The eleventh day: Perec and the infra-ordinary.
How can we speak of these "common things" how, rather, can we stalk them, how can we flush them out, rescue them from the mire in which they remain stuck, how can we give them a meaning, a tongue, so that they are at last able to speak of the way things are, the way we are? Perhaps we must found our own anthropology, one that will speak of us, that will seek out in ourselves what for so long we have plundered from others. No longer the exotic but the endotic. Questioning what so strikes us as going without saying that we have forgotten its origin. Recovering something of that amazement experienced by Jules Verne or his readers when confronted with a machine capable of reproducing and transmitting sounds. For such an amazement did once exist, in its thousands of different forms, and it's what has made us what we are. What we must question are bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, our timetables, our rhythms of living. Question whatever seems to have ceased to surprise us forever. We are alive, to be sure, we breathe, no doubt about it; we walk, we open doors, we go down stairs, we sit at tables to eat, we lie down in a bed to sleep. How? Where? When? Why?
Hence the project is an essentially contrary one (as may be remarked by Perec's recourse to what one might term contrary adjectives: infra-ordinary in place of extraordinary and endotic in place of exotic)--a project, in other words, entailing the radical rejection of such current journalistic norms as the exceptional, the sensational, and the spectacular. A journalist will be assigned to cover a train journey only if, let us say, the train should chance to be derailed; what, by contrast, would concern Perec is no such spectacular variable as a collision or a derailment but that which is constant to every rail journey and which might be (in the south of England, for instance, where I myself happen to live, but the charm of Perec's method is its near-infinite adaptability) the traveler's glimpse of one lone black horse in a field or the quaint suburban patchwork of allotments backing against the railway lines on the outskirts of any sizable town or the inevitable trio of boiler-suited laborers repairing the tracks as one draws into a station. These are, in a sense, the invariables of virtually any railway journey in England; invariables, therefore invisibles. It was Perec's ambition--it might be more accurate to say, it was Perec's peculiar gift and delectation--to render them (if only fleetingly) visible.
And it can be argued that in l'infra-ordinaire, Species of Spaces, Je me souviens (I Remember), Tentative d'epuisement d'un lieu parisien (An Attempt to Exhaust a Place in Paris), and most of the texts in a collection posthumously published under the title of Thoughts of Sorts, it was his sole ambition, gift, and delectation. Perec himself plainly felt an obligation to camouflage the apparent neutrality of his procedure (which is, as I intend to demonstrate, its single most radical feature) by reference to a set of more conventionally "serious" disciplines and codified angles of inquiry. In Approches de quoi?, notably, his strategy is on occasion political in origin, on occasion naively didactic, even pedagogic. Thus, addressing the journalist's need to measure and define "le social" by its quotient of scandal, he remarks of the mining industry that the real scandal "is not the firedamp but the work in the mines"; again, alluding to generalized social unrest, of a type that preoccupies the media only when it erupts into violence (exceptional, sensational, and spectacular violence at that), he proffers the pious commonplace that such social unrest is intolerable all the year round. Or else, sporting an earnestly schoolmasterish hat--one which, in truth, as ill becomes him as his political one--he concludes as follows the expository passage quoted above:
Describe the street you live in. Describe another. Compare. Make a list of the contents of your pockets, of your handbag. Query the origin, the use, and the future of every one of the objects you find. Interrogate your teaspoons. What's under your wallpaper? How many movements do you have to make to dial a number? Why?
Why can you not buy cigarettes at the chemist's? Why not? Perec protests too much. Though it would be churlish and perverse to refuse to detect any trace whatsoever of sociopolitical or informational value in such texts, neither their charm nor their very real and peculiar fascination seems to me contingent upon a progressivist or pedagogic reading--certainly, it would be reasonable to assume that few readers have ever so consumed them.
On the back cover of the most celebrated and best-loved work composed in this vein, Je me souviens, a collection of randomly organized memories, of what Perec termed "little fragments of the everyday" numbered from 1 to 480 and published in 1978, he is somewhat more circumspect, and also more strictly accurate, in defining the nature of their interest to the reader, but even here we find him striking a faintly defensive attitude:
These "I remembers" are not exactly memories, and are assuredly not personal memories, but little fragments of the everyday, things which, in such and such a year, everyone of more or less the same age has seen, or lived, or shared, and which have subsequently disappeared or been forgotten; they were not worthy of being memorized, they did not merit inclusion in History, or in the memoirs of statesmen, mountaineers, and movie stars.
It is as though Perec perceived his task to be basically one of salvage, virtually of conservation, the conservation of a cyclically endangered species of phenomenon, as though, for him, each of these slivers of memory formed part of a benevolent project whereby whatever had been devalued over the years by neglect or outright oblivion was to be rescued from its purgatory and, by an operation of autonomous, self-assumed posterity on Perec's own part, revived and rehabilitated--so that (potentially, at least) it might henceforth ring down the ages.
Yet one need consider merely a handful of Perec's memories to realize that most of them, in fact, were not at all unjustly forgotten (insofar as the act of recollection is ever determined by a hierarchico-moral framework). For instance:
(57) I remember that Christian Jacque divorced Rende Faure in order to marry Martine Carol.
(247) I remember that De Gaulle had a brother named Paul who was director of the Foire de Paris.
(392) I remember that at the top of the Boulevard Saint-Michel there was a store called, I think, Chantecler--in which, for twenty (old) francs, one could listen to a record (a single).
Is there truly any significant purpose, even within the context of what Perec himself liked to think of as an operation of self-anthropology, to this retrieval from oblivion of the exact chronology of some minor film director's marital history or of a not especially distinguished bough off one French president's family tree or of the existence of a record store in Paris which had no doubt once been frequented by the author (but by how many of his readers?) during his adolescence? (In all of his texts on the infra-ordinary Perec is unabashedly "Parisocentric" to an extent that would be difficult for any English counterpart to sustain.) If judged as sociology, as archival raw material, these are close to worthless: they function exclusively as (a crucial term) nostalgia.
Nostalgia is, in this fin de siecle (and fin de millenaire), a modish sentiment and was already so in 1978 when Perec wrote Je me souviens. Yet what is so fascinating about the book is not the nostalgic frisson that certain (if, of course, for any individual reader, by no means all) of its entries have in their power to provoke but the rigor and, one might say, reticence of Perec's own authorial mediation: a few of the memories are, for all in all, just five words long, comprising the words "Je me souviens de" followed by the object of the memory: e.g., "I remember Zatopek" (374) or "I remember Lumumba" (391). Uniquely, Je me souviens constitutes the zero degree of nostalgia. Its "memories" are rather seeds of memory planted by the author in tidily aligned rows to be cultivated by someone else (to wit, the reader, except that from the outset he or she has to be an "ideal reader" belonging more or less to the author's own generation and nationality and sharing more or less his own cultural history). They are, so to speak, snapshots in print; as arresting as snapshots, except that what they arrest is not the present but the past, not a movement but a memory; and, like snapshots, too, they tend to be "verbless" (or, rather, the verb, the "doing word," is frozen in the way a frame in a movie may be frozen). It is quite unthinkable that they be "illustrated"; illustrations in this context would not simply be redundant but meaningless; it is for the reader to "illustrate" the text, in his or her mind's eye, which is to say, only when those eyes are raised from the page. They are, to borrow from cinematic terminology, close-ups of the past, but close-ups less concerned with emphasizing closeness than with magnifying distance, that distance from the present which the reader must never lose sight of if the effect of Perec's lapidary little "Open Sesames" is to work properly. Nor will they have worked properly if readers aren't irresistibly tempted to "complete" the text with memories of their own (I remember H- and X-shaped television aerials; I remember when potato crisp packets used to contain little blue bags of salt; I remember ...). The book's last pages, indeed, are explicitly left blank, "at the author's request," to permit the reader to append a list of personal "I remembers."
Is Perec, then, a camera? And is Je me souviens, in consequence, merely an album of snapshots of the (recent) past, emancipated, decrusted, so to speak, of that sentimental patina, that pathos, that sepia, in which may be said to reside the charm but also the mortal tedium of (other people's) family albums? And if not, what then is the sense, the precise theory, of such a book?
I would say, anti-tautologically, that, if Perec is not a camera, it is for the elementary but fundamental reason that he is not a photographer. If he were a photographer, if numbers 57, 247, and 392 of Je me souviens were therefore photographs, photographs of Christian Jacque marrying Martine Carol, of General De Gaulle's brother Pierre running the Foire de Paris, and even of the young Georges Perec listening to a single in the Chantecler record store on the Boulevard Saint-Michel, they might well be invested with the poignancy peculiar to all period snapshots, they might eventually be memorialized in their turn within hard covers, but the book that would result (doubtless of the coffee-table variety) could scarcely lay claim to any critical attention and certainly not boast the genuine originality of purpose and effect that distinguishes Je me souviens.
The precise appeal of Je me souviens (and of all Perec's literature of the infra-ordinary) is that of seeing in print--without any judgment being passed by the writer or required of the reader--phenomena that "do not deserve" to be seen in print. Or, rather, that "do not deserve" to form the subject matter of a book (instead, that is, of a newspaper or a magazine); a book, moreover, written by a writer of some considerable notoriety and vaguely postmodern reputation (and not by a journalist). In this sense, while touching enough as a tribute to a sorely missed friend, the little plaquette by Perec's fellow Oulipian Harry Mathews, Le Verger (The Orchard), an inventory of brief memories composed in the same sentence style of Je me souviens, represented a complete (but probably conscious) misreading of the source text. Mathews's reminiscences are wholly privileged in origin, public expressions of a private acquaintanceship, a closed circuit of recollections which he, Perec, and others shared but from which the reader is of necessity excluded. That "impalpable little nostalgic frisson" therefore, that Perec himself explicitly invoked as the requisite response to his own book can no longer be induced. (In any case, such reminiscences of Georges Perec, however anecdotally slight, are of inherent interest to all students of the writer: there exists an a priori argument for placing them within hard covers: it is, in fact, exactly where one would expect to find them.)
Seeing in print: there is the quintessence of the experience. That which writers (fictional and nonfictional), dramatists, painters, and filmmakers have traditionally excluded from their view (excommunicated from their "vision"), yet that which knots together the basic connective tissue of our lives--it is that towards which Perec is concerned to turn our attention. It is easy to categorize what Je me souviens is not: it is not poetic, though it shares with the poetic the property of being untranslatable, of being what remains when everything else has been translated; not evocative, since the commission of an impressionistic evocation has been left to the reader; not sociological, since it is unstatistical, intrinsically subjective, and almost aleatory in its choices; not, pace Perec himself, "anthropological," since wholly unanalytical and unfetishistic; and, even if, as I said above, subjective, somehow not really "personal," since Perec is at pains, precisely, to objectify the personal, to retain a heroically self-negating neutrality of tone. (In my own Anglicized pastiche of Je me souviens, the "memories" half of a book titled Myths and Memories, what I found most difficult to avoid was the pathos of "personal expression.") What it is, however, what it does, in what fashion it amounts to more than the sum of its 480 parts, is less easily definable. But if I had to define it, I would relate it to what might be termed "alsoism." Too much, no doubt, has already been written about what the world (but equally literature, the cinema, etc.) is; and not enough about what it is also. The world is also (to select at random a handful of Perec's memories) a child dreaming of reaching Meccano level number 6, the actor Julien Carette dying when his nylon shirt catches fire from a cigarette, headscarves made out of parachute silk; literature is also Betty MacDonald's The Egg and I, the fact that Alain Robbe-Grillet trained as an engineer, and that Sacha Guitry once coined an advertising slogan, "Eleska c'est exquis"; and the cinema is also Mr. Magoo, Rin-Tin-Tin, and the phosphorescent commercials (whatever precisely they were) that used to be screened during intermissions at the Royal-Passy cinema. Alsoism does not exclude other, more theoretical isms: appropriately enough, it complements them just as the "also" complements what is "essential" (so-called). It is not, as a species of critical observation and commentary, either metaliterary or paraliterary; it does not "transcend" literature but is contained by it (instead of, like the more totalizing isms, containing it). Perec's project should therefore not be confused with the Symbolist dictum as famously propounded by Mallarme: "Everything exists to end up in a book." Perec might rather say: "Everything ends up in a book because it has already existed." It is, rather, in order to record that "everything" that the book exists. It scoops up what has tended to be left behind by its predecessors. It accords an eleventh day to a ten day's wonder.
Je me souviens is doubtless the most perfect (the most simple, the most legible, the most irresistible) of all of Perec's texts of the infra-ordinary; but where it differs from most of the others in the canon is in its nostalgia, its fleeting evocation of dead topicalities, its exploration of a temporal instead of a spatial topography. It is these others that I now wish to examine, texts distinguishable from Je me souviens not solely, as I say, in their concern with the coordinates of space rather than time but in their clearly stated resolve to be exhaustive rather than selective. Indeed, the title of what is probably the purest and most paradigmatic of them is translated literally as "An Attempt to Exhaust a Place in Paris" (The most extended and significant is unquestionably Especes despaces, an exploration of spaces, as one might refer to an exploration of space, from the page on which the writer is writing the text the reader is in the process of reading to the immensity of "space," that is to say "outer space," itself--so significant, indeed, that it would require a separate essay to encompass its full fertility of invention.)
These texts (many of them of a deliberate but nonetheless almost unreadable triviality) are haunted by what might be described as the imp of the integral and the fear of the ellipse. In effect, the critical (or a-critical) grid of integrality is foregrounded in the very first and very long sentence of Tentative d'epuisement d'un lieu parisien:
There are many things, for example, on Place Saint-Sulpice: a town hall, a local finance office, a police station, three cafes, including one licensed to sell cigarettes, a cinema, a church on which Le Vau, Gittard, Oppenord, Servandoni, and Chalgrin all worked and which is dedicated to one of Clotaire II's almoners who was bishop of B urges from 624 to 644 and whose saint's day is January 17th, a publishing house, an undertaker's, a travel agency, a bus stop, a tailor's shop, a hotel, a fountain with statues of four great Christian orators (Bossuet, Fenelon, Flechier, and Massillon), a newspaper kiosk, a shop selling devotional objects, a car park, a beauty salon, and lots, lots more.
Since, by their banality, by their quotidian "invisibility" the majority of such items will already have struck the alert reader as quintessentially Perecquian commonplaces (or "common places"), one is astonished, when reading on, to discover that they are actually, for Perec, too celebrated, too well-documented, to form the material of the sort of text he has in mind:
Many, if not most, of these things have been described, inventoried, photographed, written about, or itemized. My intention in the following pages was instead to describe what remains: that which we generally don't notice, which doesn't call attention to itself, which is of no importance: what happens when nothing happens, what passes when nothing passes, except time, people, cars, and clouds.
Even on this already fairly depressed stratum of the exceptional, the sensational, and the spectacular, what continues to preoccupy Perec is "what remains," what is left when everything else has been recorded; and if, even for a Parisian landmark such as Place Saint-Sulpice, most of the items on his initial list seem already insignificant enough not to have carved out any very prominent niche for themselves in our collective cultural mytho-iconography, one soon realizes that Perec plans to be still more radically extremist. What concerns him are the interstices, the spaces between.
And he proves to be as good as his word. For the purposes of the sixty-page text (originally published in Le Pourissement des societes no. 1/1975 of the sociological journal Cause Commune, and later republished by Christian Bourgeois "for the pleasure of the author's and publisher's friends"), Perec stationed himself in three different cafes bordering the square over a period of three days (Friday 18, Saturday 19, Sunday 20 October 1974) and proceeded to register in a simple, unfigurative, and unshowy language exactly what he saw, whether it could claim to possess any a priori interest or not.
For example, extracted from the "events" of 18 October as viewed from the Cafe de la Mairie in early afternoon (the numbers cited are those of buses):
A 70 passes A 63 passes It's five past two An 87 passes More, and still more, people in batches A priest just returned from a trip abroad (an airline company label dangles from his traveling bag) A child slides a model car over the cafe window (a faint noise) A man pauses for an instant to greet the cafe's large dog, placidly stretched out in front of the door An 86 passes A 63 passes
And so forth. On occasion something exceptional (exceptional in this context) actually does swim into Perec's ken--the architect Paul Virilio, whom Perec recognizes, crosses the square to go see the film version of The Great Gatsby (or as Perec in one of his rare spasms of personal expression rebaptizes it, "The Lousy Gatsby") at the local Bonaparte cinema, an individual, bristling with nervous tics, attracts his curiosity by virtue of holding his cigarette as he (Perec) imagined that only he himself ever did, which is to say, betwixt the middle and the ring finger--but for the most part he records the life of Place Saint-Sulpice as dispassionately and democratically as a train spotter, displaying towards its each and every manifestation an ecumenical favoritism, a favoritism equally extended to all. Nothing is accorded precedence over anything else, unless it be something that prompts Perec momentarily to turn inward from his scrutiny and ruminate on its potential implications. At one point, for instance, he asks himself why he should bother counting bus numbers at all and concludes that their calm-inducing familiarity and regularity offers a necessary scansion to the unruffled monotony of his day.
But an analogous question, one that might well occur to any less than completely motivated reader, is of course: why does Perec bother recording any of these minutiae; or rather, from the reader's own point of view, why am I bothering to read such a book?
The importance of the jigsaw puzzle in Perec's personal poetic is too proverbial to be rehearsed here yet again. Bur anyone who has spent hours poring over one of those strangely yet also stereotypically honeycombed images on its wooden or cardboard base knows that, on one's finally surfacing from it, the traditional patterned grid will for an instant or two have become so indelibly imprinted on the retina that one will see the whole world as a jigsaw puzzle. Then one blinks once or twice and its afterimage vanishes. Similarly, after reading Tentative d'epuisement d'un lieu parisien, one tends to see the world as primarily a collection of discrete things--buses, cars, shopfronts, cafe terraces, carrier bags, neon signs, "Hotel Recamier," "KLM," "Rue du Vieux-Colombier" "St-Raphael," "Cityrama," etc. What Perec achieves, as in Je me souviens, is the rendering of the "visible" (that which one is looking at or for, that towards which one directs one's steps, that which is relevant to one's life) invisible and the "invisible" (in other words, the connective tissue of the world) visible.
Moreover, with such a luxuriant proliferation of signs (both in the "neon" and the "signifying" sense) punctuating his view, there is also a semiotic dimension to Perec's project, semiotic as that term may be allied to the "synecdochic"; which is to say, the sign as the identifying part of the whole. In the course of one of his lectures at the College de France, Barthes was suddenly asked by a student what precisely was the "signifier" of a lecturer. After a moment's reflection he indicated the carafe and tumbler of water on the lectern in front of him and replied that one could wish for no more patent signs of a lecturer's passage, as it were, than these. I myself am scribbling some notes at a window table of a pseudo-Parisian London brasserie which rather grandly calls itself "Le Dome"; and, following Barthes's model, I would say that the basic signifier of this cafe, and or a certain "cafe experience" in general, would be the words "emoD eL" ("Le Dome" reversed, painted on the outside of the cafe window and read by me from the inside). So it is with the choices made by Perec. It is essential, of course, to have had firsthand knowledge of France at least (if not necessarily of Paris or of Place Saint-Sulpice) to respond to the way in which Perec contrives, more ambitiously, to encapsulate an entire society within a modest play of similarly modest signifiers; and in this, as with Je me souviens, the book is wholly untranslatable (even in the extremely unlikely event of a publisher anywhere else bur in Paris caring to incur the expense of bringing out such a fragile little volume). But for someone who is already conversant with the country's textures and trappings, and how these relate to their respective referents, Perec's book, slight as it is, does possess its own weirdly compacted power of evocation.
Perec wrote almost two hundred texts in the same vein. His global project, as he outlined it in the preface to one of these, "Vues d'Italie," was
to describe twelve Parisian places more or less intimately linked to certain periods or details of my life. My intention was that, over a period of twelve years, I would visit one of these places, each of them in turn, and write down simply and flatly what I saw there. Every month, in addition, I would endeavor to collate the memories that were linked to one or other of them.
The undertaking, instigated in 1969, was brought to an abortive end in 1975 and Perec pursued these infra-ordinary preoccupations in other disciplines--photographic, cinematic, and radiophonic. But to every Perecquian there is an obvious relationship between his project, as initially conceived, and the grandiose one of Percival Bartlebooth, the most memorable character of Life A User's Manual, who devotes ten whole years of his life to the study of watercolor painting, twenty more to globe-trotting with his manservant a la Phileas Fogg, painting various ports and harbors at the rate of one every two weeks and dispatching them to a puzzle-maker so that wooden jigsaw puzzles can be made of them, and the next (and last) twenty to solving these puzzles, which he then sends off to a craftsman for the original, now reconstituted watercolor to be detached from its wooden base, the paint to be removed and the re-virginalized sheet of Whatman paper to be returned to its owner.
But in a wider sense, all of this ostensibly minor, even insignificant, literature of the infra-ordinary can be assimilated without strain to his fiction--the indefatigable inventory-taking of the world's population of things in Things and Life A User's Manual, the catalogue raisonnee of (fraudulent) paintings in A Gallery Portrait, and even, if of course by default, the lipogrammatic tour de force of A Void. Concerning the latter, it has often been remarked how like the word eux the celebrated missing e sounds to a French ear and how, therefore, one may infer that what on a more latent level has disappeared from the novel is "they" or "them," which is to say (given Perec's own family history), the lost Jews of the Holocaust--the ultimate ambition of the Final Solution having been nothing less than the removal of a letter from the human alphabet.
Clearly for Perec, however, and this is what makes him the most sheerly lovable of all great contemporary writers, virtually every mode of writing could be regarded as lipogrammatic in its willful exclusion from the writer's field of vision of so much of the texture of the world. If, then, these texts of his were ever to be collected in a single volume, I should like to propose that the title given them be The Reappearance.
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|Title Annotation:||Georges Perec|
|Publication:||The Review of Contemporary Fiction|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2009|
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