This review was originally written for another publication, but I had a disagreement with the editor regarding substantial requested edits and opted instead to just post what I’d written because it represents what I actually took away from the book.
I have also cross-posted this at the continent. blog (www.continentcontinent.cc). I hope it’s of some interest.
Review: An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris
By: Georges Perec
Trans. Marc Lowenthal, Wakefield Press, 2010
As its title suggests, this book is most best understood as two things: as an attempt and as exhausting. Perec tires (I mean this doubly; he tires himself, his work tires the reader) and he of course cannot succeed. An Attempt is a scattered and inconsistent failure of a project and – not in spite of but because of this – a wonderful little book.
Georges Perec is most famous as a member of the Oulipo. For most of his career he used intense formal constraints in order to shape his work, famously writing A Void (La Disparition in French) without the use of the letter ‘E’ and ordering the chapters of Life: A User’s Manual (La Vie en Mode D’emploi) according to a knight’s tour of a 10X10 grid. The constraint behind An Attempt is a simple one: Perec sits in the Place Saint-Sulpice and tries to describe all of the banal happenings he witnesses. In his terms, it is an attempt at documenting the infraordinary- “what happens when nothing happens.”
For three days, Perec sits at cafes on the square and takes notes. He makes systems and abandons them. Cataloging conventions emerge and dissolve. Certain repetitions are remarked upon, certain details settle into certain customary spots. Sometimes they cease to appear where expected. Perec pauses, resumes. He notes his pauses. He ceases to note his pauses. He starts to note the time of each pause. He counts buses and tires of counting buses. He is often fatigued and mentions being so. He takes more notes on the first day than on the subsequent two days combined.
Perec employs and abandons a slew of techniques: headings, paragraphs, proper punctuation, taxonomies and lists, various ordering regimes. He tries to separate his subjective conjecture from his objective observation via parenthetical bracketing and capture. The containment method does not work, thank god. This attempt at quarantine, another failure, is the key to the book’s success.
As An Attempt is slight, replete with failure, and engaged with intentionally dull subject matter, the question becomes: Why do I so value this book? The answer is also something slight and easily mocked: charm. Georges Perec is a thoroughly charming writer. His charm comes from his diction, his dry humor, and most of all from the inclusion of details that do not seem to belong. That is to say, the text is most charming when the recitation of the Place Saint-Sulpice’s minor goings-on is intruded upon by details of Perec’s life, his knowledge, his musings – the details that are only of the Place because Perec is in it. It is as though he is a scientist who alters his experiment by observing it, and I am thankful for this bad science. It is this intrusion of intimacy into the arid nothing of banal observation that makes his Attempt worthwhile. The key to the infraordinary is that it is open enough, event-less enough, for the quirks of the subject to emerge.
At one point, without context or even punctuation, he notes the presence of “Ghostliness” and then, italicized and parenthetically, his own “(Fatigue).”(24) Early on in the second day, he tries to list the differences he observes from the day previous. He notes that he “is drinking a Vittel water, whereas yesterday [he] was drinking a coffee” and then immediately reprimands himself with a parenthetical “(how does that transform the square?)”(30) Perec writes that a man “holds his cigarette the same way I do (between the middle finger and ring finger): it’s the first time I’ve come across someone else with this habit.”(19) The observation is really an occasion for self-reflection.
In the absence of plot, action, characters, or larger message, the text is somehow charmed. The archive of the ordinary ends up documenting the subject Perec, the grain of his narrative voice, his small movements, his moods, the rhythms of his sitting. The infraordinary that impresses itself on the reader is the infraordinary of Perec himself, not really the Place Saint-Sulpice. The ‘Place in Paris’ could be any city square. What is specific is Perec.
I should make an admission, my own highly subjective aside, though I won’t parenthetically bracket it. I adore Georges Perec. I find his work thrilling. Life: A User’s Manual and W, or the Memory of Childhood are two of my very favorite books. Naturally then, I am fascinated also with Perec the man. The complications this presents for a reviewer are obvious. Perec’s name itself carries magic or fascination into (charms) the space of a spectacularly uneventful text. An example of how this works can be found in the book at the moment when Paul Virilio passes through the Place Saint-Sulpice. Virilio does nothing of interest, but his celebrity (at least for a theorist) status heightens the interest his appearance in the text holds for the (at least this) reader. It may be the case that a reader with no previous knowledge of Perec would be significantly less enchanted than I am. It’s hard to quantify and separate out the workings of charm via name and via text. The two inevitably operate in tandem. I would hope not, but it is conceivable that a reader might not be struck by the book’s charm at all.
Still, even aside from the appeal (charm) of An Attempt as Perecian micro-autobiography, there are a number of other critical avenues of entry into the book. The most apparent of these is probably the tension between the impossibility of the archive and the passion to document- to render the ordinary as requiring preservation and at the same time necessarily only preserving a fraction of it. One could quite profitably consider the book in light of the impulse to collection, obsessive documentation, the fetishization of the banal. Marcel Duchamp was a member of the Oulipo. An Attempt could well be understood as a sort of literary ready-made.
Another angle: An Attempt as plotless noir. Perec’s practice is surveillance and his text reveals him as a detective of the everyday. We see him slugging coffee, smoking cigarettes, noting every change, every deviance from the absolute stillness. The book is run through with a strong and growing paranoiac streak and a creeping sense of an impossible search. At one moment, Perec writes of his “Unsatisfied curiosity (what [he] came here to find, the memory floating in this cafe.)” (33) His clipped prose of discomfort and undefinable mission seems almost to anticipate the aimless and dreading detectives that will come to populate later postmodern American fictions like Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy or many of Brian Evenson’s stories.
Too, the book recalls a literary tradition to which Perec is temporally and geographically closer: that of the nouveau roman. It is similar to the nouveau roman in that it attempts to catalog and account for all the things in a place. Like Robbe-Grillet, Perec piles his nouns, ticks off the usually unremarked upon. An Attempt, however, is ultimately unassimilable to the category. Perec is not so dogmatically wedded to the objective, the camera’s eye perspective or, his title notwithstanding, the true exhaustion of a place’s details. In the nouveau roman, the book is a fiction and the author can fashion a precise, detail rich environment, the description of which freezes narrative time. Perec’s constraints afford him no such luxury. Time and movement sweep details in and out of his line of sight and he can only hope for incomplete imprecision. So An Attempt is not an example of the genre, but can be taken as a genial fellow-traveler.
There are other angles to take, other points to be made for a person interested in truly exhausting An Attempt. Perec, however, took on this project as a way of focusing on the infraordinary. To focus on the infraordinary is to not lose sight of the easily overlooked material conditions of the world in favor of big events, ideas, points of rupture. In this spirit, I will close with a few notes on the circumstances and physical qualities of this edition of An Attempt. Even including supplementary material such as the translator’s afterward, An Attempt is barely fifty pages long. These are not a particularly dense 50 pages either, but they are a rich and important part of Perec’s ouvre. Marc Lowenthal’s translation marks the first time this text (originally written in 1974) has been made available in English. This is to be celebrated. Fittingly, the book’s design is also worthy of celebration. The edition is stylish, classy. It is attractive and feels good to the touch. It is charming, with all of the charm-exceeding qualities that the charming, at its best, can entail.