An Attempt to See Paris Through the Eyes of Georges Perec
Lunch on the Place Saint-Sulpice with My Literary Idol
Date: January 9, 2019
Time: 2:10-5:00 pm
Location: Café de la Mairie
Weather: Cold and gray
I’m in Paris for a week, and I have been sitting in a lot of cafes. Yesterday I sat in cafés for six hours, just watching people. This is one of my favorite things to do, if it is a thing to do, and you can’t do it in the small North Carolina city where I live.
Today I’m sitting in another café. The Café de la Mairie. If you are facing the Église Saint-Sulpice, the Café is to the left. It has a red awning.
I choose a table at the front of the café, by the door, so I have a good vantage point on the Place Saint-Sulpice. The door keeps opening and closing, but I’m behind it, so I’m out of the draft. There are silver ashtrays on the café tables.
Outside, there are tables and chairs lined up, but no one is sitting at them. Inside, the café is crowded, and I can hear men talking at the bar behind me, standing up and drinking their drinks. I keep my coat on for a little while, and then I decide to take it off and hang it on the back of my chair. I order a glass of white wine and a croque madame and water.
I have brought Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, or Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien, and I pull it out of my purse and put it on the table. The book is short. He wrote it over three days in 1974: October 18, 19, and 20. And he wrote the majority of it in this café.
Perec was interested in the everyday, in the things that escape our notice but are nonetheless important, even essential, parts of our lives. He called this the “infraordinary.” An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris is about the kinds of ordinary occurrences that make up the experience of sitting in a café. Much of the book reads like a list. It is a kind of inventory: an attempt to catalogue, to exhaust, a place.
In Marc Lowenthal’s translation, Perec writes at the beginning that, “There are many things in place Satin-Sulpice…” and that,
A great number, if not the majority, of these things have been described, inventoried, photographed, talked about, or registered. My intention in the pages that follow 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.
He was at the café on October 18 and 20, but not on October 19. At the beginning of each of the four sections that he wrote here, he notes the date and time:
Section 2 – 18 octobre 1974; 12 h 40
Section 4 – 18 octobre 1974; 17 h 10 (he is seated “a little toward the back in relation to the terrace”)
Section 8 – 20 octobre 1974; 11 h 30 (he notes that it is dimanche)
Section 9 – 20 octobre 1974; 13 h 05
He sat and watched.
There were pigeons on the plaza. The church bells rang. Cars and buses and people passed. He noted these things, these “tens, hundreds of simultaneous actions, micro-events, each one of which necessitates postures, movements, specific expenditures of energy,” as he wrote on the first day. He noted the weather in each section. (Day 1 is “Dry cold. Gray sky. Some sunny spells”; Day 2 is “Fine rain, drizzle”; and Day 3 is “Rain. Wet ground. Passing sunny spells.”) He noted delivery men, dogs, colors, babies, a man eating cake, a girl carrying a tennis racket, tourists taking pictures of the fountain, an undertaker’s van, taxis, traffic jams, and lettuce sticking out of shopping bags. He noted the passage of time. His own fatigue. Pauses. A man carrying a plank. A man carrying a crate. The book ends with, “Four children. A dog. A little ray of sun. The 96. It is two o’clock.”What I am trying to do—to do what Perec did, to see as he saw—is a wonderful exercise in futility because I could never see Paris as he did.
Now the plaza is different, of course, but it’s also the same, still home to the same daily activities. From where I’m sitting, I can see a women’s clothing store (with a purple sign Seraphine), Vangelder Joaillier (with an orange awning), a Saint Laurent store, and a store with some sort of rabbit design in the window (appliqué on the windows).
To the side of the church, not far from the café, there are several Christmas trees with red and white bows on them, shaken by the wind. People walk around the trees. There are still lots of Christmas trees in the city. I have seen them over the last few days.
I drink my wine. I eat my croque madame. I look at the paper coaster under my wine glass and try to remember to take it with me when I leave, as a souvenir.
It begins to rain, and people huddle under the café’s awning. It also rains on Day 3 in the book (in section 8), so I turn to that moment. The third line reads, “The rain starts falling again.”
A man walks by with his dog.
A woman walks by with an umbrella.
A car drives by.
A bus drives by. (Perec noted all the bus numbers and sometimes if they were empty or full or half-full.)
A woman walks by with a newspaper held over her head.
A woman walks by with a scarf tied around her head.
People wait at the bus stop.
Another car drives by.
He wrote section 6 on a bench in the sun (“La date: 19 octobre 1974 / L’heure: 12 h 30”). There are benches on the plaza, but I don’t know if one of them was his bench. Probably not. These are probably different benches today. Two bikes are locked to a green bench by a tree.
I drink my wine. I eat my croque madame. My croque is getting cold. The man at the table next to me asks, “Not hungry?” in French, and I say in French that I don’t know if I am because of le décalage horaire—jet-lag—and he smiles and turns back to his newspaper. Perec wanted to read Le Monde on October 18, but he didn’t find a copy.
Several people cross the plaza with umbrellas.
A woman walks by with a shopping bag.
A man walks by with a shopping bag
Another man walks by with a shopping bag (the sales are on).
A man walks by with a rolling shopping cart (plaid).
A woman walks by, pushing a stroller.
A bus drives by.
A man walks by in a hooded coat.
Perec wrote section 3 at another café: Fontaine Saint-Sulpice (“La date: 18 octobre 1974 / L’heure: 15 h 20”). Here, he ate sausages and drank a glass of Bourgueil. It was cold and gray that day, as it is today. And he wrote sections 1, 5, and 7 at the Tabac Saint-Sulpice:
Section 1 – 18 octobre 1974; 10 h 30
Section 5 – 19 octobre 1974; 10 h 45 (he notes that it is samedi)
Section 7 – 19 octobre 1974; 14 heures (Paul Virilio walks by in this section, on his way to see “Gatsby le dégueulasse au Bonaparte”)
Now the Fontaine Saint-Sulpice and the Tabac Saint-Sulpice are both gone. The Café de la Mairie is the only place left.
I eat my croque madame. (I have eaten half.) I drink my wine. I watch.
A man walks by in a motorcycle helmet.
A woman walks by, talking on her phone.
A bus drives by.
A car drives by.
A woman walks by, smoking a cigarette.
A woman walks by, pushing a bike.
A man walks by with a cane.
A car drives by.
Another woman walks by, talking on her phone.
These are all ordinary things in a city I love. But what I am trying to do—to do what Perec did, to see as he saw—is a wonderful exercise in futility because I could never see Paris as he did. Not now. Its ordinary goings-on are not ordinary to me. They are extraordinary, each one infused with wonder because I’m an outsider, and in a few days, I will be back home. I have always wanted to live in Paris, and maybe one day I will, and then the buses and cars and people and pigeons will be ordinary, as they were to Perec.
And for now, this futility, or failure, is okay because I still have the pleasure of watching, of tallying up the things that make up daily life, of recording the movements of strangers, of cataloguing the city. This is only appreciated by those who love to watch.
I stay until it stops raining, and then I pay my bill and leave. I forget to take the paper coaster.