Saturday 7 January 2023


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An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec (translated by Marc Lowenthal)  {Reviewed by THOMAS}
You’re soaking in it, he thought, not for the first time. Could he quote David Hume, he wondered, and say, All there is is detail and anything else is conjecture, no, he could not quote Hume, at least not accurately, with that particular sequence of words, though of course he could not be certain that Hume did not say or think such a thing. The thought stands though, he thought, or the words that seemed at least to him to convey the thought, not that anyone reading the words would be in a position to judge the distance, if any distance is possible, between the thought and the words he wrote, but this is a whole other story and already he had come unfortunately quite far from that about which he purposed to write, he carefully wrote. All there is is detail, actually, he qualified deliberately, and we use these details to construct the sad narratives of our lives, or happy narratives, why not, though it would be more accurate to say that the narratives choose the details and not the other way round, neurology will back me up on this, he thought, no footnotes forthcoming, the narratives choose the details and not the other way round, he wrote, living and reading are not so different after all, the damage or whatever to the brain is the same whatever other harms may be avoided. Reality is produced by our failure to reach the actual, he wrote, but who he wondered could he pin this quote on. Anybody’s guess. A novel is more or less full of details, if there’s such a thing as more than full, in fact literature is all detail of one sort or another, supposedly all relevant and chosen by the authority, the reader has no business to think that there’s anything more, but also, he thought, no business to think that there isn’t anything more, in any case in the world of detail that we’re soaking in we assume there is more than those morsels of which we are aware, though in fact there may not be and no experiment can relieve us of this possibility, how claustrophobic, but let us assume for the sake of argument, if you want an argument, or for the sake of the opposite of claustrophobia, whatever that is, agoraphobia perhaps, the terrifying infinitude of possibility from which we protect ourselves with stories, to not be overwhelmed, that if we could let down our stories just for a moment we could expose ourselves to other details, unstoried or unstoried-as-yet, which could support quite other stories and all that attaches to those, or whatever. For three days in October in 1974 Georges Perec challenged himself to merely observe whatever passed before him in Saint-Sulpice, recording his observations as fast as he could write, except for when he was ordering coffee or Vichy water or Bourgueil. Observing without presupposing a story gives an equivalence to all details, the ordinary and what Perec calls the infraordinary are full participants in a thoroughly democratic ontology, every detail shines with significance even if it signifies nothing beyond its own existence. Almost it is as hard a discipline to stop a story suggesting itself as it is to suspend the stories we bring, although, I suppose, he thought, any story that suggests itself is in fact a story I have somehow brought with me even if I was unaware that I had it on board, which is interesting, he thought, in itself. No conjectures! Of course Perec cannot write fast enough, time, whatever that is, moves on or whatever it is that it does, the moment is torn away before he can catch much of it, the limits of his capacities affect his ability to observe, he is overwhelmed by his task but not destroyed so not in fact overwhelmed, so many details are suppressed by practicality, there must be some story taking place, the story of the observing I, of the capacities and the limitations that make up Georges Perec perhaps. Why these details and not other details given that we generally assume there to be a limitless amount of details out there, are we to conclude that every attempt at objectivity is autobiography, someone’s story, by necessity, at best. Subjectivity is a product of time, he thought, or produces time, whatever that is, the progression of our attention through a certain set of details, the constraining force that suppresses all but the supporting details, the readable details or at least the ones that we read, in either literature or life, the subjectivity that burdens us with personhood and other what we could call spectres of the temporal. He couldn’t get all the infraordinary down, he wrote, referring to Perec, Perec made an attempt at exhausting a place in Paris but his attempt was doomed to fail, just as it was revealing possibilities which made it a success it failed, due to time, due to the particular set of limitations that passes in this instance for Perec, he couldn’t get more of the infraordinary down without stopping time, without removing himself or at least seeming to, without taking a place, a small place, perhaps of necessity a fictional place but I’m not sure of this, without taking a place and truly exhausting it, stopping time, recording every infraordinary detail and watching them vibrate with the potential for unrealised story, without in other words sitting down and writing, soon after writing this book, his masterwork of detail, Life, A User’s Manual, he wrote.

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