Heartwood 3:1 – An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris

In order to write this little book that can be read in an hour, Georges Perec parked himself for three days behind café windows at Place Saint-Sulpice square in Paris to record all the routine, typical activity going on around him – to describe “that which is generally not taken note of … that which has no importance.”  

There’s an addictive, propelling rhythm to this catalog of passing buses, shoppers, churchgoers, deliverymen and schoolchildren. Perec categorizes certain things, such as types of two-wheeled vehicles and varieties of advertising signs, and otherwise notes the parade of objects people tote – from baguettes to attaché cases to pipes (this was written in the 1970s after all). He considers making an inventory of umbrella styles. He muses on the pigeons circling in synchronized flight.

These are largely objective observations, but Perec also recognizes and greets friends, notes personal associations regarding a particular breed of dog, and he wonders how his having had a coffee one day versus a mineral water the next might transform the impressions he has of the square.

This restless attempt to capture the banal minutiae of the city is not exactly the sexy, romanticized Paris of most fiction, but it teems with life and is tinged at times with Perec’s unique charm and humor. If Paris is your passion, this small book should offer a pleasant reading experience. It pairs nicely with another brief but striking book – Things Seen, Annie Ernaux’s crystalline observations of quotidian Paris and its suburbs.

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Georges Perec was a member of Oulipo and, as such, relished imposing constraints on his literary creations. He is perhaps best known for having written a full-length novel without ever using the letter e.

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