Title: An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris
Author: Georges Perec
Translator: Marc Lowenthal
Publisher: Wakefield Press, Cambridge (2010)
ISBN: 978 0 9841155 2 5
At what age do we as readers start requiring linear narratives? And demand that all books tell us stories?
Margaret Wise Brown’s iconic Goodnight Moon has been a bedtime staple for decades. If you didn’t have it read to you as a child then you have almost certainly read it as an adult to a child in your life. I’ve yet to attend a baby shower where there wasn’t at least one copy – if not multiples – unwrapped. Adults discovering or rediscovering Goodnight Moon often express surprise at the sophistication of this little book. The rhythm of the prose, the way the room in the illustrations grows darker as the pages are turned, and the insertion of “Goodnight nobody, goodnight mush” (a surreal moment if there ever was one) – these things speak of an author who was interested in non-linear narrative and experimental literature.
For this all to make sense it’s important to understand that there’s more to Margaret Wise Brown and her books than meets the eye. She was a product of the modernist period in art and literature.* In the early 1930’s she worked as a teacher at the Bank Street Experimental School in New York City. At that time this cutting edge school’s focus was on early childhood education & development. She studied how children used rhymes to develop language. Sometimes, as in the case of her “Noisy Book” series, she would use the children as a kind of focus group and adjust some of the words based on their reactions & suggestions. Toddlers would be shown picture book illustrations and teachers would time how long the pictures held their attention. The Bank Street School was the epicenter of what became known as the golden age of children’s literature. And most of the ideas in Margaret Wise Brown’s books can be traced back to what she learned there.
Goodnight Moon tells no story, per se. There are no character arcs. No morals explained. No dialogue. At the most basic level Goodnight Moon is a catalog of the items in a single room. And, yet, lovers of the book are as familiar with the contents of that room as they are of any room in their own home.
What no one ever really discusses (and why should they? This is a children’s book we’re talking about) is the quiet, haunting quality of Brown’s writing. There is none of the joyful silliness or made up rhymes you find in Dr. Seuss. Or the reassuring sentimentalism found in many stories written for the very young. Goodnight Moon is poetry – childish, simplistic, naive – but poetry nonetheless.
…goodnight to the old lady
Goodnight noises everywhere
In words a small child can understand Brown describes the line between consciousness and sleep. The gradual loss of consciousness. Eyes open in the dark, even after the moon disappears behind the clouds, you can still see the stars. Close your eyes and listen to the sound of your breathing. Then sleep and then silence. This sixty-one page children’s book has been many a child’s first experience with a concrete representation of the forward passage of time, even if the passage spans only 15 minutes.
The charms of Georges Perec’s An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris are not so far removed from Goodnight Moon as one would think. It is a catalog of the things that the author sees and hears while sitting in place Saint-Sulpice. People and dogs passing, flocks of pigeons, the sound of church bells, changing of streetlights and the endless waves of city buses. It should be boring. There’s no story to speak of. No sense of narrative progression. No dialogue or ideas. None of the things we are told make literature. And yet, somehow, Perec’s writing moves beyond a catalog of people, animals and things to capture the rhythms of life and time. When he recognizes the writer Jean-Paul Aron (translated to John-Paul, which seems a bit over-zealous) walking by and then, later, walking by again, you perk up. Because a name has been assigned to one of the many pedestrians passing by your window. The buses begin to lose their anonymity – they become the 96, the 87 and the 63 – their appearance jumping out from the text. And as the day draws to an end the sun sets and the lights in the buildings grow brighter.
The light is beginning to fade, even if this is still barely noticeable; the red of the stoplights is increasingly visible.
Lights come on in the cafe.
Two buses, Cityrama and Paris-VIsion, are unable to get by each other. The Cityrama eventually takes rue Bonaparte, the Paris-Vision would like to take rue du Vieux-Colombier. Policeman no. 5976 (“Michel Lonsdale”), at first confused, eventually grabs his whistle and intervenes – effectively, in fact.
A man walks by with his nose in the air, followed by another man who is looking at the ground.
A man with a can of Ribolin goes by.
people people cars
An old lady with a very beautiful Sherlock Holmes-style waterproof fitted coat
The crowd is dense, almost no more lulls
A woman with two baguettes under her arm
It is four thirty
As I said: there is no story in An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris. In place of narrative Perec offers experience. Evokes a sense of place. We inhabit his senses – a brief possession. A windy, rainy day. Fading light. The world waking up on Sunday morning. As I write these things down I can’t help wondering how accurately he described what he saw. How much editing and revising happened afterwards. Or whether accuracy even matters. Perec accomplished a far more difficult task than simply cataloging a place in Paris. On these pages he captured the relentless, forward progression of time and transformed it into poetry.
*In 1936 Méret Oppenheim’s Fur Covered Tea Cup was a part of the “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Brown’s book, Little Fur Family was published ten years later. The first edition was covered in real rabbit fur.