Monday, 23 May 2011

An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris

An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec (1975)
On the last day of our first time in Paris I sat on the grass watching the lights turn on the Eiffel tower noting down all that I observed. But as it was our first time in Paris, I was easily distracted. Observations of the yellow lift going up and red lift coming down are punctuated by recollections from the days before. Dotting the margins are words, sounds, scribbles perhaps inspired by Paris, or perhaps by Vienna, our previous destination. My attempt to note down the “non-touristy” details of life in Paris was naturally not the intended kind of success. Had I put thought to it my choice of place would have been much more conducive to the task at hand. Though I suspect watching Paris with “non-Parisian” eyes would have still lead to certain unintentional biases. But then, can one ever really observe a space in time in its totality? Can we ever exhaust– as in–describe everything?

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.


Anonymous said...

Wow. this was nice. I also enjoyed this book. I borrowed it from a friend and then I decided to buy it, since I enjoyed it so much. It's quiet and mindful. Your writing was excellent - thoughtful and, in my opinion, profound.

Anvita Lakhera said...

Thank you very much. The local bookstore had this book on its shelf of recommended reads and so I bought it. And I am so glad I did.

I absolutely agree it is 'quiet and mindful' and that is what makes it so beautiful.

It is lovely to hear from someone who likes a book that I too liked. It is one of the best feelings in the world.