An attempt at exhausting an unknown place

Dawn McCarra Bass

July 2, 2019

For three days in 1974, the writer sits in place Saint-Sulpice, to record what he sees (not what he observes). It’s meant to be an exercise in constraint. He’s done it before — the book without the vowel, the book with only the vowel, the book in the shape of a building.

Here is the task: to describe those things which, in one of Paris’s most famous public spaces, are ordinary and without importance. The exercise is like dabbing away layers of paint laid down by a celebrated master, to “restore” the mediocre picture hidden below.

Through this exercise, the canvas’s story is revealed, though the masterpiece is destroyed.

For a few hours in 1997, the writer sits on a bench behind place Saint-Sulpice, trying to cure herself of block. An organ plays; pigeons fuck (she says “copulate,” a small politeness, given her intrusion); a mime annoys some tourists and a sexton. She writes the date. She imagines a story, she imagines a subject, she imagines herself mediocre. She throws the notebook away. The organ starts up after going quiet, for a while. The mime won’t stop at all.

On the first day, the writer catalogs numbers, letters, shapes, colors. A green taxi, a green coat. A red car, a dress, a street sign. The ground, he notes, is gravel and sand. He does not note whether it’s comfortable to walk on. The pigeons arrive as a mass; if they are improper with each other, he does not mark it.

Buses pass. Montparnasse station, Champ de Mars, Saint-Germain-des-Prés. He labels this “Trajectories.” In a new seat, from a new perspective, his record becomes a poem, a galaxy born within an atom, a universe imploding:

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 …
Sauntering, dawdling, wandering, going, running toward, rushing, seeking …

The writer imagines himself part of the scene. A small dog reminds him of “Snowy” (the reference unelaborated but recurring). A café owner recognizes him, they talk. A man smokes with the cigarette held between ring and middle finger, as the writer does, as the writer notes. In people passing by, the writer glimpses stories: the blind man with a confident step, the girl with braids devouring a baba.

Several hours later, as the day closes, the game has become exhausting. (fatigue), he writes. Lots of people, lots of shadows.

It’s raining. The pigeons are in the gutter of a high building. No record is made of their interactions beyond that.

The fountain and the church are less grand on the second day. This is not surprising, in the face of grey skies, drizzling rain, the ongoing closure of favorite newsstand, the unbearable sameness of the place Saint-Sulpice.

Many things have not changed, have not, apparently, budged (the letters, the symbol, the fountain, the plaza, etc.). I, myself, am sitting at the same table.

Buses pass by. I’ve lost all interest in them.

The writer looks for small differences in the ordinary that will tell the story of this place: the weather, the people, the buses, the birds. He is ready to be surprised; he is ready for something to reveal itself. But he cannot catch the rhythm of the day before, the variation that filled repetition with meaning, the pleasing, malleable formality of it. The language that appeared artless but was oh! artful if you have the ear for it. The discoveries, so delicate, so difficult to see, that made him clever.

The writer is restless. He was not, it happens, honest in his expectations. He’s made a discovery, but not the one he wanted. He feels accusing. He feels he should not accuse. If the pigeons come (and why shouldn’t they?), the writer is sure they will be the same birds always.

The experiment has become an unwanted detour — a tourist’s visit to a too-well-known interior, instead of a bold journey beyond the edge of the map. His effort is as meaningless as the bruising colors our eyes imagine in total darkness. He shifts his seat again and again, but the canvas’s story is dull; its secrets are banal. It is, in the end, just a canvas.

The pigeons are almost immobile, the writer writes, the pigeons at my feet have a fixed stare. Forty-five minutes pass without writing. He is menacing, he is weary, he is deathly afraid to see one more green car drive by.

For most of a year, the writer visits her favorite café — in Seattle, not Saint-Sulpice — many times a week, sometimes daily. She has left her job, and she can’t stand to find a new one. She can’t think of anything she can stand to do. She doesn’t remember how to write. She doesn’t remember who she used to be, and why she felt so much more certain then. She thinks often, very often, about a bridge she saw that was high and bright above a river at golden hour, high enough, she thinks, and beautiful.

The light in the café is high and bright. It isn’t truly a café, but a working bakery with a few tables set out, and that makes it feel safe, accidental, private. The room is big, and quiet except for the soft sounds of the bakers working, and the selection is manageably small. She sits at the same table always, facing the same direction. She reads. She only thinks when she has to.

The bakers are kind. They offer small gestures: a cup of coffee, an answerable question. This, and the menu, are all that changes, and even these are patterns. For that, she is grateful: She isn’t interested in variation, or in meaning, or in cleverness. She’s had enough of all those things.

Eventually, after many days sitting at her table, she finds she can tolerate change again, and then that she can be eager for it. She begins to work, and to write, and she stops thinking about the bridge except that it was beautiful.

On the last day, the writer fills his pages with the buses and with the time. The 63. The 96. The 96. The 96. He doesn’t note their destinations. There is no destination beyond this plaza — the plaza itself has ceased to be a destination, melting into Étampes, Bourges, Vienna. It’s not so much that these places are the similar, as that he’s lost the idea of place itself.

It’s five minutes to 2. At 2, he will leave, hours earlier than the days before. The experiment is over. The 96. The 63. He leaves.

The pigeons are on the plaza. They all fly off at the same time.

Books in this review:
  • An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris
    by Georges Perec, translated by Marc Lowenthal
    Wakefield Press
    September 30, 2010
    72 pages
    Purchased by reviewer
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Dawn McCarra Bass is associate editor at the Seattle Review of Books and co-director of the Pocket Libraries program, which channels high-quality donated books to people with limited access to reading. By day, she’s the founder of Mightier, a small consulting firm where women solve problems creatively, collectively.

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