A few months back I received a pair of new books from the small Wakefield Press in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and have come to like them both very much. The first, a translation of Balzac's Treatise on Elegant Living, has everything to do with style, and the other, Georges Perec's An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris from 1975, is all about place. Place is a slip of a book, and one that I read in a few small gulps. The ease with which the well-designed paperback slips into a jacket pocket makes it perfect for your travels. And I think that half of the joy in my reading was wrapped up in that fact that I took in Perec's meditation on Paris' Place Saint Sulpice on a bus in San Francisco, an airplane over the Atlantic, and a dim restaurant in Edinburgh.
This is the first Perec I'd read, and of what I know of his oeuvre--The Void manages without the letter E, Life A User's Manual is a post-modern tapestry of intersecting narratives--I'd worryingly suspected he was overly indebted to gimmicks (Calvino is only as good as his gag, making If on a Winter's Night a Traveler a masterpiece and The Baron in the Trees merely a literary Amelie). Place itself is more conceit than construction, but at a mere 47 pages, he carries it off.
The idea is that Perec stakes out Place Saint Sulpice for three days, recording everything he sees. He moves around the square from cafe to cafe, each time refining his narrative tack. What starts out as little more than a list "Asphalt. Trees (leafy, many yellowing). A rather big chunk of sky (maybe one-sixth of my field of vision)," eventually grows into something more subjective, and ultimately more suggestive.
Of course it comes as little surprise that merely recording which buses pass does little to evoke a place, but here we see the impotence of description divorced from metaphor. Imagine your favorite design writer reduced to a mere describer. You'd put down your magazine at once. It seems that Perec can't record what a place looks like, much less what it feels like, without the use of other sensations, and ultimately other places.
By the third day his scope has come to include what he's been eating in the various cafes, what the owners have said to him, and new flights of fictional fancy. "Project: a classification of umbrellas according to their forms, their means of functioning, their color, their material...."
What I most liked about this book, in part because I was on the move, was that it felt like a pole in my travels. I wasn't headed to Paris at all, and had not been to Place Saint Sulpice since my mother and I shared a hotel room there in the chilly spring of 2004, yet it was a lucidly rendered point of departure, a small planet around which my wider trip orbited.
In the end Perec came to see Saint Sulpice in both its specificity and its breadth. And who hasn't been somewhere far afield and felt themselves both entirely at home, and in another imagined place altogether? Perhaps my favorite bit came at the end of Place, where Perec alludes, trickster that he is, to the very placelessness of place, the idea that somewhere can be anywhere:
"By looking at only a single detail, for example Rue Ferou, and for a sufficiently long period of time (one or two minutes), one can, without any difficulty, imagine that one is in Etampes or in Bourges, or even, moreover, in some part of Vienna (Austria) where I've never been."