An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris

Published Jan. 1, 2010 by Wakefield Press.

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5 stars (13 reviews)

One overcast weekend in October 1974, Georges Perec set out in quest of the "infraordinary": the humdrum, the non-event, the everyday--"what happens," as he put it, "when nothing happens." His choice of locale was Place Saint-Sulpice, where, ensconced behind first one cafe window, then another, he spent three days recording everything to pass through his field of vision: the people walking by; the buses and driving-school cars caught in their routes; the pigeons moving suddenly en masse; a wedding (and then a funeral) at the church in the center of the square; the signs, symbols and slogans littering everything; and the darkness that finally absorbs it all. In An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, Perec compiled a melancholic, slightly eerie and oddly touching document in which existence boils down to rhythm, writing turns into time and the line between the empirical and the surreal grows surprisingly thin.

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January 9th, 2021: A Success?

No rating

To what degree should I consider Perec's attempt a success? It appears as if the place exhausts Perec before he can exhaust it. Each subsequent day's entry is shorter than the last, as is the time he spends on it.

By the second day, he's already grown tired of the transit buses. One could argue his reporting on them Friday removes the need to discuss them on Saturday, but his return to them on Sunday firmly places their absence on Saturday as a change in Perec.

I think this is largely to the book's credit. Better Perec exhausted than the reader.

January 7th, 2021: At Attempt At Estimating Bus Schedules in Paris

No rating

"Why Count Buses? Probably because they're recognizable and regular"

On the first and last days of this book, Perec tells us about most if not all buses that he sees pass by (on Saturday, he skips this because he's "lost all interest in them"). He also regularly tells us the time, so we can make estimates about the regularity of 5 of the 6 bus lines that run through the place (we must ignore the 84 because when he is sitting in the Café de la Marie Perec notes that "it is only by chance that [he] can see 84s pass by").

On Friday, Perec counts buses over a 390 minute period (non-contiguous, there are some breaks and he is unable to see any buses from his location at la Fontaine Saint-Sulpice). His bus tally is: 63: 31 buses 70: 26 buses 86: 28 buses 87: 20 buses 96: 30 …

January 6th, 2021: A walk

No rating

A reason I've felt like reading this book lately is that I miss the boring everyday world it describes. I read this today while walking to my (empty) office for the first time in 3 months.

The trip still feels familiar, but even after the better part of a year, the nearly-empty downtown feels surreal. I can't pretend things are normal like I might be able to in the cities still-popular parks and walking paths.

The pandemic is boring (and I'm lucky it's merely boring for me), but I long for the nothingness of walking in a crowded space; of sitting in a busy café and watching people going about their day; of bumping into a friend, chatting, and then going about with my day. And for now at least, this gives me that

January 5th, 2021: Imagining a Place in Paris

No rating

A question I've been asking myself is whether I can actually picture the area Perec is describing. I'm not great at visualizing things but surely, if I took a few notes I'd be able to make a rough sketch that was broadly correct.

I stare at my notes (which resemble something between a logic problem and a conspiracy). It feels like I'm either moments away from a complete picture or fundamentally wrong about even the shape of the area being described. And it feels like a success.

I might not have the space right, but I've made it more real. I'm starting to see the differences in the locations Perec observes from. How have I never noticed that the Friday afternoon café has no view of the bus stop?

It gets me to think about the places I know that I substitute into Perec's descriptions. To the extent that Perec …

January 4th, 2021: Differences Stand Out

5 stars

An idea I've had for years is to travel to Paris for the 50th anniversary in this book in 2024, and see if and how things felt different.

When I first had the idea, I'm not sure I thought much deeper than "things will be different because technology". To the extent that's true, the biggest change may be that I have less patience to stay focused on the task when I have my phone available to distract me at any moment.

At this point, I'm much more curious to know how capitalism has affected the square. Have real estate prices driven certain kinds of residents and businesses out? Have the few and simple advertisements Perec seen been replaced with larger and gaudier billboards?

Perec only mentions people who appear to be homeless once—it seems hard to imagine there wouldn't be more people taking refuge in the square now (at least …

January 3rd, 2021: Noting what is Not

5 stars

"My intention in the pages that follow has been to describe the rest instead: that which is generally not taking note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance"

With more things than Perec could describe, it's perhaps interesting to note what of the infinite things that aren't there Perec makes time for: "there's no water gushing from the fountain", "two-wheeled vehicles (with and without motor)", "there are two taxis, their drivers aren't there", "there is no one at the bus stop", "A man with a black satchel and no pipe", "I don't see the third [moped] leave", "there are no more taxis at the taxi stand", "I didn't find Le Monde", "a customer ... goes to pay for his drink; but he doesn't have change", "there are no birds to be seen", "I already saw [a little girl] yesterday, but yesterday there were two of …

January 2st, 2021: In Search of a Difference

5 stars

On his second day in the square, Perec contemplates the ways the square has changed. His second observation is about how he has changed: "I'm drinking a Vittel water whereas yesterday I was drinking a coffee (How does that transform the square?)".

On my second day observing Perec observe the square, I'm drinking a coffee instead of a water. I'm at my desk taking notes on my computer instead of taking notes on my phone while I read in the bath. In much the same way, these difference change the square both imperceptibly and fundamentally.

Perec aims to catalogue the mundane, but there is no end to the mundane, so there is no single thing that can transform the square more than he can. There is no single observation more descriptive of the other project than "I have the impression that the square is almost empty (but there are at …

January 1st, 2021

5 stars

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