Over a weekend in 1974, Georges Perec sat in the place Saint-Sulpice and observed the world.
It’s a fascinating contrast with the very purposeful studies of space carried out by William Whyte in New York or Jan Gehl in Copenhagen, meant to assist planners and architects and city officials to design public spaces.
This is airier. Listier yet more subjective. It makes you breathe the atmosphere of every day. Perec writes:
There are many things in place Saint-Sulpice; for instance: a district council building, a financial building, a police station, three cafés, one of which sells tobacco and stamps, a movie theater, a church on which Le Vau, Gittard, Oppenord, Servandoni, and Chalgrin have all worked, and which is dedicated to a chaplain of Clotaire II, who was bishop of Bourges from 624 to 644 and whom we celebrate on 17 January, a publisher, a funeral parlor, a travel agency, a bus stop, a tailor, a hotel, a fountain decorated with the statues of four great Christian orators (Bossuet, Fénelon, Fléchier, and Masillon), a newsstand, a seller of pious objects, a parking lot, a beauty parlour, and many other things as well.
My intention in the pages that follow is to describe the rest instead: that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars and clouds. (3)
And he does.
men in raincoats;
women with cakes;
friends who stop and chat;
friends who don’t see him;
a typology of umbrellas;
We meant to spend time there, but never quite made it there until the end, stopping by between Cafe Tournon (Chester Himes sent us there) and our hotel to pick up luggage and head off home.
It was full of a particularly impenetrable market however, the backs of white tents filling the square, hiding the fountain. Boutiques filled the roads leading to and away. It did not feel like it was supposed to. It’s atmosphere lay buried. Gone. Changed. These things happen in cities. We skirted its sides:
The red awning belongs to the Café de la Mairie, where Perec spent part of the 18th and 20th (it was closed the 19th) of October, 1974.
I’m eating a camembert sandwich.
It is twenty to one.
(Obvious limits to such an undertaking: even when my only goal is just to observe, I don’t see what takes place a few metres from me: I don’t notice, for example, that cars are parking.) (15)
I have now sat for hours at a time counting and recording people as they pass, and it is entirely fatiguing. Even when you have no camembert.
This little book was oddly evocative of the place and perhaps more of Perec himself.
I like him.