“An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris”

This is a funny little book. And it is a little book – in almost every sense of the word! What’s more, it defies description: it isn’t poetry and it isn’t fiction, yet it isn’t entirely non-fiction either. “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris” is the result of Perec sitting in the same place in Paris on three consecutive days and writing down what he sees, feels, and senses during the time he is in Place Saint-Sulpice. You can read the whole thing in probably thirty or forty minutes.

There are lots of buses, and cars, and people often seen in an almost tangential view flitting across the page. In a way what Perec has done is to take ‘narrative photographs’ of what he sees. Often these are rudimentary in the extreme: “A 70.” referring to a bus. And even though there are lots of the same buses – lots of number 70s – we know they are different buses. The only true constant seems to be the pigeons.

Even though there is no narrative, you do get a sense of place, and – as the translator comments in the Afterword – there is an odd sense of melancholy in the book; perhaps surprisingly so.

One for the purists for sure, but the thing that struck me most about the book was how, if you took fifty people and sat them in the same place for three days and asked them to record what they saw as Perec had done, what you would end up with would be fifty different interpretations of exactly the same thing: fifty different styles, fifty different perspectives.

It would be an interesting experiment. And it would prove, conclusively, how profoundly variable and complex our world is, both in and of itself, but also – and primarily – because of the infinite ways in which we can interpret it.

In its own way, a little gem.