Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Non-exhaustive Guide to Exhausting a Place, in Four Steps

"One overcast weekend in October 1974, Georges Perec set out in quest of the infraordinary*. . ."

So begins the jacket copy on the slim and elegant edition of Georges Perec's An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris just published by Wakefield Press (translated by Marc Lowenthal).

Perec's quest was a humble one, but fascinating despite - or more likely because of - that: to catalog everything that passed before his gaze as he perched at a cafe table for an entire weekend. He watched and noted each passing bus, the mysterious comings-and-goings of pigeons, debris floating in the breeze, deliverymen, church-goers, groups of tourists with cameras at the ready . . . everything within the limits of Perec's concentration finds its way into this delightful little book, whose contents reveal - in that magical way by which the whole proves more substantial than its parts - the workings of one of the great (and sadly under-recognized) writers of the 20th century.

Rather than attempting to exhaust the contents of the book by offering a synposis (for details, see Lily Hoang's review at HTMLGiant), I'll offer a quick guide (I'm off for the weekend in 5 minutes) to embarking on the same adventure yourself:

  1. Perec's attempt spanned three days, and in the process of exhausting a place, he exhausted himself. You might not have three days, but an hour should suffice.
  2. Find a suitable place to perch for whatever length of time you've allotted yourself, preferably by a cafe window, or on a stoop, a porch, a patch of grass, the library, a bookstore, the mall, the top of a hill. Any place works as long as you have a view of some sort of life.
  3. Be sure to be well-supplied: a notebook, a pencil, coffee, snacks. (If you're like me, snacks are the most important part of any undertaking, however taxing or non-taxing they may be.)
  4. Bring a sense of wonder: sure, it might sound boring to sit in the same spot for a certain length of time and note everything that passes, but you'll be surprised, I bet, by the number of common things you habitually overlook.


* Infraordinary being defined as "the humdrum, the nonevent, the everyday—'what happens,' as Perec put it, 'when nothing happens.'”

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