Caught by the River

Analogue Ambles: Perec’s Paris

Adam Scovell | 23rd July 2019

In the latest instalment of his Analogue Ambles column, Adam Scovell seeks out the Paris viewing spot of novelist, filmmaker, documentalist, and essayist Georges Perec.

“Describe your street. Describe another. Compare.” This was the mantra of the French writer Georges Perec. Written in his essay L’infra Ordinaire in 1973, Perec argued that the world around us, in particular the seemingly ignored domestic settings of urban modernity, provided almost infinite material for writing. Though initially examining fiction through a zoomed-in lens in novels such as Things: A Story of the Sixties (Les Choses: Une histoire des années soixante, 1965), Perec quickly opened out onto the streets of Paris; the city’s day-to-day life providing the ingredients for his more experimental writing.

Perec was also known for his linguistic experiments, breaking apart normal narrative structures with a range of self-imposed rules. Being part of the Oulipo movement of literature that turned writing into a complex, even mathematical procedure, Perec took to a variety of challenges, from famously writing a novel without the letter “e” in A Void (La Disparition, 1969) to using an early computer program to write The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise (L’art et la manière d’aborder son chef de service pour lui demander une augmentation, 1968). Most interestingly, especially in terms of place, was Perec’s literary experiment An Attempt To Exhaust A Place In Paris (Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien, 1975), a book which in some ways can actually be repeated off the page.

An Attempt follows a detailed place-diary written by Perec when sitting in the Café de la Mairie in Place Saint-Sulpice. The small book is broken down into entries detailing the various aspects of the day on which he is writing, followed by what he can see from the window over a set period of time. It seems so everyday that it’s difficult at first to comprehend what writing down such things achieves except a basic backdrop for, hopefully, something more interesting to play out over. But as the book progresses, details begin to repeat with an almost musical quality; the organic identity of a city living from day-to-day feels eerie to witness. Having read it multiple times, it feels like nothing less than being inside a living creature, its blood replaced by buses parking up impatiently, its architecture rendered as bones and joints, its wandering people as energy in search of never-ending destination. 

The city becomes cyclic, an ever-changing process. It’s an optimistic vision; that the dead cells are replaced, changed and ultimately move on. The only solid facet is the writer himself, the witness. One of my favourite photos of Perec is actually sat in the café whilst in the middle of writing and witnessing this scene. He’s in the window of the Café de la Mairie, sat at the table with a packet of Gauloises, a notebook and pencil, a packet of matches and an empty coffee cup. There’s a curious mischief etched on his face. He was always a writer who balanced a playful sense of the absurd with an array of incredibly complex literary ideas. But the world around us, taken for granted and seemingly ignored, was what he saw as the basic beginnings behind much of our creative urges.

 “What we need to question” Perec further listed in L’infra Ordinaire, “is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms. To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us.” Every action is some small mechanism or cog which in itself contains its own idiosyncrasies, the ordinary becoming almost mythical when we realise how unconsciously absurd it all is. Perec captures the feeling that sometimes occurs when we stare at words for long enough, where the meaning slips and the process of translating its shapes and squiggles becomes mysterious, almost unthinkable. The difference being, however, that the writer captures that same mystery with Paris; staring until it all seemed surreal.

It was on a cold and lonely Boxing Day last year when I sought some human company in Paris and decided to visit Perec’s viewing spot at Café de la Mairie. I walked along through the frosty morning from near Gare de Lyon, along the endless Boulevard Saint-Germain before meandering into the labyrinth streets of the Left Bank and finding the square of Saint-Sulpice. Even on that day at that hour, there were people attempting to angle the perfect Instagram shot near almost clichéd looking Parisian buildings; people feigning to be in mid-walk as others photographed them. Windows were filled with expensive art, rare editions of books and small scraps of paper autographed by the likes of Paul Éluard and Guillaume Apollinaire. The area is still dripping with culture.

It was clear on entering the café that it was too busy to sit where Perec had, so I opted for a room the café had opened next door. Perec’s words that open An Attempt run along the walls in a flowing typography; the café permanently marked by the writer’s experiment. With some irony, it was clear that the anonymity of the café would no longer be possible from its window, with its coffee costing almost £7.50 and its endless array of moneyed Parisians photographing everything and debating in the main foyer, mostly about the gilets jaunes who had left their own mark on the area’s banks. I sat alone looking out of the window anyway. The buses still went by, people walked on, and the winter sunlight reflected off the walls. The creature continued living and the view from inside its urban corpus was still heady, just as it always was.