An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec

An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris BY Georges Perec. Wakefield Press. Paperback, 72 pages. $12.
The cover of An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris

In 1974, two years (or two years and one week, to be more precise) before Georges Perec initiated Life: A User's Manual, his 700-page magnum opus to the fictional 11 rue Simon-Crubellier, the Oulipian mathematician dedicated a rainy, October weekend to musing in Paris’s real-life Place Saint-Sulpice. Armed with pen and paper (and likely a never-ending supply of Gitanes), Perec attempted to notate every person, object, event, action, and atmospheric modulation as they appeared from varying locations on the square. “What happens,” Perec asks, “when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds?”

The response, Tentative d'epuisement d'un lieu a Paris, recently translated into English as An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, is a surprisingly compact document of urban signage and ephemera recorded in Perec's unadorned, albeit restive, voice. Long neglected by English-speaking scholars and Perec devotees for the author's other, more flamboyant endeavors, An Attempt… has remained a kind of secret treasure for those interested in Oulipo- and Situationist-inspired tracts of Paris. Marvelously simple and deceptively well-designed, Perec's slim volume presents itself as an artifact of the street, ushering the reader into a spontaneous phenomenology of words, conventional symbols, numbers, fleeting slogans, trajectories, colors, and, as he more technically describes them, means of locomotion, means of carrying, means of traction, degrees of determination or motivation, and body positions.

Perec's purpose in inventorying these moments—infra-ordinaire, as he labeled them—was relayed some years later in a short essay entitled “Approches de quoi?” (“Approaches to What?”), in which he explains: “What’s needed perhaps is finally to found our own anthropology, one that will speak about us, will look in ourselves for what for so long we’ve been pillaging from others. Not the exotic any more, but the endotic.… We live, true, we breathe, true; we walk, we open doors, we go down staircases, we sit at a table in order to eat, we lie down on a bed in order to sleep. How? Where? When? Why?” For Perec, this search for a science of the quotidian appears through a cybernetic eye, a prosthetic vision that yearns to absorb every discernible “sight” into one undifferentiated depth of field. Like Paul Virilio's “picnoleptic,” Perec’s narrative sutures together scraps of Saint-Sulpice’s space and time, breaks them down into their constituent micro-moments, and then reassembles a kind of pixiliated simulation of reality as an instantaneous, urban plenum where each and every oscillation evokes poetic and sometimes sublime significance.

Measured observations like “A rather big chunk of sky (maybe one-sixth of my field of vision)” meander into meteorological abstraction—“Night, winter: unreal appearances of the passersby”—while the recurring recitation of bus-lines (“An 86 goes by, empty/ A 76 goes by, full/ A 76 goes by, nearly empty/ A 63 goes by, almost full”) evoke a tense cadence. Other notations bear a tongue-in-check intertextuality, as if Perec has discovered philosophical cryptograms messaging him serendipitously as fashion advertisements. Virilio, the great philosopher himself, makes an appropriately speedy entrance and exit from the square. And beneath Perec's intransigent gaze, even the spirit of Time seems to announce itself through the playful appearance of Thanatos and Eros, as when the church of Saint-Sulpice hosts a funeral, followed quickly by a wedding. Doves begin to circle the square at seemingly regular intervals. These are interspersed with sudden Cartesian soliloquies: “I can barely see the church; on the other hand, I see almost the entire cafe (and myself writing) reflected in its own windowpanes.”

As his weekend meditations draw to a close, Perec asserts that he could well be in some other city entirely. “By looking at only a single detail...and for a sufficiently long period of time (one or two minutes), one can, without any difficulty, imagine that one is in Etampes or in Bourges or even, moreover, in some part of Vienna (Austria) where I've never been.” Has he begun to discover the hidden semaphores of the Absolute? The symptoms of mental exhaustion? Both? Part of the fun of An Attempt… is not quite knowing the answers to these questions, and it is Perec's fastidious attention to this absurd anthropology that makes his departure into the banal so novel.

Erik Morse contributes to Bookforum, The Believer, Frieze, Modern Painters, and Interview, among others. His second book, Memphis Underground: A Dual Narrative of the Bluff City, written with musician/performance artist Tav Falco, will be published by Creation Books next year.