-- Ground: packed gravel and sand
-- Stone: the curbs, a fountain, a church, buildings…
-- Trees (leafy, many yellowing)
-- A rather big chunk of sky (maybe one-sixth of my field of vision)
-- A cloud of pigeons that suddenly swoops down on the central plaza, between the church and fountain
-- Vehicles (their inventory remains to be made)
-- Human beings
-- Some sort of basset hound
-- Bread (baguette)
-- Lettuce (curly endive?) partially emerging from a shopping bag
Journal entries from a man sitting in a Parisian square, at various cafes at various times over a three-day period beginning Friday, October 18, 1974. The church is the Eglise Saint-Sulpice; the fountain and buildings are among the most distinguished in Paris; but Georges Perec has no desire to add to the amount that others have written about them. "My intention," he tells us in a brief preface, "was to describe the rest instead: that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds."
Reading this through last night (the tiny 50-page book can easily be read in an hour), I was most conscious of the objectivity of it all. The observations are punctuated by notes about passing buses ("An 86 passes by. An 87 passes by. A 63 passes by"), the number of taxis waiting at the rank, the deliveries to nearby stores. It seemed dry, but curiously fascinating, the polar opposite of normal travel writing, yet indelibly etching a precise portrait of a particular place and time.
Writing out the passage above this morning, though, I am struck by something else: how human it is. Try as Perec might to remain objective, life sneaks in. And once in, it will not leave. That "rather big chunk of sky" (thanks to Mark Lowenthal for his no-nonsense translation) occupies maybe one-sixth of HIS field of vision. Even now, at the top of only the second page, the author has become a person, not just a camera. The cloud of pigeons are living things in unpredictable action. The human beings are still anonymous for now, but that baguette represents a whole way of life, and the maybe-curly-endive emerging from the shopping bag could be material for an entire short story. Even so, what a wonderful surprise to see this entry on page 14: "A 96 passes by, stops before the bus stop (Saint-Sulpice section); off it steps Geneviève Serreau, who takes rue des Canettes; I get her attention by knocking on the windowpane, and she comes over to say hello."
A lot has to do, though, with layout. Print each observation as a single line, and it stirs the imagination. Put them all together in a single paragraph, and you get a montage, LIFE flashing in neon, rather than an object for quiet contemplation: "I again saw buses, taxis, cars, tourist buses, trucks and vans, bikes, mopeds, Vespas, motorcycles, a postal delivery tricycle, a motorcycle-school vehicle, a driving-school car, elegant women, aging beaus, old couples, groups of children, people with bags, satchels, suitcases, dogs, pipes, umbrellas, potbellies, old skins, old schmucks, young schmucks, idlers, deliverymen, scowlers, windbags. I also saw Jean-Paul Aron, and the proprietor of the Trois Canettes restaurant, whom I had already seen this morning."
Perec was a member of the Oulipo group (Organization for Potential Literature), which sought to discipline writing though artificially imposed constraints -- most famously in Perec's LA DISPARITION (translated by Gilbert Adair as A VOID), a 300-page novel entirely eliminating the letter "e". But the beauty of constraint comes, not from the demonstration of what you cannot do, but from the glorious emergence of what you CAN. In his self-imposed objectivity, Perec attempts an exhaustive catalogue of the everyday objects in a Paris square. But everywhere, life sneaks in; the impersonal has become personal again, magnificently so.
Or has it? Look at this another way, from the top of one of the towers of the church, say. Here is this 38-year-old-man sitting alone at a cafe table, nursing a beer or a gentian, watching the world go by. He sees some people he knows, yes; he even greets a few of them; but they pass on by, leaving him to his task. Is there not something lonely in his detachment, as though looking through the window at a party to which he has not been invited? Perhaps I am making this up. But it is hard not to recall that this first-generation Frenchman is in fact a Holocaust orphan of Czech Jewish ancestry. Would I be wrong to see in his meticulous anatomizing of the Parisian cityscape something of the same search for identity that characterizes the work of his slightly younger contemporary, also a Jewish orphan, Patrick Modiano?