Streetnotes 20: URBAN FEEL. Spring  2010


Samuel Neural

Painting with Words:
George Perec’s Work

October 1974, Saint-Sulpice Square in Paris. A man is sitting on a terrace. On his table there’s a notebook, which he is conscientiously filling in with everything happening in front of him: letters, like K, L, M, or P (for parking). Symbols, and numbers: 86 for the bus, a 6 that indicates that we are in the 6th district in Paris; fugitive slogans from advertising; a stone for the fountain; the church, buildings; trees; a piece of sky; pigeons; vehicles; human beings; dogs; bread (Baguette), a salad. Colors: red for cars, blue for bags, green for shoes, blue for taxis.

Saint Sulpice Photo Credit: Jean Francois Delamarre, 19 October, 2008, 11 am
Saint Sulpice
Photo Credit: Jean Francois Delamarre, 19 October, 2008, 11 am

Simultaneousness of actions or micro events: postures, gestures, discussions with two, three, sometimes more people; a man with a briefcase, two men smoking pipes, a woman with a coat, people that are gathering in front of the church, a man with a bow tie, three children coming from school, a priest, a man stopping to stroke a dog, a woman waiting for a taxi, two beaming Japanese tourists, a couple, a man with tics, a policeman with a bike. Every kind of activity: to wait, to stroll, to wander, to walk, to run, to go, to look for something, to hesitate, to stay, to wait for the bus, to stand, to get up.

Passer by, Photo Credit: Jean Francois Delamarre, 19 October, 2008, 11 am
Passer by
Photo Credit: Jean Francois Delamarre, 19 October, 2008, 11 am

Elements like a fountain, a kiosk, and a group of trees are all standing at a center. The surroundings are historical buildings, with a church on one side. There is a possibility to make a plan, to make an order, a framework with elements fixed in space, grounded in space, lifeless: Saint Sulpice Square is organized as a cube.

Fountain, Photo Credit: Jean Francois Delamarre, 19 October, 2008, 11 am
Photo Credit: Jean Francois Delamarre, 19 October, 2008, 11 am

A World in Transit

Elements fixed in space, but also elements in movements. Buses are cutting out line; they are foreseeable; they give rhythm to this place. The rest of the elements seem improbable. Cars, bicycles, taxis are crossing at random.

What makes this place alive is the transportation of people and the flow of merchandising; buses carrying individuals, people waiting for services or looking at the schedules, demonstrating impatience, making the bus-stop a focal point in this space.

Transit, Photo Credit: Jean Francois Delamarre, 19 October, 2008, 11 am)
Photo Credit: Jean Francois Delamarre, 19 October, 2008, 11 am

This space is a world in transit and most of its protagonists are waiting for something.

The place is not a fortress; in each corner of this cube are openings authorizing the constant flow of cosmopolitan trespassers, giving this space some regulations but nothing absolutely recurrent or cyclical except buses commuting.

Saint Sulpice from another angle, Photo Credit: Jean Francois Delamarre, 19 October, 2008, 11 am
Saint Sulpice from another angle
Photo Credit: Jean Francois Delamarre, 19 October, 2008, 11 am

“My aim,” wrote George Perec (1936-1982) in the first page of the booklet An Attempt to Exhaust a Parisian Place, is “to describe what is generally never noted, what is never noticed, what is not important: what happens when nothing happens, but time, people, cars and clouds.” For Perec, a novelist, filmmaker, and essayist, famous for his dedication to “constrained” writing, the mechanism of space is a series of opening momentums with neither beginning nor ending: irregular cadences accentuated by a dark and opaque sky announcing misfortune in the weather, changing the plans for those who wanted to walk, or detaining some passer-by at a bus-stop. In this moment of sudden obscurity, the space is in mutation.

Space and place are enigmatic areas that are not to be measured, according to Perec’s ideas, but to be exhausted. Measurements are made arbitrary and the assumption that space and place are definite entities is way too illogical for Perec as he is looking at space as something unpredictable and way more inspiring. The observer’s perceptive operation is full of surprises, irregular phenomena, and furtive elements that make the world nothing but definitive.


In one of his most famous books, Things, Perec describes the world of everyday people, their interests and projects, some of their achievements. In scrutinizing the residence of a young couple who live in a stylish but tiny apartment, Perec reveals his talent to incorporate spaces or places: writing in excruciating detail, the French author describes a world devoted to materialism, an intimate and reclusive relationship between people and objects, commodities. Behind this wise, coherent world, there is a chaotic order: objects can be imitations; belongings are fake as well as ultimate aspirations of the protagonists.

Painting With Words

The expert, sitting at a table, in a cafe, for hours, morning and afternoon, a ghost nobody is expecting: in front of him, the world is moving, in a cube, an appropriate space to gather liable observations as a request on paper: people appearing as specters, their concerns, their occupations, professions, careers, vocations, their affairs, responsibilities, duties for others, obligations, their problems, anyone systematically trapped in existential situations. Less interference between those existences; anyone individually busy, occupied, involved -- if the reader prefers -- absorbed in a world on the go. This industrious exercise is not an arrangement of facts but the perseverance of a chaotic build-up.

In trusting the absolute minimalism of life, the world becomes hospitable for the reader when he realizes how accurate and aesthetic Perec’s descriptions are: ordinary people, anyone’s routine, minimal operations, displacements are appropriate operators to understand a place. The result is an intriguing booklet with monotonous descriptions, a simple fabric of coincidence, a corpus of minimalist details, a curious and intrigued contemporary puzzling with scattered pieces.

In fact, any chronicle or narrative is in this work totally inadequate; the equilibrium of this strange exercise is nothing but persistent sharp descriptions with an intent to raise a world to something authentic and spontaneous in space and time. Through Perec’s lens, pieces of the world are distributed into something minimal and stylistic: an attitude that would give every painter a crucial authority.

The treatment of this detailed reality, the anxious composition charged with the details of everyday life, the collision of facts, the unexpected acts in the street is an audacious effort for the observer sitting in a cafe to become a painter, with words.

Here, the unpredictable facts are Perec’s contingencies detected in space, brought to light on his notebook, as it happens when one’s applying paint, pigment, color. But here the painter is a writer and his game of brushes is instead words reflecting descriptions; its surface is not a wall, a canvas, a piece of wood, glass, lacquer, or even clay, but paper.

There is an intriguing link with Perec’s descriptions and the mid-19th-century realist painters, many of whom found their inspiration in the life around them: think Courbet’s or Manet’s Parisians at ease in restaurants, in parks, or on boats; think Pissaro’s concerns for everyday factual matters in Parisian landscapes, river scenes, and the immediacy of life on the streets; think Manet’s free sketchy brushwork and broad patches of color juxtaposed without transition, making the sketch dynamic and lively. Interestingly, not only are the themes similar to Perec’s interests but so is the composition, which neutralizes emotional expressions.

For Perec “every painting is an attempt to possess the world” (Perec 1996 22). In fact, between his twenties and thirties, Perec explored the notion of realism in art and in literature through one of his favorite painters, Paul Klee. Klee’s vision of the world is one of chaos that has to be “removed” through the work of the artist. The quintessence of reality lies for both artists, the writer and the painter, in the question of space, an entity that has to be fragmented, that has to be built. While it is difficult to escape from the ordinary, Perec’s reality is conceived from “very little things of everyday life,” what he called (and made one of his best opus) the “infra-ordinary.”

His aptitude to describe fragments of universes, or spaces, or places, in every detail abolish every frontier of reality: making a place his protectorate, committing to unrestricted details, engaging the reader to feel every corner, every part of those universes. Perec lets us view the poetic power of realism. Any conceptualization is useless. The high intensity of details compensate the low level of conceptualization: the operation of exhaustion consists then, of a simple tyrannical attempt to reach and exacerbate the real with nothing but simple words: “I have the impression that if a painter had influenced my work, it would be Paul Klee, but I don’t know exactly how,” said Perec in an interview he gave in 1979 (Perec 1996 6). As a reply, this wonderful quotation from Klee: “to look at a painting, you need a chair…”

Perec sat, in October 1974, in Paris, on a terrace in Saint Sulpice Square, in front of a place, and painted with words…

Works Cited

Perec, Georges, Les Choses: A Story of the Sixties, trans. by Helen R. Lane, New York: Grove Press, 1967.

Perec, Georges, Life: A User's Manual, trans. by David Bellos, London: Vintage, 2003.

Perec, Georges, L'infra-ordinaire, Paris: Seuil, 1989.

Georges Perec, L’œil d’abord: George Perec et la peinture, Edition du Seuil, 1996.

Perec, Georges. Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, ed. and trans. by John Sturrock, London: Penguin, 1997.

Perec, Georges, Tentative d'épuisement d'un lieu Parisien, Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1975.

Perec, Georges, “Things: A Story of the Sixties” in Things: A Story of the Sixties & A Man Asleep, trans. by David Bellos and Andrew Leak, London: Vintage, 1999.


(c)Samuel Neural