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In 1974, Oulipian writer Georges Perec sat on a street corner in Paris for three days and wrote down everything he saw. He was especially interested in describing what he called the infraordinary, events "which [are] not noticed [and have] no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds." What resulted was in parts a mind-numbing inventory of buses, apple green 2-CVs, mopeds, pedestrians, pigeons, tourists ("photophagous Japanese," he calls them), gestures, and rain, mixed in with occasional moments of humor, surprising insight, and a funeral or two across the street.

These experiments have recently been translated into English by Marc Lowenthal and republished in a slim book called An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (Wakefield Press). The titular 'place' refers to Place Saint Sulpice, the busy corner in Paris he chose for his experiment. Reading Perec's deliberately monotonous catalog made me slightly uneasy. But perhaps precisely because of the monotony, I found myself paying as close attention to the slightest changes in his writing—syntax, repetition, and word choice—as he did to the non-happenings at Saint Sulpice.

Though the book is surprisingly enjoyable, it is still one of those books that's more fun to think about than to actually read. What at first appears to be a pretty obvious and simple experiment, upon further reflection, reveals itself to be much more than that. It's a document of a place, yes. But it's also a document of a time, and a document of the passage of time, though that passage is only three days. Perec constantly questioned the meaning of that passage:

What has changed here since yesterday? At first sight, it's really the same. Is the sky perhaps cloudier? ... I couldn't say whether the people I'm seeing are the same ones as yesterday, whether the cars are the same ones as yesterday. On the other hand, if the birds (pigeons) came (and why wouldn't they come) I'd feel sure they would be the same birds.
Incidentally, I was trying to figure out how his observations—what he noticed and decided to write down—changed from day to day. But I was not the only one to do this. Perec was also constantly looking back at his own process and questioning his methods. He was figuring out how he wanted to conduct his experiment even as he was conducting it:
(why count buses? probably because they're recognizable and regular: they cut up time, they punctuate the background noise; ultimately they're foreseeable / The rest seems random, improbable, anarchic; the buses pass by because they have to pass by, but nothing requires a car to back up, or a man to have a bag marked with a big "M" of Monoprix, or a car to be blue or apple-green, or a customer to order a coffee instead of a beer...)
Thinking about all this made me want to visit Saint Sulpice myself. Then I thought, why not? In fact, I had no other alternative. I had to continue Perec's grand experiment by visiting the very corner where he made his observations! Perec was interested in the passage of time. Well, it's been 38 years plus or minus some months now, and I will go to Saint-Sulpice to see if anything has changed. Have the people become more ordinary? Have the pigeons flown off for good? What, if anything, is the weather doing? And I will make these observations not by sitting in that physical spot, but by examining that spot from an instantaneous flash captured on top of a little car with the word "Google" written on the side. Surely Perec would have noticed such an out of the ordinary car, with a camera on top of it? But maybe he's fallen asleep. Or maybe it's too out of the ordinary, and he only notices ordinary, boring things.


What's this? A bus, you say? "The 87 goes to Champ-de-Mars," Perec says on page 8. "The 87 goes to Champ-de-Mars," Perec says again, just to be sure, on page 9. Now I can repeat it: "The 87 goes to Champ-de-Mars," on page 2012! Sure enough the alleged mobility of the bus that Perec loved so much, after 30 odd years, has been called into question, as it seems not to have budged in the interim years.

And the people! I count forty-seven people, when I do a quick 360.

Mopeds and bicycles. Perec rarely mentioned bicycles, but he did see a few mopeds. One of them is going down the road right now.

Taxis line up across the street from the cafe. "Agence de V---" my view is blocked. I click the arrows, going up and down the street.

A woman is standing in the bus, carrying several green plastic bags. Another woman sits in the back of the bus.

I can see the sign now in this view, it says "Agence de Voyages," possibly a travel agency? Among the list of things Perec mentions in the beginning is a travel agency. I have a hard time believing that a travel agency has survived so long.

A woman in a light brown trench coat is crossing the street.

The Café de la Mairie, where Perec sat.

About 50 empty yellow foldout chairs in front, all facing out. Will there be a concert across the street? No, not all of them are empty. Maybe this is compact outdoor seating, for maximum capacity/profit?

Next to the cafe, two white trucks are at loggerheads.

'Sortie de Camions'. My French is awful, I would be so lost in this country. 

I wonder what Perec would think about Google Street View. He'd probably write 500 books based on it.

A sign says 'Antiquaires.' Underneath it is a bench where three figures are seated.

A narrow alley is blocked off from construction, one side of an old building seems to be worked on. It looks like a government building, a courthouse or something. Perec didn't mention a courthouse, that I remember.


The letter 'P' is still here. Perec noticed this too, maybe because his last name starts with a P.

I've heard of literary tourists making pilgrimages to Proust's hometown, the one Combray was based on. Now I share their sense of re-looking, of excitement mingled with inevitable disappointment.

More mopeds, everyone is wearing helmets: good.

The side of a blue truck advertises 'Bieres de Paris'.

Next to the 'P' and the parked taxis is what appears to be a subway station. Was the subway here in 1974? Perec was oddly silent on this matter.

More trench coats, do the French love trench coats? Perec, incidentally, noticed several.

Two men in light brown jackets walk briskly. I can only assume, from their postures. One is carrying a plastic bag, can't make out the contents. Are they trying to catch one of these taxis?

The trees are leafy, green. I don't know when this photo was taken, but probably spring, judging from the clothing and the lack of reddening leaves.

Metal stalls. Are these stalls in some kind of street market? Google won't let me go around back to see.

It strikes me that the limits of Street View has its benefits. Namely that these constraints, though they prevent me from wandering off from set tracks, also gives this whole endeavor that Oulipian spirit that guided Perec and so many other great writers.

Oh my. It suddenly looks like these photographs were not taken sequentially. This view of the street shows metal stalls along the sidewalk but this one from few more feet over (meters? they're metric over there, right?) shows white tents in their place. Some kind of arts fair.

Two large women are crossing the street, one is dragging luggage on wheels.

The light is red. A larger woman stands at the median.

A man in a blue shirt waits to cross the street with a manila envelope in his left hand.

What, pray tell, has happened to all of the pigeons of 1974?

An ad reads 'GLAMOUR'. The light is red. A woman in a black top.

Oh, I have spotted a pigeon in the air! Are you perhaps one of Perec's pigeon's great-great-grandchildren?

A smart car, parked in front of what appears to be residences.

I am moving down the street now, closer to Rue Bonaparte.

A woman in a white sleeveless shirt and a blue purse next to men in coats. What is the weather like?

An apple green moped.

Perec mentions a fountain decorated with the statues of four orators, but I cannot find it. Surely that would have survived if the travel agency survived. Where is it? Maybe it has migrated north with the pigeons?

Still more Google-time has passed as I go down the road. Here the residential building still looks normal, but from a different view it is covered in construction plastic.

A sign on the building says "traitement de facades," and even I can figure that one out despite my poor French.

A woman with a very similar blue purse as the woman in the white sleeveless shirt is walking under the scaffolding. But here she is wearing many more layers and a scarf.

The light is green.

Oh, I found it! The fountain and the statues! It seems that the white tents and (earlier?/later?) the metal stalls had surrounded it and were obstructing its view.

Why do I feel such relief to have found it?

It is too far to make out the pigeons. Let me navigate to a better view.

Still no pigeons in sight.

Tourists are taking pictures.

At the end of the road, suddenly the white tents reappear. 'Alsacez-VOUS! a Paris..' it says.

A woman in a fierce violet jacket is walking fiercely. She is carrying an orange shopping bag. Her body, in the act of shopping, has the propulsive thrust of an Olympic gymnast. She is not ordinary or infra-ordinary, she is extraordinary.



I'm back on Google Street View, feeling re-energized.

Not far from the woman wearing the fierce violet jacket, in different directions: Two bookstores, surely one of these books on display is Perec's An Attempt!

Incidentally, I just looked up 'photophagous'. It's not a word, but apparently a play on the word phytophagous meaning "(esp. of an insect or other invertebrate) feeding on plants". I wonder what the original pun in French was.

Also, had a revelation during my break from Street View. There is no clear indication that what I assumed was the subway station was indeed the subway station. Maybe it is the parking lot that features so prominently in An Attempt. If so, it would make sense that the cars 'dive' into it, according to Perec. If it is not so, then where is the parking lot?

Also I have been re-reading Perec, and he briefly mentions a district council building. I am pretty sure it is the one next to the Mairie that is under reconstruction.

Police station. Police cars parked out front.

Spotted a 58 at the intersection of Rue Bonaparte and Rue de Vaugirard. I don't remember Perec mentioning the 58.

I think I'm lost, so I'm going back to the Café de la Mairie. Different view of the outdoor seating. Looks almost like student desks. A group of three elderly individuals (men or women? hard to tell with their faces blurred) talking leisurely. Another man appears to be reading the newspaper.

In the opposite direction, a woman in a white jacket and yellow purse walks by a green trashcan.

Looking back: the mopeds here are parked virtually equidistant from each other, whereas they are usually bunched together.

In the middle of the street, a young man in a denim jacket is carrying an instrument, and a woman on her cell phone has a yellow purse not unlike the earlier woman.

I always assumed this bus was the same as the 87 in the front view, but the side says 86.

The 86 just happens to be the most mentioned bus in An Attempt, at least that is my impression.

"The 86 goes to Saint-Germain-des-Pres" Perec says.

And in fact, it is the 86 because the 87 from the front view has a different side.

Two buses were in the same spot in two different views, and Google alternated these two time frames within the same street.

I keep having to backtrack on things I've said as I circle this block over and over again and understand more of what is going on and how Google has spliced together images from different times. What at first seemed apparent gives way to multiple deceptions.

I feel oddly like I know this block very well now, when in reality this too is a deception. If I were to go to Saint Sulpice, I would be lost. I would look for these people, always rooted in their designated spots, as if they were landmarks, statues waiting for pigeons to land on, but they would all be gone.

Borrowing an idea from René Daumal*:  how much can be gleaned from truly understanding one square block in Paris? Perhaps, by deduction, the entire human race, and the world.

It occurs to me that Street View plays with time in a very interesting, almost artistic manner, when in fact it is a random outcome based on the different cameras' routes.

Three time frames:

  • metal stalls/antique market (the 86 is in this time frame)
  • white tents in the same spot (the 87 is in this time frame)
  • no tents or stalls, clear view to the fountain
  • There may be other time frames I am unaware of. I feel like a time traveler.

    Here I can see the front of the 86, finally.

    Google Street View offers seeming continuity, a magic trick, like a nod to traditional narrative. But in fact it is highly discontinuous and jarring.

    It offers up the idea that continuity is possible, while simultaneously undercutting it.

    Or maybe I am reading too much into this. A result of staring into the computer too long.

    MikiHouse is the name of the store on the corner of the residential building that is (in some time frames) under construction.

    How did I miss the pigeons by the white tents yesterday?

    A tour bus that says Knipschild on it.

    I think that if I keep going up and down this street I will unlock some kind of secret. I keep looking at the same people. Their frozen postures hold so many potential stories. Then slowly I see new people. New things that had escaped my attention previously. Each looking has more depth.

    I see the same woman in the white sleeveless shirt, and I feel a sense of familiarity, like we've already met.

    A tourist in an all white get-up and a yellow umbrella crossing the street.

    Further down Rue Bonaparte: Mom with stroller, baby on back. Dad, presumably, walking beside her, though most of his body is blocked.

    Man with a baby blue book. Can't make out the title. White haired woman, black coat.

    Here is a sign for the metro. So it is a subway after all, and not a parking lot. Where is the parking lot Perec refers to?

    Two bright green street sweepers parked on a corner. A few construction signs on the sidewalk. Corner of Bonaparte and Saint Sulpice.

    Fierce woman in fierce violet jacket again. Feeling of familiarity.

    In the other direction, Asian woman in a pink top and blue jeans. Taxis. A silver Volkswagen with a sunroof. White tents.

    A woman riding a bike very close to us. She's carrying a small green purse.

    A tourist with a backpack and another bag slung over a shoulder crossing Saint Sulpice. Small Mercedes hatchback.

    From this angle, another ramp leading down to the metro.

    Starting over at the café, going down Place Saint Sulpice... another bookstore.

    Woman with shopping bag running down the sidewalk. Why the hurry? I see no taxis or buses nearby.

    Across the street a woman is locking her bike in front of the church. Or maybe she's unlocking it. There's no knowing.

    Wandering off from the square seems like such a luxury. So many new sights and new people to see, easy eye candy. New sights without effort, whereas in the square I have to strain my eyes to find something new (although every time there is something I've missed before).

    Rare man with unblurred face, looking back suspiciously at the camera. I'm so used to seeing the veil of the blur that it feels oddly wrong to look at his face. I feel like a peeping tom, as if his face were obscenely naked. But I cannot stop staring.

    French taggers. A store called JLR. A garbage truck. I've wandered kind of far now. It seems I am driven to look and re-look without any endpoint in sight.


    "From the complete knowledge of So-and-So, one could deduce the knowledge of the rest of the universe by virtue of the principles of causality and reciprocal action. Similarly, remove in thought So-and-So from the world without changing anything else: you still imagine him right where he was, because from the knowledge of the universe minus So-and So it is possible to deduce knowledge of So-and-So. Both relationships are symmetrical and reciprocal, and you can thus weight So-and-So against the rest of the universe... To know x=to know (Everything - x)." — René Daumal, Pataphysics and the Revelation of Laughter

    [Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/perec.html]
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