In search of Georges Perec in Paris
My friend Philip Matesic – American artist living in Zurich – and I wander through Paris in search of “les lieux”. Les lieux is a project George Perec started in 1969. A project he described himself as followed:
“I have selected twelve places in Paris – streets, squares, and crossroads connected to important events or moments in my existence. Each month, I describe two of these places: one in situ (in a cafe or in the street itself), relating “ what I can see” in the most neutral manner possible, listing the shops, architectural details, micro-events (a fire engine going by, a lady tying up her dog before going into the charcuterie, a removal in progress, posters, people, etc.); the second I write anywhere (at home, in a cafe, in the office), describing the place from memory, evoking the memories that are connected to it, the people I knew there, and so on. Each text (which may come down to just a few lines or extend over five or six pages or more), once completed, is put away in an envelope that I seal with a wax seat. After one year I will have described twelve places twice over, once in memory mode, once in situ in real descriptive mode. I shall begin over again in the same manner each year for twelve years.”
We have decided to visit some places mentioned in ‘Les lieux’. As an american living in Zurich, for Philip it is often the first time he has ever seen these locations. As for me, a fresh Parisian, not all of them are familiar or I have passed them unnoticed on my way to somewhere else. Now we have two days to consciously visit these places, observe them and read about Perec’s visits or passages through these place
It is 11.30 at metro Franklin Roosevelt. With the Champs Elysees on our right and a young couple on the bench behind us we observe the mix of people; tourists, businessmen, young badly dressed girls coming from a shopping-trip on the Champs Elysees, an old men feeding the pigeons, an elderly couple walking hand in hand with a smile on their faces, women with designer bags.
I imagine the moment when Georges Perec walked up the stairs of the metro. Where did he stash his schoolbag on the day he skipped school? ( Les lieux d’une fugue)
A non-intrusive hum of traffic, a place to quietly sit down.
Place D’Italie is a large roundabout with 9 connecting roads.
In the middle of the roundabout a sad fountain is spitting a thin stream of water into the sky. A large green garbage bin with black wheels, beerbottles, MCDonalds left overs drift around inside the pool.
Only one bench of six is in the shade, luckily we are sitting here now.
We are continually circled by traffic, circular reflecting the shape of the fountain.
A boy with a red tank-top uses the circular form to endlessly cycle around. Once he is tired or bored he sits on the side of the fountain leans his small head onto his kneecap and stares at the ripples of the water. His blue bike is thrown against the side of the fountain.
The path around the fountain is encircled by a slope of grass. A tall black man uses it as a place to rest. His slim body follows the curve of the slope.
George Perec wrote ‘les Errants’ , one of his first attempts to write a novel, near Place D’Italie. The document has long gone, lost during the moving of house. He threw away the wrong box of papers and so ‘les Errants’ was lost forever.
Place D’Italie is not a site of beauty and silence. It feels like a corridor to get from one place to the next.
At Jussieu a group of men is huddled around books filled with plastic sheets full of cards. They appear to be dealing cards to play the game ‘magic’. This scene reminds me of a scene from the film by Perec “les lieux d’une fugue” in which he describes the day when he skipped school and visits the stampmarket near Franklin Roosevelt amongst other places.
Today is the ‘Salon de la culture et des jeux mathematiques’. I am quite sure Georges Perec would have liked it here today, mathematical games, puzzles, riddles and mysterious numbers.
Walking down to Mabillon I see a homeless man with shoes made out of folded pieces of carpet.
Did Georges Perec go on a first date with Paulette at Cafe Mabillon on Blvd St Germain? Now the cafe is a touristy place where expensive drinks are being served. A huge tv screen behind me is surrounded by purple velvet chairs. We sit on fake leather chairs.
It is very hot outside and from the inside, where we are sitting, the bodies of the people who sit on the terras are black silhouettes, while the passers by on the street are brightly lit. The waiters wear black costumes and purple ties matching the velvet chairs.
Place de la Contrescarpe on a hot day like today is a great place to enjoy a fresh drink. We wonder in which of the cafes Perec had a drink, alone with his notebooks or with friends. Perec wrote anywhere and anytime. At any moment a piece of paper would appear. His writing was like a puzzle, he collected information, ideas, even small pieces of paper with short notes, he kept them until they somehow found place inside a text.
Philip and I sit in the shadow of a tree, trying to think if the house on the corner of the street was the Tunisian student residency that Perec frequented, until David Bellos’s biography on Georges Perec tells us that the building has long gone.
I am impressed by a man in rags. It is hot so he has opened some of the torn layers of cloth covering his body. He is wearing a black lace bra underneath his torn clothes.
Avenue Junot is a beautiful street in a quiet neighborhood. You can hear the occasional rumble of a car passing by of the cobble street.
Perec choose this place for his project because the Chavaranski family lived here.
After the capitulation in 1945 Henri Chanvranski, Georges Perec uncle went to Villard le Lans where George stayed with a part of his family in the french Alpes. By this time his mother died in Auschwitz and his father already died much earlier as a soldier. Georges was an orphan now and his aunt Esther and uncle David Bienenfeld would take care of the small child.
Henri Chavranski brought Georges back to Paris by train. They arrived at Gare de Lyon where Esther and David were waiting for them. They first drove to Avenue Junot and from there to rue de l’Assomption where esther and David were living.
The high stone wall where we are standing might have been there already. Bushy ivy tumbling over the moss covered stones.
All the shops are closed in Passage Choisseul. People can still walk through the passage, using it as a corridor.
The shops are dark The shoes in the window, baby clothes, a mannequin with a hat look different in the half-light. Philip is sitting on a lost leather coach inside the passage and is taking notes, I take photographs. I hope to capture the beautiful light inside the passage, a light that turns everything into silhouettes.