A Wander With Georges Perec

What can Georges Perec see out of the window? He’s sat as usual in Café de la Mairie, 8 place Saint-Sulpice in the 6th arrondissment, lodged at his single table by the window looking out. The Latin Quarter is passing by outside as always; it never really stops, merely lulls. On his small, plastic coated table, he has a pad and pencil bought from a Tabac on the rue de Seine – the pencil of which has had to be sharpened twice into the ashtray due to the cheap quality of the lead – a box of matches bought with his second packet gauloise cigarettes earlier, of which he is now regretting smoking too quickly, and the empty coffee cup which contained his third espresso of the morning and which, after two previous cups, is starting to taste incredibly bitter. He was part of that city rhythm when walking between cafes, wandering from another of his usual haunts, perhaps Le Mabillion on boulevard Saint-Germain, to this spot; a slightly different angle from which to see the world turn. But now he is frozen out of the moment of the city and, on this occasion, the world is not turning so quickly. Passersby are not to be seen in regular bursts but only on occasions. It is early morning and people are not performing yet.

He has already published his book, An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris, and has no desire to capture the things often taken for granted, not noted, as he did in that short work. He is back to capturing the main melody rather than the grace notes. But he cannot hear anything new; Paris is not awake enough yet. And so he begins to see other things. Not the occasional car or morning wanderer, nor even the local cat that belongs to a tenant in the flat above the Café de la Mairie, but he instead begins to look through another window, one in his memory. He stares out into the Latin Quarter and sees a young man in a beige trench coat. He has curly hair but it is cut short enough to sit firmly on his head, unlike Perec’s own unruly hair and beard. He is wearing a maroon jumper, white shirt and tweed tie, probably wandering for the sake of wandering. Under his arm are several folded newspapers though they probably won’t be read until much later on, back in Belleville perhaps.

Perec watches this man cross the road and out of sight. Yet his eyes still follow him, through the window behind his eyes. The young man is on his usual walk in between working, trying to be writer in the dead-time outside of his archivist day-job, so Perec thought. His eyes glazed over and the patron assumed that the writer, now slightly successful since the publication of his last novel, was merely collecting more visual ephemera for his latest work. But Perec’s eyes were following through time, mapping the steps of the young man, first backwards to before he crossed the road and then forwards to where he was going. The young man had stopped further down the boulevard Saint-Germain where he picked up the newspapers he was to read later on. He browsed briefly through several, including Le Monde, Le Figaro and France-Soir before settling on the former two, rolling them up like a sort of Italian pastry and then walking on. He stopped at the road with the slow pedestrian crossing, where Perec first saw him from the window before he then followed the flow; it was a busier street for the young man than it was for Perec sat in Café de la Mairie.

The young man, seemingly living his job as an archivist, was obsessive in collecting, amassing, hoarding. This applied most to books, so Perec thought with a smile and brief last draw on his gauloise as it disintegrated into nothing in the ashtray alongside the pencil sharpenings. The young man is drawn to the spinning stalls of cheap paperbacks outside a shop on boulevard Saint-Michele. The designs are a flurry of colours and names: Boileau-Narcejac, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, men with guns and an assortment of shady rooms but with bright, block colours for shadows. Endless Serié Noire. There are too many to buy, the young man feels, but knows that he cannot resist. There are still some francs in his left coat pocket, along with a string of paperclips strung together, a torn piece of cigarette packet upon which is written a number he is supposed to phone later on and a single glove taken in haste for walking on a crisp winter’s day, but now rendered useless by its solitude. He opts for Sur un air de navaja as he hasn’t read of Marlowe’s grey years yet.

More wandering, this day was longer than Perec had remembered. Did he really drift so much only a decade or so before? The young man is insatiable, the Seine drawing nearer with more stalls of books to pick over, glance at, browse, peruse, buy, not buy, haggle, put back, return to later, hide by turning the cover the wrong way, open to find and steal a used metro ticket deployed by the previous owner as bookmark. He is in the famous shop. Everything is in English but it doesn’t matter. There’s still the covers, there’s still the sheer aesthetic of the words which he can probably get by with anyhow. More books, more paraphernalia to drag back, back to the flat further out; his own archive in the making. Perec’s eyes wander in reverse around the many corners he has impossibly watched the young man walk around, back through the Latin Quarter; Madame Auclair walking her strangely small dog down rue de Buci, the street sweeper who never moves from near the Odéon Métro station, the Breon brothers, having skipped school yet again, fighting in the patch of land outside Musée de Cluny, ruining their already torn clothes much to the later dismay of their father.

Perec is back at the window in Café de la Mairie. Another espresso is on its way as he begins to see out onto the present once more. Traffic has picked up, people are walking, cars are beeping angrily and there is much to see. He gives a last thought to the young man, walking on that cold winter’s day some decades before, not because there was a destination, but, so he thought, because everywhere was a destination if curious. His pencil began scrawling, finding and making its own paths on the paper; more routes for others to follow, sooner or later.

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