on 20 August 2013
Experimental novelist and Oulipo prankster Georges Perec actually put into practice an idea many have had: to simply describe everything in his field of vision neutrally, as a proverbial fly on the wall, with all the usual baggage of a novel (characters, plot etc) erased.
Perec selected a nondescript square in Paris (Place Saint-Sulpice) and on an overcast long weekend in October 1974 he sat there on a park bench with a pen and notebook and wrote down everything he could see.
Starting on the Friday, he dutifully records the passers-by and jots down the comings and goings of drunks and tramps on the other benches and the movements of pigeons around a fountain. There is a bus stop on the square so he records each bus stopping and the passengers embarking and disembarking.
At first the buses would seem to ensure some kind of interesting human drama, but there are so many buses that they threaten to overwhelm the narrative and quickly become very boring.
On the beginning of the second day (Saturday October 19 1974) Perec writes deadpan 'Buses pass by. I've lost all interest in them' and thereafter he mercifully stops trying to describe each bus and each disembarking passenger.
On the other hand his interest in the strange movements and dispersals of the pigeons becomes more and more obsessive, and faintly disturbing. Perec also gives up on sitting in the cold inhospitable square and retreats with his notebook to a nearby cafe with a view onto the square - the big cheat...
This being a French intellectual in 1974 Perec sometimes knows the passers-by - why look, it's Paul Virilio strolling past on his way to the cinema 'to see The Lousy Gatsby'!
Doubtless the book is informed at some level by the theories of space, place, presence, absence and the 'everyday', associated with Virilio, Bachelard et al.
But what is really striking about the book is how difficult it is for a novelist to write a completely objective neutral text. Throughout you get a sense that Perec is struggling to restrain himself from selecting certain events and juxtaposing them in a particular way and of course writing up the notes in a 'literary' way. The whole thing constantly veers towards allegory or surrealism. In the end the book actually seems quite melancholy - a meditation on passing time and death?
A special compliment must be paid to this edition which is really beautifully produced (by the Wakefield Press) - unusual to see such a well-designed book - and this adds so much to the pleasure of the text and, despite its slightness, makes the book worth getting.
on 26 January 2014
Less well-read than the superb A Void and Life: A User's Manual, this Oulipian treasure is a short, strange, delightful piece of writing.
More of a technical exercise than anything else, and certainly not a work of fiction, this little book plays with the idea of reportage, as Perec spends a typical Parisian weekend exhaustively documenting everything he sees and hears from a series of cafe windows. At times poignant, at times repetitive, at times deeply questioning and thoughtful, Perec's Attempt is a delightful little classic of French philosophical writing.