An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec (1975)
On Saturday at the neighborhood bookshop my eyes caught a slim volume in a white and grey cover. A year before I was born, George Perec set out on the quest of the “infraordinary”: the everyday, or as he puts it, “what happens when nothing happens”. For three days, in a square in Paris, he sat behind Cafe windows making a note of “that which is not noticed, that which has no importance”. He progressed from strictly visible things, to conventional symbols, to slogans, to objects, to the color of things, to buses going back and forth, to gestures and conversations between people, to dogs running, and pigeons flying all at once across the square, to people carrying things, to the Japanese tourists in buses, and the apple green Citroen van.
However, even though he is sitting in one place, every coming and going of people or buses and cars, even within the field of his vision, which in itself is limited, is marking the passage of time. Every event, or rather nonevent is altering that which is being observed. From merely observing things before his eyes Perec moves on to noting the differences: what has changed from one day to the next? Though seemingly nothing has changed, in essence life has moved on.
This unimportant, humdrum nothing that we barely record is what fills up our days and years. However, when we start focusing attention on these nonevents they become unreal, almost surreal, and even poetic. Here’s a random sample:
A bird settles atop a lamppost
It is noon Gust of wind A 63 goes by A 96 goes by An apple-green 2CV goes by
The rain gets fierce. A lady makes a hat with a plastic bag marked “Nicolas” Umbrellas sweep into the church
Moments of emptiness
Passage of a 63 bus
The resulting effects of attempting to exhaust, or observe in totality a place, can range from mere unease at the near impossibility of the task being undertaken to an overdose of reality, which in turn may alter our understanding of the nature of reality itself. Leaving us with a sense of melancholy that comes with the acceptance of the fact that what we consider to be extraordinary is merely a collection of ordinary acts. And that something will always remain indescribable no matter how detailed our observations. Even when we think nothing is happening time is taking away second after second from our lives.
Afterthoughts on books: part 15