woman wearing the fierce violet jacket: Two bookstores just a few steps from the Saint-Sulpice, surely one of these books on display is Perec's 'An Attempt'!

http://goo.gl/maps/K4LB
http://goo.gl/maps/3Iru

Incidentally, I just looked up 'photophagous'. It's not really a word, but apparently a play on the word phytophagous meaning "(esp. of an insect or other invertebrate) feeding on plants". I wonder what the original pun in French was.

Also, had a revelation during my break from Streetview. There is no clear indication that what I assumed was the subway station was indeed the subway station. Maybe it is the parking lot that features so prominently in 'Attempt'. If that is so, it would make sense that the cars 'dive' into it. If it is not so, then where is the parking lot?

Also have been re-reading Perec, and he briefly mentions a district council building, which I am pretty sure is the one next to the Mairie that is under reconstruction.

Police station. Police cars parked out front.

Spotted a 58 at the intersection of Rue Bonaparte and Rue de Vaugirard. I don't remember Perec mentioning the 58.

I think I'm kind of lost, so I'm going back to Cafe Mairie. Different view of the outdoor seating: http://goo.gl/maps/cAUZ Looks almost like student desks. A group of three elderly individuals (men or women? hard to tell with their faces blurred) talking leisurely. Another man appears to be reading the newspaper.

In the opposite direction, a woman in a white jacket and yellow purse walks by a green trashcan. Looking back at the opposite corner: the mopeds here are parked almost equidistant from each other, whereas they are usually bunched together in other places.

In the middle of the street, a young man in a denim jacket carrying an instrument and a young woman in a white jacket on her cell phone, carrying a yellow purse not unlike the earlier woman.

I always assumed this bus was the same as the 87 in the front view, but the side says 86: http://goo.gl/maps/lezW

The 86 just happens to be the most mentioned one in Perec's book, at least that is my impression.

And in fact, it is the 86 because the 87 from the front view has a different side. Two buses were in the same spot in two different views, and Google alternated these two time frames within the same street.

"The 86 goes to Saint-Germain-des-Pres" Perec says.

I love how I have to keep backtracking on things I've said as I circle this block over and over again and understand more of what is going on and how Google has spliced together images from different times. What at first seems apparent gives way to multiple deceptions.

I feel oddly like I know this block very well now, when in reality this too is a deception. If I actually traveled to Saint Sulpice, I would be so lost. I would look for all these people, always rooted in their designated spots, as if they were landmarks, statues waiting for pigeons to land on, but they would all be gone.

It occurs to me that Streetview plays with time in a very interesting, almost artistic manner, when in fact it is a random outcome based on the different cameras' routes.

Three time frames:

1. tin hut/antique market (the 86 is in this time frame)
2. white tents in the same spot (the 87 is in this time frame)
3. no tents or huts, clear view to the fountain

There may be other time frames I am unaware of. I feel like a time traveler.

Here I can see the front of the 86, finally: http://goo.gl/maps/J96v

Here is the front of another bus. It could be the same 86, but I'm not sure. It is in the tin-hut time frame: http://goo.gl/maps/GVDF

MikiHouse is the name of the store on the corner of the residential building that is (in some time frames) under construction.

A tour bus that says Knipschild on it.

I think that if I keep going up and down this street I will unlock some kind of secret. I keep looking at the same people. Their frozen postures hold so many stories. Then I see new people too. New things that had escaped my attention the first time through. Each looking has more depth.

I see the same woman in the white sleeveless shirt, and I feel a sense of familiarity, like we've already met.

Tourist in all white and a yellow umbrella crossing the street. Further down Rue Bonaparte: Mom with stroller, baby on back. Dad walking beside her. Man with a baby blue book. Can't make out the title. White haired woman in black coat.

Here is a sign for the metro. So it is a metro afterall, and not a parking lot. Where is the parking lot Perec refers to?

Two bright green street sweepers parked on a corner. A few construction signs on the sidewalk. Corner of Bonaparte and Saint Sulpice.

Fierce woman in fierce violet jacket again. Feeling of familiarity.

In the other direction, asian woman in a pink top and blue jeans. Taxis. A silver Volkswagon with a sunroof. White tents.

A woman riding a bike very close to us. Carrying a small green purse. Tourist with a backpack and another bag slung over the shoulder crossing Saint Sulpice. Small Mercedes hatchback.

From this angle, another ramp leading down. Definitely looks more like a metro station than an underground parking lot. http://goo.gl/maps/wsTn

Starting over at the cafe, going down Place Saint Sulpice... another bookstore: http://goo.gl/maps/KnR0 Woman with shopping bag running down the sidewalk. Why the hurry? I see no taxis or buses nearby. Across the street a woman is unlocking her bike in front of the church.

Wandering off from the square seems like such a luxury. So many new sights and new people to see, easy eyecandy. New sights without effort, whereas in the square I have to strain my eyes to find something new (although every time there is something I've missed before).

Rare man with unblurred out face, looking back suspiciously at the camera: http://goo.gl/maps/cIKG I'm so used to seeing the veil of the blur that I feel oddly wrong, like a peeping tom, when I stare at his face, as if he were naked. But I cannot stop staring.

French taggers: http://goo.gl/maps/hMPr A store called JLR. A garbage truck. I've wandered kind of far now. I apologize if this review has stopped becoming entertaining. But it seems I am driven to look and re-look without any endpoint in sight, least of all entertainment.

A bit exhausted now. To be continued... (maybe) ( )
  JimmyChanga | Sep 11, 2013 |
Pick a comfortable cafe or park bench, take out a notebook and sit for a few hours. How much activity would you be able to observe in the time you're sitting there? How much do we miss because we aren't mindful of the activity that takes place throughout the day? From fluttering pigeons, to how often the number 96 bus passes, to when children run down the sidewalk or a man walks his dog?

This short journal gives us a glimpse of how much life takes place through various periods in a day over 3 days. ( )
2 vote cameling | Apr 29, 2012 |
This is an excellent illustration of a problem with purely descriptive, unvoiced, "unoriginal" writing: the more it attempts to be "unoriginal" in Marjorie Perloff's sense, the more meaning is infused. Perec's project is to describe the "infraordinary": everything about this square in Paris that is not recorded in the history and tourism books, and, by implication, in novels. He spends a lot of his weekend noting what people are eating or carrying, and he spends a lot of the first day noting when different buses go by. But even the first two pages are dense with implied narratives, and it is those narratives that give the project interest, not the lists of "infraordinary" events.

Each session begins with a header, labeled DATE, TIME, LOCATION, and WEATHER, emulating the news, and announcing a deadpan and perhaps objective, or neutral, standpoint. The opening paragraphs of the opening session list letters of the alphabet that he can see from where he's sitting. This would be a limited and plausible game, like a child's game of naming letters on signs. But by the bottom of the first page -- six short paragraphs from the beginning -- he writes:

—Ground: packed gravel and sand.

This is a deviation from his letter-and-number game, and it's clearly also an indication of where he will stop. He won't inventory every pebble or brick. The next paragraphs (p. 6) are similar announcements of the limits of his project:

—Stone: the curbs, a fountain, a chuch, buildings...
—Asphalt
—Trees (leafy, many yellowing)

These are indications of refusals. Flaubert, for example, would have been expected to write at length on those things. Then, two more paragraphs down:

—Vehicles (their inventory remains to be made)

This is self-reflexive, about what the writer might intend to go on and accomplish. Then (the next paragraph):

—Human beings

Now the voice is ironic. In the space of 1 1/2 very short pages, the tone is rule-bound (listing letters and numbers), obstinate (refusing, by implication, the project of naturalistic description), self-reflexive, and ironic. then comes a heading:

Trajectories
The 96 goes to Montparnasse station
The 84 goes to Porte de Champerret
The 70 goes to Placd du Dr Hayen...

This is different again: this time the writer is searching for new games.

This is just the first two pages. In the following two, the voice and intention changes again several times. There is found poetry, hopeless inventorying, compulsive listing, abandoned lists, vignettes from imaginary novels, and touches of surrealism. All this has to raise the question of whether there is a larger plan, a game that comprehends these partial games.

My conclusion is: the book is interesting for the continuously renewed interest in the kinds of literary and non-literary voices and references the writing conjures, not for the descriptive attempt or for any notion of the infraordinary. The very project of the infraordinary is entirely soaked in the mixtures of writing projects that are floating and assembling in his mind. ( )
  JimElkins | Jun 17, 2011 |
Although, this small book does not compare with "Life A Users Manual", Perec's masterpiece, I rather enjoyed this book of observations in the St. Sulpice District of Paris. In tracking all the small things in the area where he hangs out, I am reminded of myself. I have kept track of buses myself, although in reality this has been part of my professional life as Manager of Bus Scheduling. I ended up goggling the map of where Perec watched, and looking up the bus routes and their schedules, to see what I might further discern. I might have been unduced to sneak a look inside the bus to ge and idea of who is riding. But Perec does give us some quick looks at the people walking about. Perec is aware of the scene, but not in the scene, as it were, and I understand this posture.

I have read this book at the same time as "Paris", by Julian Green, a more romantic memoir, but worth the read also. Green was an American who lived almost his entire life in France, and was a member of the Académie Française. ( )
  vpfluke | Feb 21, 2011 |
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