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An Exhausting Attempt of Reviewing Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris

Always late to the game, I didn’t learn about the term flâneur until I was in grad school, which is probably a good thing. See: I grew up in Texas. Texas is not a place for strolling, or at least San Antonio is not a place for strolling. It’s hot and everything is spread too far to make walking comfortable. Texas is a place for sitting, not walking, not moving.

Baudelaire conceptualized a flâneur as someone who walks or strolls in order to experience his surroundings.

So for most of my life, I’ve been a sitter. Never the athletic type, I’d rather sit than sweat. But when I learned about the flâneur, I’ve wanted to modify myself to fit that romantic notion—Baudelaire: the romantic—of a person who absorbs and experiences through the act of walking. I wanted to want that (because I didn’t actually want it: I’d rather sit than move, still), but through time, I’ve trained myself out of my Texan laze. Now, I bike and walk, I strive to understand the world at a slower pace.

But then, but then, I learned about Georges Perec’s newest translation, At Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. After years of training myself to want to walk, Perec gives me a reason to sit. In An Attempt, Perec provides a “sociological survey” of the infraordinary, which roughly translates as what happens when nothing happens. Over a period of three days, Perec watches a square in Paris, Place Saint-Sulpice, shifting locations periodically from café window to café window to park bench. By sitting (as opposed to walking or moving), he notes the birds, the weather, the passing of cars and buses, people walking and people sitting, people eating and how they eat, which hand they use or do not use, Georges Perec is charming, the most charming man I will never meet, and An Attempt is yet another charming example of his charm.

To read Perec is, in many ways, to be magicked away. His focus on detail, lists and lists, whether the items on his desk or the way of categorizing books (examples of his non-fiction from Species of Space), rather than exhaust the reader, excites. It seems illogical, that the minutia of the banal could be magical or charming, but such is Perec’s special charm.

From 12:40pm on the first day of observations:

tens, hundreds of simultaneous actions, micro-events, each one of which necessitates postures, movements, specific expenditures of energy:

conversations between two people, conversations between three people, conversations between several people: the movement of lips, gestures, gesticulations

means of locomotion: walking, two-wheeled vehicles (with and without motor), automobiles (private cars, company cars, rented cars, driving school cars), commercial vehicles, public services, public transport, tourist buses

means of carrying (by hand, under the arm, on the back)

means of traction (shopping bag on wheels)

degrees of determination or motivation: waiting, sauntering, dawdling, wandering, going, running toward, rushing (toward a free taxi, for instance), seeking, idling about, hesitating, walking with determination…

A 63 [a bus] passes by

Six sewer workers (hard hats and high boots) take rue des Canettes.

Two free taxis at the taxi stand

An 87 passes by

A blind man coming from rue des Canettes passes by in front of the café; he’s a young man, with a rather confident way of walking.

An 86 passes by

Two men with pipes and black satchels

A man with a black satchel and no pipe

A woman in a wool jacket, smiling

A 96

Another 96

(high heels: bent ankles)

An apple-green 2CV

A 63

A 70 (10-12).

For Perec, this is what is happening, even though nothing is happening, nothing noteworthy, and yet, this is life, this is happening. This is what happens when we stop moving and observe.

But what is powerful about this charming little book (scarcely 50 pages, and 50 small pages at that) is also its greatest failure, or success, depending on how you want to view it. Perec takes these notes for three days, he writes down everything is sees, but it’s impossible to notate everything, to notice everything. He admits, “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: I don’t notice, for example, that cars are parking” (15). Furthermore, Perec constantly interrupts his observations by observing himself, displacing, unplacing, if only momentarily:

The sky is gray. Fleeting sunny spells.

Weary vision: obsessive fear of apple-green 2CVs.

Unsatisfied curiosity (what I came here to find, the memory floating in this café…)

What difference is there between a driver who parks on the first go and another (“90”) who only manages to do so after several minutes of laborious efforts? This provokes attention, irony, the participation of an audience: to see not just the rips, but the fabric (but how to see the fabric if it is only the rips that make it visible: no one ever sees buses pass by unless they’re waiting for one, or unless they’re waiting for someone to come off of one, or unless the Paris City Transport Authority pays them a salary to count them…)

Also: why are two nuns more interesting than two other passersby?

A man goes by, wearing a surgical collar

A woman goes by; she is eating a slice of tart (33-4).

It is Perec’s constant desire to interrupt himself, to take himself out of the moment, to lose focus, that makes this book charming—I should interrupt here to note that the OED defines charm as “to act upon with or as with a charm or magic, so as to influence, control, subdue, bind, etc.; to put a spell upon; to bewitch, enchant,” charm is necessarily something magical and there is great validity to this idea—which is not to ignore the charm of his observations as a whole. It is not his success at exhausting a place in Paris that makes this little book work but his inability to exhaust a place, that in the end, he ends up only exhausting himself. That is: his failure is his success.

And then, there are just the beautiful little turns of phrase that mark this as Perecian:

A little girl, flanked by her parents (or by her kidnappers) is weeping. (36)

A car goes by, its hood covered in dead leaves. (37)

The pigeons at my feet have a fixed stare. So do the people looking at them.

The sun is hidden. There’s some wind. (32)

Night, winter: unreal appearance of the passersby. (25)

(Why count the buses? Probably because they’re recognizable and regular: they cut up time, they punctuate the background noise; ultimately, they’re foreseeable.

The rest seems random, improbable, anarchic; the buses pass by because they have to pass by, but nothing requires a car to back up, or a man to have a bag marked with a big “M” of Monoprix, or a car to be blue or apple-green, or a customer to order a coffee instead of a beer…) (22-23)

A woman with two baguettes under her arm. (38)

I sometimes hear car horns. The traffic is what one would call fluid. (32)

A baby in a baby carriage lets out a brief squawking.

It looks like a bird: blue eyes, fixed, profoundly interested by what they take in. (20)

Reading An Attempt, however, was simultaneously anachronistic and very present for me. I can acknowledge that this is Perec, sitting in a café in 1974 writing down these observations, and yet, whereas this ought to be novel (or at least clever), I’ve become desensitized to this kind of surveillance. The novelness to this book comes directly from Perec and that it was written in 1974. Otherwise, this could easily be someone’s—a very observant, literary someone, but a someone nonetheless, after all, even Perec was someone once—Twitter feed or Facebook update. Today, it seems like we are all attempting to exhaust a place, or if not a place, our lives.

There is a sadness that lingers beneath An Attempt: a melancholy at his failure to communicate everything. It exhausts him, and in exhausting him, it exhausts me, draws me into his melancholy. Even if this type of communication is familiar to me now, I’m continually reminded of his concept of the infraordinary, that even at my most observant, there are things which escape me, that even if I were to sit in a quiet café and do nothing but watch, I could not see everything. An Attempt is a reminder of my own failures: my inability to see everything, to read everything, to understand everything, etc. I’ve failed even at this attempt at reviewing a book. Like Perec, I’ve interrupted myself, become lost while I’m trying to observe only what he has observed.

And so, I wonder: should I stay here in my office—there’s a pleasant enough view out my window, people pass by ever so often, stop in and say hello, this is a place I can observe simply because so little is happening—or should I go stroll and take in more than I can possibly experience at once?