Georges Perec: Soft Chalk and Pigeons

He was living in Paris, writing in Paris in the ’60s, the ’70s and until his death in 1982, but Georges Perec, in the middle of Paris, could have been a prairie dweller. For him, the palimpsest was memory; for us, it is the white erasure of snow. For him and for us, the uninscribed page is the missing trace. The issue of space: to fill it, mark it, put down tracks against oblivion. For him the measure was more personally drastic, ours is cultural.

Always, when I’m looking for a map, I go to Robert Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue. Kroetsch asks, “How do you grow a prairie town? How do you grow a past/ to live in.” Georges Perec, also a cartographer, was born in Paris in 1936. His parents were Polish Jews who’d come to France in the 1920s. His father was fatally wounded in 1940 at the outset of the war. To keep him safe, Perec’s mother sent Georges to Grenoble to live with an aunt and uncle; in 1943 his mother was taken to Auschwitz where she died. In Species of Spaces, written in 1974 at the encouragement of his colleague Paul Virilio, Perec addressed, as he said in his foreword, the void, but not so much the void as the space around it. It seemed to have been a sustained topic because absence, which can be read as a void, was something he sought to erase or, alternately, fill. In his case the void was memory. Near to the conclusion of Species of Spaces, in a section called “Space (Continuation and End),” he wrote: “I would like there to exist places that are stable, unmoving…places that might be points of reference, of departure, of origin.” Because by the time he was three years old his father was gone, and when he was five he’d had to leave his mother. He saw neither of them again, and he wrote that his particular memories–the house where he might have been born, what he refers to as the attic of his childhood filled with memories–these places didn’t exist. This void that should have been inhabited by memory caused him to interrogate space. “Space,” he wrote, “is a doubt: I have constantly to mark it, designate it. It’s never mine, never given to me, I have to conquer it.” He wrote that his spaces are fragile and he feared time would wear them away. “Nothing will any longer resemble what was, my memories will betray me, oblivion will infiltrate my memory.” He is locating himself at the coordinates of time and space, at the very centre point of their engagement, has briefly conflated them and then done a switch. His remedy: to obviate but also to fix time and its erosion, he will build and fill space with words. “To write: to try meticulously to retain something, to cause something to survive…to leave somewhere a furrow, a trace, a mark or a few signs.”

In Seed Catalogue, Robert Kroetsch is concerned, appropriately, with growing things. “How do you grow a lover? How do you grow a prairie town? How do you grow a poet?” The answer to the latter question: “This is a prairie road/ This road is the shortest distance/ between nowhere and nowhere./ This road is a poem.”
Like Adam, through naming you call things into being. Perec, in his meticulously elaborated works, among them Species of Spaces, Things: A Story of the Sixties, Life: A User’s Manual and An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, is an architect of the first order–naming and making.

Perec had a sense of what constituted life, reality. It wasn’t what was remarkable, extraordinary or eventful. It was what happened daily, that passed without comment. The regular and banal, what was habitual and quotidian and therefore necessary in its tedious laying down of substructure, the strata of building, the substance that escaped notice, the element and condition he called the infra-ordinary.

He would show what this was through writing, and in spite of the lightness of his hand and lack of stylistic embellishments that give his writing its fine transparent quality, in spite of the list of the plain daily activities and materials he enumerates, what he fills space with ends up being beautiful. In Species of Spaces he says, “There are few events which don’t leave a written trace at least. At one time or another, almost everything passes through a sheet of paper,” and the examples build: the margins of a newspaper, the back of a ticket, a cheque, a kitchen list, a receipt, and so on. “This is how space begins,” he says, “with words only, signs traced on the blank page. To describe space: to name it, trace it…Space as inventory, space as invention.” He populates a town with words of invention. He animates a train pulling cars filled with goods: it passes lit windows, someone waves. All of it words on paper. “An idealized scene. Space as reassurance.” Because the words bring the space into being, and he holds sway over the words, he has ordered and manufactured space. Space is reassurance against the oblivion of memory’s void.

The small daily details, the ordinary matter and materials are what make the world reliable, concrete and clear, he tells us. He brings it closer still in Species, in our “perceiving that the earth is a form of writing, a geography of which we had forgotten that we ourselves are the authors.”

Even in resisting time’s erasure of memory and asserting space as the antidote, he re-ties the juncture between them using writing as the connector. He says, “remember that a journal is a unit of space, it’s the surface area a farm labourer can work in a day.”

He sets himself the problem of describing everything in a given space that has gone unremarked. He won’t list the churches and monuments, the theatres and glittering shops. Those things are well documented; everyone has himself photographed in front of or beside such structures. They are noted in guidebooks and recommended by friends who frequent them. What interests him, by way of establishing something of real substance and not subject to reduction over time, is “…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.” This is the subject of An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, published in 1975. Place Sainte-Sulpice is the delineated space; three days is the set time, at the end of which will he have pinned it all down, fixed all it contains, every quotidian measure of it down on paper, not to be worn away or overlooked?

He will construct this architecture against erosion from below to above, so it stands firm, the way he wrote about the street in Species of Spaces: “Underneath, just underneath resuscitate the eocene: the limestone, the marl and the soft chalk, the gypsum, the lacustrian Saint-Ouen limestone,” and on.

So he locates himself in this central square in Paris, in Place Saint-Sulpice and watches what passes by his gaze. From time to time he changes his location from Tabac Saint-Sulpice to Café De Le Maire, to La Fontaine Saint-Sulpice (Café) and back to Café De La Maire. He settles himself, watches and notes. He is a contra-flâneur; he sits still and the world moves by. His inventory begins with the weather, reported on subjectively as felt: dry cold, grey sky, fine rain, sky suddenly clear, rain starts falling again. There is a prevalence: the pigeons, a cloud of them, as a splendid unity of movement, and again around the square, they arrive, one perched solo, some wash and groom, they lift and settle and are distant in flight. He comments on baguettes: an old man with half, a woman with one, another one, a woman with two under her arm. He observes dogs: a child is taking one for a run; there’s a basset hound, the big dog of the café, a small poodle-type, a spaniel? he queries, two dog brothers, a beautiful white one with black spots, one runs past tail in the air, sniffing the ground. People eat pastry and carry it in little pyramid-shaped boxes. As a result of the number of people eating cakes, he tells us, “the reputation of the neighbourhood confectioners is not to be doubted.” The buses, their numbers and destinations are recorded. They appear in his listing more often than breath. The 96 goes to Montparnasse, the 84 goes to Porte de Champerret, the 87 goes to Champ-de-Mars. We read the messages they carry on their sides, “Demand the real thing, Roquefort Société in its green oval.” An 86 passes by, a 70 passes by. Like a chorus they metre the procession; like a metronome they mark the time and are rhythmic and unavoidable throughout the square, for all the days. Perec questions his counting buses. He thinks it’s probably because they are recognizable, regular, cut up time and punctuate the background noises and, he adds, they are foreseeable while the rest seems random. His flat listing–bus, another bus and its number–has me thinking his recording isn’t passive notation; he’s scoring an urban cantata and with raised baton bringing in the wheeling pigeons, the first bus, the second bus, two dogs, a woman with a baguette, then two. Or maybe it’s the playwright’s directions on a script: lull (lassitude?), pause, alterations in daylight, (fatigue), car horns, indistinct shadows, pause.

Any project that has the word “exhausting” in its title must accede to time, and Perec is faithful to the task of recording it. Each section begins with the date, time and location. The tempo is syncopated. It stretches and almost stops with the tension, then hastens on and is broken into small parts: Time: 12:40, it is five after one, it is twenty after one, it is 1:35PM, it is one fifty, five after two. There are, of course, people. A granny pushing a baby carriage (she’s wearing a cape), a mailman with his satchel, a priest with a beret, a bike courier, a man carrying carpets, a distant acquaintance, a group of boy scouts, a little girl with a blue balloon. Perec, the man–not only the scribe and recorder–is there. He writes: “moments of emptiness,” “gusts of wind,” “I’m cold. I order a brandy,” “weary vision,” “wind,” “ghostliness,” “colors blend: a grayness that is rarely lit,” “meanwhile the rain has stopped,” “unsatisfied curiosity (what I came here to find, the memory floating in this cafe…).”

In his translator’s Afterword Marc Lowenthal describes Perec’s small book as a “noble exercise in futility,” its failure to finally include everything the Place Sainte-Sulpice could contain, explaining its tone of melancholy. My reading was other. It’s my sense that Perec’s “attempt at exhausting a place” was his seeking after inclusiveness, thoroughness, as in “exhaustive,” which I would pair with “amplification.” The accretion of details, the noting of events, the list of enterings and exits are more to elaboration than a final recognition of diminishment. The metred, additive, repetitions are Robert Kroetsch saying, “Love is an amplification by doing/ over and over./ Love is a standing up/ to the loaded gun./ Love is a burrowing.” Like Perec’s resuscitating the eocene and its soft chalk.