[Table of Contents]



Kij Johnson



For three October days in 1974, Georges Perec sat at an array of café tables looking across the place Saint-Sulpice, a pretty but unexceptional plaza in Paris. He logged everything he saw—or tried to. His stated object was to move beyond the obvious observations (buildings, businesses, and the like) to "[...]describe the rest instead: that which is not generally 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." What resulted was a 39-page list, mostly of people and objects (sometimes two or more to a line), but also including observations, and even paragraphs well outside the attempt's scope.
      The list was published as Tentative d'épuisement d'un lieu parisien, translated by Marc Lowenthal into English as An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. Lowenthal observes: "The attempt to communicate everything, to describe everything—to exhaust everything—is always a sympathetic effort, however doomed to failure it may be. What always remains after such an effort, what remains uncommunicated, is misery."


Elements of the book, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, that are not the list generated by Perec

  • half titles (3)
  • part titles (3)
  • blank pages (13)
  • textless page with graphic stripes and silhouettes of 14 pigeons
  • title page (graphic stripes, no pigeons)
  • copyright page
  • "contents"
  • "translator's acknowledgments"
  • untitled introduction describing Perec's goals for the Attempt
  • "translator's afterword" plus "Notes"
  • session subheads itemizing date, time, location, and sometimes (4 times) weather (9)
  • page numbers (49)
  • running footers: georges perec (19), an attempt at exhausting a place in paris (21), translator's afterword (4), translator's acknowledgments (1)
  • "Imagining Science": list of the titles in this Wakefield Press series, which as of 2010 consists of one title, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, Georges Perec
  • cover, endpapers
  • glue
  • ink


              [1] Perec, Georges. An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. Trans. Marc Lowenthal. Cambridge (MA): Wakefield Press. 2010.                                            

Basic statistics for the list generated by Perec (not including non-list elements) [2]

Number of words: 6546
Number of characters: 29,338 (no spaces, an approximate value)
Total number of lines or paragraphs: 549
Number of lines recording one or more observations: 491 [3]
Time spent in the attempt: 16.75 hours across 3 days, minus breaks


[2] Basic statistics for my attempt to exhaust Perec's Attempt (not including non-list elements)

  • Number of words: 4949
  • Number of characters: 25,503 (no spaces, an approximate value)
  • Total number of lines or paragraphs: 549
  • Time spent in the attempt: 24.75 hours across 16 days

[3] Not including lines where Perec only records the time, talks about himself, eats or drinks, or summarizes earlier observations.



Sublists [4]

  • "Outline of an inventory of some strictly visible things"
  • "Trajectories"
  • "Colors"
  • "In search of a difference"
  • external stimuli that might cause the pigeons to go round the square
  • things people hold
  • gestures and movements made harder because of the rain
  • articles the motorcycle cop may have purchased in the tabac
  • products seen in store windows during a break [5]
  • sublist of informal lists without individual examples
    • actions
    • conversations
    • means of locomotion
    • means of carrying
    • means of traction
    • degrees of determination or motivation
    • body positions
  • things that have not changed since an earlier session
  • things that have changed since an earlier session


[4] In his introduction, Perec includes a narrative list of many more traditionally notable things that can be observed around the Place Saint-Sulpice:

  • district council building (a preferred roosting place for the pigeons)
  • financial building
  • police station
  • three cafés (each of which receives Perec's custom in the course of the Attempt)
  • a movie theatre (perhaps the Bonaparte, where Paul Virilio goes to see The Lousy Gatsby)
  • a church (with a digression into its history)
  • publisher (perhaps Dunod éditeur, whose van is observed in the Attempt)
  • funeral parlor (undoubtedly convenient for the funeral on 18 October)
  • travel agency (perhaps Darty Real, mentioned in the Attempt — unless the list item, "Darty Real," does not reference signage for the agency)
  • bus stop
  • tailor
  • hotel (perhaps the hótel Récamier)
  • a fountain decorated with basins and statues of dead people (mentioned in the Attempt, but only in regard to its basins, and as a favorite roosting place for the pigeons)
  • newsstand (perhaps the kiosk he finds closed when he takes a break and looks for a copy of Le Monde to read. But really, after spending seven hours on the plaza, one would think he would choose to spend his break somewhere, anywhere, else. If the kiosk had been open, and he had purchased and read Le Monde — presumably at one of the three cafés on the plaza — would he then have been obligated to include the text as part of the Attempt?)
  • seller of religious objects (perhaps the provenance of the ugly candlestick carried by a passerby)
  • parking lot (several references)
  • beauty parlor

However, Perec's introduction is outside the ambit of this project, so of course I did not include it.

[5] "Antique and modern furniture, used books, drawings and engravings."



Errors and inconsistencies [6]

  • Saint-Germain-des-Prés/Saint-Germain-des-Près
  • Porte de Champerret/Porte Champerret
  • Mehari should be Méhari (a consistent error in the Attempt)
  • Montparnasse station/Gare Montparnasse (Lowenthal has translated Gare Montparnasse to Montparnasse station inconsistently)
  • "Coches Parisiens" was not translated, presumably because it is not translatable, possibly because it is an inscription or transcription error


Times Perec gives up on the list format

  • At one point, instead of listing observations, he identifies categories of things that might be observed and subsequently listed. Some of the things he lists later; others, he does not.
  • Several times, Perec starts sessions with a paragraph describing what he has done in the break since the previous session.
  • Sublists are often presented narratively, i.e., in prose text.
  • He goes on a bit whenever he has an existential question to chew on (see "Existential and philsophical questions," below).
  • Twice, he mentions talking to someone but does not record their conversation; presumably he is attending to the conversation instead of the street, but in any case he describes neither. Is this a failure of the Attempt?




[6] Who do we blame for these errors? The author, the transcriber, the translator, the editor, or any of a faceless array of typesetters, copy editors, and proofreaders? Are they Perec's own errors, conscientiously retained? Are Perec's errors part of the place he exhausts — i.e., inconsistencies in the bus destination placards — or his own particular exhaustion, which he explicitly mentions four times?


References to clouds, per Perec's stated intention for the Attempt [7]

  • "Is the sky perhaps cloudier?"
  • "A cloud hides the sun for a moment."
  • "The sky is gray." (presumably, overcast by clouds)



[7] Outside the list itself, clouds are mentioned or indicated twice: in one session subhead, and in Perec's introduction.



References to the weather, per Perec's stated intention for the Attempt [8]

  • yellowing leaves on the trees (could be considered a seasonal observation rather than weather-related)
  • from a list of things that might cause the pigeons to go round the square in a group: rain and "change in light," possibly from an alteration in the cloud cover
  • from a comparison of what is observed on Saturday and Sunday, "rain" as one possible reason for the differences
  • "(I'm cold. I order a brandy.)"
  • "I'm cold. I order a brandy."
  • "It's cold, increasingly so it seems to me."
  • "Alterations in daylight" (perhaps due to the cloud cover changing, more probably because it is dusk)
  • "Wind"
  • "The wind seems to be blowing in gusts, but not many cars have turned on their windshield wipers"
  • "Night, winter: unreal appearance of the passerby"
  • "the ground is gleaming,[...]it seems to be raining harder"
  • "The rain stopped very suddenly; there was even a vague ray of sun for several seconds."
  • "The sun is hidden. There's some wind."
  • "The rain starts falling again."
  • "Gust of wind"
  • "The rain gets fierce."
  • "Gestures and movements are made difficult by the rain"
  • "It is still raining but maybe a little less heavily"
  • "A ray of sunlight. Wind"

  [8] Outside the list itself, the weather is mentioned or indicated five times: four times in session subheads, and once in Perec's introduction.  

Refererences to umbrellas (implying weather, per Perec's stated intention for the Attempt)

  • in a sublist of things people carry
  • in a sublist of things Perec sees that he has seen earlier
  • "open umbrellas"
  • umbrellas "sweeping" into the church
  • geranium umbrella carried by Michel Martens
  • umbrella in the hand of a young father carrying his sleeping baby on his back
  • "Project: a classification of umbrellas according to their forms, their means of functioning, their color, their material..." [9]



[9] The writer thrillingly at work!



Categories of people, per Perec's stated intention for the Attempt [10]

  • human beings, people, individual
  • down-and-outs ("three down-and-outs making classic gestures")
  • women, ladies, girl, grannies, beauties
  • men, gentleman, boys, beaus
  • father, parents
  • baby, children
  • policemen, cop
  • Policeman no. 5976/"Michael Lonsdale"
  • meter man, meter maids, "meter maid-to-orders"
  • mailmen, postal workers
  • sewer workers
  • street sweeper
  • nuns
  • priest
  • priest (suppositional)
  • beadle (suppositional)
  • boy scouts/scouts
  • drivers, motorcyclists
  • deliverymen, bike courier
  • truck (metonymy: "A truck delivers beer in metal casks")
  • pedestrians, passersby
  • customers
  • tourists, German, Japanese
  • schmucks, idlers, scowlers, windbags (in a sublist)
  • bridge players
  • clothing merchants
  • distant acquaintance
  • the mikado
  • "a sort of double of Peter Sellars"
  • "a stroller who looks a little like Michel Mohrt"
  • Geneviève Serreau
  • Paul Virilio
  • Jean-Paul Aron
  • Michel Martens
  • Duvignaud (suppositional)


Direct or overheard dialogue

  • "it's a quarter after three"


Things people wear

  • coats, furs, raincoats, green raincoat
  • Sherlock-Holmes style waterproof fitted coat
  • red anoraks
  • navy-blue peacoat
  • wool jacket
  • capes, purple cape
  • shawls, short or long scarves
  • sweater with a large "A"
  • white smock
  • boots, high boots, high heels, green shoes
  • Russian Astrakhan fur hats
  • English school cap
  • long red hats with pom-poms
  • hard hats
  • berets
  • turbans
  • kepi
  • sailor-like cap
  • hat improvised from a plastic bag marked "Nicolas"
  • gloves
  • "long skirt made of strips of fabric sewn together (not really patchwork)"
  • slacks
  • headphones
  • bow tie
  • surgical collar
  • something with a breast pocket inscribed with the letters klm
  • little paper badgees on the collars of coats or raincoats, related in some fashion to the National Day for the Elderly
  • cast on the left arm
  • "shades of green"


  [10] Categories of people not included: terms seen on the sides of trucks (master caterer, florist), terms in place names (Place du Dr Hayem), terms in business names (Kanterbraü), collective terms (couple, group, bridal procession).  

Things people carry

  • plastic bags, shopping bags, knapsacks, schoolbag
  • bags, briefcases, satchels, satchel with an airline label
  • bag (Tunisian) on which "souvenir" is written (presumed to be carried)
  • string bag filled with oranges (presumed to be carried)
  • baguette, two baguettes, half-baguette
  • foods being eaten as people walk: palmier, cake, slice of tart
  • cake-box in the shape of a little pyramid
  • cake-box in the shape of a parallelpiped (presumed to be carried)
  • pipes, cigarettes, pack of Winstons, pack of Gitanes
  • cane
  • collection box for the National Day for the Elderly
  • leash with a dog at the end
  • child's hand
  • toy car
  • blue balloon
  • boy-scout patrol flag
  • large portfolio
  • newspaper
  • carpets
  • long pole
  • crate
  • plank
  • architect's model (perhaps) [11]
  • tennis racket in a fabric cover in which one can also keep the balls
  • bouquets of flowers, held stems up
  • ugly candleholder
  • can of Ripolin



[11] "(is it really an architect's model? it resembles my idea of an architect's model; I don't see how it could be anything else)".




Emotional states explicitly stated or implicit in expressions or gestures

  • The smiling woman in a wool jacket is happy.
  • The child sliding a toy car along the windowpane is playful. So are the children playing ball in front of the church, and the children playing under the pillars of the church (who are perhaps the same children).
  • The big dog stretched out in front of the café door is peaceful.
  • The Peter Sellers lookalike is pleased.
  • The woman awaiting the 70 bus is disappointed.
  • The man who looks like Michel Mohrt is surprised (it is implied, by Perec's interminable presence).
  • The chattering clothing merchants are satisfied.
  • Two meter maids are worried.
  • The little girl weeping between her parents (or kidnappers) is unhappy.
  • Encountering two buses that can't get past one another, Policeman no. 5976 ("Michel Lonsdale") is initially confused.


Emotional states presumable in context

  • The little boy making sure he steps only on the stripes of the crosswalk may be presumed to be playful. 
  • "Walking with determination" as a list item in the sublist, "degrees of determination or motivation," indicates that walking with determination is a state Perec might have described yet did not. However, if he had done so, any person described as walking with determination might be presumed to be determined, though in fact, no one was described in this way.
  • The three people at the taxi stand each hoping to take one of the two taxis there (whose drivers are not present) may be presumed to be annoyed.
  • People at Friday's funeral may be presumed to be sad.
  • People at Saturday's wedding may be presumed to be happy.
  • The man who squats down on the sidewalk in front of the café to rummage through his briefcase may be presumed to be anxious.
  • The man who is on the lookout for taxis (of which there are none) may be presumed to be impatient.
  • The man pushing his Solex moped, and the man pushing his very new Yamaha 125 motorcycle, may be presumed to be annoyed and possibly sweaty.
  • The girl with short braids who wolfs down a baba (perhaps) may be presumed to be hungry.
  • The man who tries to enter the café by pulling the door instead of pushing may be presumed to be embarrassed and a little annoyed with himself.
  • The man in the raincoat making big gestures for no reason documented by Perec may be presumed to be eccentric.
  • After effectively intervening to assist two buses in passing one another, Policeman no. 5976 ("Michel Lonsdale") may be presumed to feel achieved and even smug.
  • The man unlocking his moped in the rain may be presumed to be annoyed that he must ride somewhere in the rain. Still, it is Sunday, so at least traffic is light. And the time is between 12:30 and 12:40, so perhaps he is on his way to spend the afternoon with his lover, or to Sunday dinner with his parents and sister.
  • The man with his left arm in a cast may be presumed to be tired of carrying whatever articles Perec did not describe using only his right arm.


Emotional states that should not be presumed despite contrary evidence

  • The lost Japanese tourist who smiles as he asks for directions may not be happy.


Categories of dogs (and numbers)

  • beautiful (1)
  • "big dog of the café" (1)
  • black (1)
  • small poodle-type (1)
  • Snowy-type (3, two of them brothers)
  • some sort of basset hound/basset hound (2, perhaps the same dog)
  • spaniel (suppositional) (1)
  • white with black spots (1)
  • undifferentiated (>6)



Categories of cats (and numbers) [12]


Places pigeons settle

  • gutter of the district council building
  • edge of one of the Saint-Sulpice fountain's basins
  • rim of the third basin of the fountain (perhaps the same basin?)
  • "plaza" (presumably the plaza grounds)
  • lamppost (lone pigeon)
  • streetlight (lone pigeon)
  • "at my feet" (presumably the plaza grounds)


  [12] There would have been cats, of course — many of Doisneau's Paris street photographs of this period depict cats — but Perec did not record even a single cat. When I realized this, I nearly threw over the entire project.  

Cars, per Perec's stated intention for the Attempt

  • unspecified cars, autos
  • 2cv (Citroën 2cv )
  • 204 (Peugeot 204)
  • Autobianchi Abarth (Autobianchi A112 Abarth)
  • Fiat, "fiat"
  • "Mehari" (Citroën Méhari [13])
  • Morris
  • Rolls Royce (possibly a limousine)
  • Volkswagen
  • Volkswagen bus
  • "car (rl?)"
  • Atlas Riesen car (presumably a car associated with the touring company)
  • unspecified taxis
  • ds taxis
  • hooded taxis
  • unspecified driving-school cars (probably from the 79 rue de Rennes auto-driving school)
  • "79 rue de Rennes auto-driving school car"
  • police cars, cop car
  • generic ambulance
  • "health service ambulance (Paris hospitals)"
  • hearse
  • toy car a child is sliding along the windowpane of the café


Three-wheeled vehicles

  • postal delivery tricycle (2)


Two-wheeled vehicles

  • generic motorcycles
  • Yamaha 125
  • generic mopeds
  • Vespas
  • Solex, velosolex (VélosoleX)
  • generic bikes
  • racing bike (attached to the back of a low car)


Vehicles with an undetermined number of wheels

  • "motorcycle-school vehicle" [a motorcycle? a motorcycle with a sidecar? something else?]




[13] The Citroën Méhari is a utility/recreational vehicle that might belong in "Trucks and Vans"; but since I removed that list, I have included it in the list: "Cars, per Perec's stated intention for the Attempt."




  • Transit buses: 63, 70, 84, 86, 87, 96
  • Walz Reisen tourist bus
  • Wehner Reisen tourist bus
  • Club Riesen Keller tourist bus
  • "German" bus (presumably for tourists)
  • Percival Tours bus
  • Globus tourist bus
  • Cityrama doubledeckers
  • Paris-Vision doubledeckers
  • "'Parisian Coach' type of buses with platforms"
  • Paris-Sud buses [14]
  • Malissard Dubernay rapid transit


[14] should the riders count as tourists, or are they just unfortunates who live in the suburbs?



Passenger density on buses

  • jam-packed
  • full [also used for café customer density]
  • nearly full
  • almost full
  • much less so [full]
  • moderately full
  • half-full
  • barely filled
  • somewhat empty
  • three-quarters empty
  • nearly empty
  • almost empty
  • empty
  • even emptier
  • absolutely empty (only the driver)
  • "(Apply the law of communicating vessels to the buses...) [15]"




[15] Communicating vessels are multiple containers connected at their bases. If you pour a fluid into one, it will pass between all communicating vessels and settle to the same level in each container, regardless of differences in shape or volume. Changing the amount of fluid in one communicating vessel changes the level in the others. For this to be applicable to buses, they would need to be able effortlessly to pass riders among themselves to equalize rider density. One assumes Perec did all this thinking as he sat, interminably, at that café table.


Colors vehicles are

  • blue (taxi, 2cv, Mercedes truck, van, florist's van, car, ds [taxi])
  • dark blue (Volkswagen)
  • green (Mehari, ds taxi, Morris)
  • apple-green (2cv, Citroën van, "car (rl?)", Rolls Royce)
  • yellow (postal van, car)
  • orange (cement mixer)
  • red (Fiat, Yamaha 125, 2cv)
  • brown (Printemps Brummell truck)
  • red and blue (cement mixer)
  • "a grayish car whose right back door is blue"


Shapes things are

  • arrow (on signs)
  • oval (the Société Roquefort badge)
  • "a sort of 'V'[...]with a kind of question mark in it" (glyph traced three times by a fairly young man in chalk on the sidewalk)
  • pyramid (cake-box)
  • parallelpiped (cake-boxes)


Itemized sounds

  • "conversations between two people" (in a sublist)
  • "conversations between three people" (in a sublist)
  • "conversations between several people" (in a sublist)
  • Geneviève Serreau saying hello to Perec
  • distant acquaintance saying hello to Perec
  • chatter of clothing merchants expressing satisfaction with their small business
  • man greeting the big dog of the café
  • overheard conversation of two customers, during which Perec learns that the reason the Saint-Sulpice bells were ringing was not a baptism as he surmised, but perhaps a wedding
  • English couple chatting in their idiom
  • lost Japanese tourists asking for directions on the street (perhaps heard, perhaps only seen through the window of the café)
  • meter man's bad coughing (perhaps heard, perhaps only seen)
  • John-Paul Aron's coughing
  • little girl's weeping
  • barking
  • whistle of Policeman no. 5976 ("Michael Lonsdale")
  • blaring of an ambulance siren
  • "The urgent sound of a car horn is audible."
  • "I sometimes hear car horns."
  • "slight noise" of a child sliding a toy car along a windowpane
  • Saint-Sulpice bell ringing (five times)


Numbers, not including times of day

  • one-sixth (that proportion of Perec's field of vision that is the sky)
  • half (-baguette, -full buses, a palmier, a dozen, an hour)
  • three-quarters (state of emptiness for a bus)
  • 1 (in a list of numerals visible from a seat in Tabac Saint-Sulpice: "1 (plaque of no. 1 rue du Vieux-Colombier)")
  • one (taxi at the taxistand, hand; many nonnumerical uses)
  • two (taxis at the taxistand, people [various categories], wheels on vehicles, mopeds currently visible, dogs, buses, minutes)
  • 2 (-cv: model of car [10 instances])
  • three (taxis at the taxistand, people [various categories], mopeds, spots where a fairly young man draws a glyph, letters a woman stamps and posts, clubs [in a bridge bid], groups of two people each)
  • four (visible one-way signs, empty benches, occupied benches, people [various categories], mode for descending stairs ["four by four"])
  • five (taxis at the taxistand, cars after a lull)
  • six (sewer workers)
  • 14 (women coming from rue de Canettes)
  • twenty (human beings on the plaza, at least)
  • 28 (l'Eure-et-Loir registration number for one of the many apple-green 2cvs)
  • forty-five (minutes Perec says he did not write, during which he eats a sausage, drinks a Bourgueil and coffees [plural], overhears a conversation he does not record, and watches his surroundings with a menacing eye)
  • 63 (bus going to Porte de la Muette; mentioned 43 times)
  • 70 (bus going to Place du Dr Hayem, Maison de l'ortf; mentioned 27 times)
  • 83 (age of woman collecting for the National Day for the Elderly [16])
  • 84 (bus going to Porte Champerret/Porte de Champerret, mentioned 3 times )
  • 86 (bus going to Saint-Germain-des-Prés/Saint-Germain-des-Près; mentioned 28 times)
  • 87 (bus going to Champ-de-Mars, mentioned 20 times)
  • 91 (motorcycles preceding the mikado's apple-green Rolls Royce)
  • 96 (bus going to Montparnasse station/Gare Montparnasse; mentioned 38 times)
  • 125 (very new red Yamaha 125)
  • "200 maybe" (pigeons asleep in the square)
  • 204 (presumably a model of car)
  • 5976 (policeman number assigned to a man who looks like Michael Lonsdale)
  • "umpteen" (number of times the 79 rue de Rennes auto-driving school car has passed)



[16] How does he learn her age? Perhaps she announces it as she enters the café.





Things observed in their absence

  • "There's no water gushing from the fountain."
  • "There is no one at the bus stop."
  • "[A man with a black satchel and] no pipe"
  • "There are only two mopeds still parked on the sidewalk in front of the café now: I didn't see the third one leave (it was a velosolex)"
  • "There are no more taxis at the taxi stand."
  • "There are no birds to be seen."
  • "[A jam-packed bus goes by, but] no Japanese."
  • "[the basins [17] are full of water, but] the lions' mouths aren't spurting out any water"
  • "For long intervals, no buses, no cars."
  • "No car."
  • The 70 bus: "An old woman shades her eyes with her hand to make out the number of the bus that's coming (I can infer from her disappointed look that she's waiting for the 70)"

[17] Presumably a basin of the fountain.





Observations not worth mentioning the first time, which subsequently rise to this level

  • Young boy in a navy blue peacoat holding a plastic bag in his hand, passing by (uncertain)
  • Proprietor of the Trois Canettes restaurant
  • (Construction) crane visible behind the hôtel Récamier ("it was there yesterday, but I don't recall making a note of it")
  • Meter maid in slacks
  • Traffic lights turning red ("they do this often")
  • 79 rue de Rennes auto-driving school car passing by ("for the umpteenth time")
  • Dark blue Volkswagen, crossing the church square
  • Stroller who looks a little like Michel Mohrt (mentioned the second and fourth time he passes)


Direct questions and speculations (paraphrased)

  • Is it curly endive in that shopping bag?
  • Is this lull related to Perec's lassitude?
  • Should this fairly young man's chalk inscription of glyphs on the sidewalk be considered land art?
  • What triggers the unified movement of the pigeons as they rouse to circle the square, then return to their perches?
  • Are the people in front of the church gathering for a funeral procession?
  • Is that dog a spaniel?
  • What did the motorcycle cop buy at the tabac? Cigarettes, a ballpoint pen, a stamp, cachous, a packet of tissues?
  • Is it time for the mailboxes to be emptied?
  • Is the girl with the short braids wolfing down a baba, or something else?
  • Why count the buses at all?
  • Does that lit window belong to the hôtel Récamier?
  • Do those lit windows belong to the hôtel Récamier?
  • Were those church bells being rung for vespers?
  • Is it really an architect's model the man is carrying, or just something that looks the way Perec imagines architect's models look?
  • What has changed here since yesterday?
  • Is the sky perhaps cloudier?
  • Has drinking coffee instead of a Vittel water transformed Perec's observations of the square, or perhaps of the square itself?
  • Did the Fountain St-Sulpice restaurant special of the day change from yesterday's cod?
  • Is the (construction) crane Perec sees behind the hôtel Récamier a long way behind it?
  • Are those birds pigeons?
  • Is that Cityrama bus full of Germans, or perhaps Japanese?
  • Might today's bus tourists today be the same people as yesterdays'  bus tourists?
  • Would someone touring Paris by bus on Friday want to do so again on Saturday?
  • Are the people entering the church tourists, or is it time for mass?
  • What is the difference between a driver who parks on the first try, and another who has to work much harder to park properly?
  • How can we understand the fabric of actual reality if we only see the rips, the flaws, the exceptional moments?
  • Why are two nuns more interesting than two other sorts of people?
  • Is the man sweeping the church steps the beadle?
  • Are the people on the suburban Paris Sud bus to be considered tourists?


Existential and philosophical questions

  • "Even when my only goal is to observe, I don't see what takes place a few meters from me; I don't notice, for example, that cars are parking"
  • "Why count the buses?[...]The rest seems random, improbable, anarchic; the buses pass by because they have to pass by, but nothing requires a car to back up, or a man to have a bag marked with a big "M" of Monoprix, or a car to be blue or apple-green, or a customer to order a coffee instead of a beer..."
  • "I have the impression that the square is almost empty (but there are at least twenty human beings in my line of sight)."
  • "A man goes by carrying an architect's model (is it really an architect's model? it resembles my idea of an architect's model; I don't see how it could be anything else)"
  • "I couldn't say whether the people I'm seeing are the same ones as yesterday, whether the cars are the same ones as yesterday. On the other hand, if the birds (pigeons) came (and why wouldn't they come) I'd feel sure they would be the same birds."
  • "The pigeons have a fixed stare. So do the people looking at them."
  • [Observing someone parking poorly] "[...]provokes attention, irony, the participation of an audience: to see not just the rips, but the fabric (But how to see the fabric if it is only the rips that make it visible: no one ever sees buses unless they're waiting for one, or unless they're waiting for someone to come off one, or unless the Paris City Transport Authority pays them a salary to count them...)"


Lessons for life

  • Demand the real thing. [Roquefort society badge in a green oval]
  • Cleaning is good, not making a mess is better [no further information in this list item]


Things the list item, "Cleaning is good, not making a mess is better," might indicate

  • A sanctimonious sign on the plaza grounds, intended to keep people from littering?
  • A placard on a bus?
  • A slightly subversive slogan for a cleanser?
  • Perec filled with righteous indignation on seeing someone litter?
  • A random thought, as Perec finds himself bored by his Attempt?


Figurative language

  • "A cloud of pigeons"
  • "Groups, in gusts"
  • "People in waves"
  • "The wind dispels the rain that had accumulated on the café awning: waves of water."
  • A baby that "lets out a brief squawking" and "looks like a bird"
  • "The traffic is what one would call fluid."
  • people or dogs described as looking like other people or dogs


Unusual words

  • anorak
  • arrondissement
  • astrakhan
  • baba
  • caduceus
  • kepi
  • mikado
  • parallelpiped
  • photophagous


Things Perec ingests

  • sausages (3)
  • Camembert sandwich
  •  (glass of) Bourguiel (2)
  • brandy, because it's cold (2)
  • Vittel water
  • Salers Gentian
  • coffees


Attempt items in which Perec foregrounds himself

  • "Lull (lassitude?)"
  • "Weary eyes. Weary words."
  • "I'm cold; I order a brandy" (twice: once in parentheses for no apparent reason)
  • Three paragraphs in which Perec wanders about, watches bridge players play out a three-clubs bid, eats while observing (but not summarizing) the events of the plaza, then settles at a new café.
  • "he holds his cigarette the same way I do (between the middle finger and the ring finger): it's the first time I've come across someone else with this habit."
  • "I want to clear my head. To read Le Monde. Take my business elsewhere."
  • One paragraph in which Perec tries but fails to purchase a copy of Le Monde and instead window-shops.
  • "It's cold, increasingly so it seems to me"
  • "                                  (fatigue)                                  "
  • "(perhaps I have only today discovered my true calling: ticket collector for the Paris City Transport Authority)"
  • "Buses pass by. I've lost all interest in them."
  • "With a menacing eye I watch the birds,  people, and vehicles pass by."
  • "Weary vision: obsessive fear of apple-green 2cvs."
  • "Unsatisfied curiosity (what I came here to find, the memory floating in this café...)"
  • "(the reputation of the neighborhood confectioners is not to be doubted)"
  • "[...]some sort of basement window (it's really too large to be a basement window)"
  • "By looking at only a single detail, for example rue Férou, and for a sufficiently long period of time (one to two minutes), one can, without any difficulty, imagine that one is in Étampes or in Bourges, or even, moreover, in some part of Vienna (Austria) where I've never been."


Things Perec describes as beautiful

  • a white dog with black spots
  • a Sherlock-Holmes style waterproof fitted coat, emphasized as "very" beautiful


Descriptions of events that could have been developed to be a little more exciting

  • "An ambulance goes by, siren blaring, then a tow truck towing a blue ds."
  • "A police car goes by, its blue light spinning[...]People running" (may not be related)
  • "Preceded by 91 motorcycles, the mikado passes by in an apple-green Rolls Royce"
  • "A little girl, flanked by her parents (or by her kidnappers) is weeping"


List items that sound mysterious or even ominous, to me anyway

  • "[...]even when my goal is to observe, I don't see what takes place a few meters from me"
  • "There is a tree just opposite the café: a piece of string is tied around the trunk of the tree."
  • "A police car slows down to a dead stop: the force of inertia makes the side door close, which a hand reopens and keeps open."
  • "A fairly young man draws a sort of "V" on the sidewalk with chalk, with a kind of question mark inside it"
  • "A woman is running across the square in front of the church."
  • "In the distance, two men are running."
  •  "People running"
  •  "A man running"
  •  "With a menacing eye I watch the birds, people, and vehicles pass by."
  • "[...]obsessive fear of apple-green 2cvs"
  • "Colors blend: a grayness that is rarely lit."
  • "Night, winter: unreal appearance of the passersby"
  • "indistinct shadows"
  •  "(what I came here to find, the memory floating in this café...)"
  •  "Ghostliness"
  •  "Moments of emptiness"


Phrases I find beautiful or evocative

  • "A basset hound. A man with a bow tie. An 86."
  • "a piece of paper difficult to identify"
  • "A young girl is eating half a palmier."
  • "Again the pigeons go round the square."
  • "Colors blend: a grayness that is rarely lit. Yellow patches. Reddish glows."
  • "For long intervals, no buses, no cars"
  • "(friend of a friend, friend of a friend of a friend)"
  • "(high heels: bent ankles)"
  • "Lots of people, lots of shadows, an empty 63; the ground is gleaming, a full 70, it seems to be raining harder."
  • "On the sidewalk there is a man shaken, but not yet ravaged, by tics"
  • "People in waves, still, continually"
  • "The bells of Saint-Sulpice begin to ring"
  • "The sun is hidden. There's some wind."
  • "(their inventory remains to be made)"
  • "they enter the café and chat in their idiom"


Phrases that I would use as the title of a story

  • "The 96 Goes to Porte de la Muette"
  •  "The Crystal Envelope"
  •  "l'Épargne à la Dérive" [phrase meaning "savings adrift"]
  • "An Inventory of Some Strictly Visible Things"
  • "Means of Traction"
  • "Three Down-and-Outs Making Classic Gestures"
  • "The 'What Do I Know?' Truck" [actual line: "A 'Que sais-je?' truck"]
  • "Ouliporn" [not actually related to a phrase in the Attempt]
  • An Attempt at Exhausting a Place



Lists I had every intention of including but for one reason or another did not

  • "Adverbs (and adverbial phrases) of frequency"
  • "Adverbs (and adverbial phrases) of place"
  • "Character frequency"[18]
  • "Items where Perec makes assumptions he can't possibly know the truth of"
  • "Pedestrian traffic patterns, deduced"
  • "References to light"
  • "Things people other than Perec ingest"
  • "Reasons the Saint-Sulpice church bells ring" [19]
  • "Times of day"
  • "Trucks and vans" [20]




[18] Characters used and frequency

  • A/a — 2517
    • à — 2
  • B/b — 619
  • C/c — 834
  • D/d — 791
  • E/e — 3345
    • É/é — 55
    • è — 5
    • ê — 1
    • ê — 1
    • ë — 3
  • F/f — 637
  • G/g — 738
  • H/h — 1287
  • I/i — 1834
    • î — 1
  • J/j — 37
  • K/k — 230
  • L/l — 1156
  • M/m — 673
  • N/n — 1807
  • O/o — 1981
    • ô — 4
  • P/p — 718
  • Q/q — 45
  • R/r — 1696
  • S/s — 2040
  • T/t — 2347
  • U/u — 801
  • V/v — 237
  • W/w — 454
  • x — 78
  • Y/y — 543
  • z — 16
  • 1 — 9
  • 2 — 17
  • 3 — 43
  • 4 — 9
  • 5 — 8
  • 6 — 111
  • 7 — 50
  • 8 — 56
  • 9 — 43
  • 0 — 32
  • , — 383
  • . — 323
  • ; — 43
  • : — 68
  • ? — 35
  • -  — 125
  • —  — 15
  • ( — 126
  • ) — 126
  • [ — 4
  • ] — 4

[19] Mostly because I wanted the list item, "baptism (suppositional)".

[20] Boring, but perhaps it might be of utility:

Trucks and vans

  • Brinks truck
  • Charpentier Transport
  • "Dunod éditeur" van
  • Fernand Carrascossa Moving
  • "Grenelle Interligne" truck
  • Kanterbraü truck
  • Printemps Brummel truck
  • Pyrénées taxi transport
  • s n c f parcels service
  • "Tony-gencyl" deliveryman (metonymy)
  • Walon Moving
  • Citroën van
  • Mercedes truck
  • cement mixer
  • florist's van
  • postal van
  • tow truck
  • undertaker's van

What I was doing on 18, 19, and 20 October, 1974

  • ninth grade [21]
  • church [22]


[21] Waverly-Shell Rock High School, Waverly, Iowa. I was in first-year French, so it is feasible that, while I waited my turn to conjugate whichever verb was next on the list, I was staring idly at the posters of Paris that papered the classroom walls — even as Perec was writing about Paris.

[22] Faith Lutheran Church (ELCA), Shell Rock, Iowa. There may have been a wedding or a funeral that weekend, just as at Saint-Sulpice, but to be honest, I wasn't paying attention.











"Attempt at Exhausting" describes its provenance in the introduction, but I guess I can add that the source material is An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, by George Perec, translated by Marc Lowenthal, published by Wakefield Press. I've been writing a series of experimental works loosely based on OuLiPo principles and processes.