I stood near the columbarium at Père Lachaise cemetery. I was there to see the locker-like vault containing the ashes of Georges Perec, kept alongside those of his aunt, Esther Bienenfeld. To the right of the plaque bearing their names and dates someone had affixed a wildflower to the wall with a Tom and Jerry sticking plaster. The columbarium contains thousands of urns stacked in a two-storey grid along one wall of the arcade. Its cloister-like arches surround the domed crematorium and its looming chimneys.
I only recently found Perec’s final resting place, even though I have been reading his work for years – first out of interest, and then as a postgraduate student. I knew he had died in 1982, aged just 45, but I hadn’t considered visiting his grave, and didn’t have any idea of its location. When you’re trying to research something – certainly when I’m trying to research something – it can be a haphazard, unhappy process, and that was my experience of my Ph.D. years spent attempting to find something original in works already pored over. Nevertheless, on occasion something unusual – something that escaped the functional framework I’d been forced to construct for myself – caught my eye, dragged me in, and these are the moments I remember most fondly from my time as a postgraduate student. Everything I wrote over those years lies on a shelf somewhere, but everything I need is carried with me: mediated by memory, brought back to me by walking the streets of Paris.
It was two years since I had spent a long day in the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal – a branch of the French National Library on the right bank of the Seine. I was reading through the copious notes that Perec had taken while walking around the French capital as part of his Lieux project, a byzantine autobiographical construction that focused on twelve places in the city known to him; the project was to have taken twelve years to complete, but was never finished. The aspect of Perec’s investigations that most intrigued me was his focus on the rue Vilin, a street where he had spent the first few years of his life before his father, a soldier, was killed in the Second World War and his mother deported to Auschwitz, where she died. Rue Vilin is in the neighbourhood of Belleville, in north-eastern Paris, and stands on hills overlooking the city centre. Perec’s Jewish family lived in an area described by his biographer David Bellos as ‘a whole Yiddish town within sight of the Eiffel Tower.’ While this street had an obvious emotional resonance for the writer, Perec sought to record his experience there as ‘simply, flatly’ as he could. A series of descriptive texts of each place made up one half of his project – the other half consisting of his memories of the same places. Perec’s descriptions of the rue Vilin capture a place that’s about to be erased: long designated a slum area, it has been marked for extensive redevelopment and reconstruction. It is far from a stable repository for Perec’s past.
Perec, having spent many years avoiding the street, eventually returned to rue Vilin accompanied by his friend Pierre Getzler. One day on the rue de l’Ermitage Perec was told by Getzler that rue Vilin was merely a couple of streets away. They called there briefly on their way back to Perec’s apartment on the Left Bank; Perec believed this to be his first visit to the street since childhood. Later, learning from Getzler that almost everything on rue Vilin was to be demolished, Perec began to integrate descriptions and memories of the place into his ever-expanding project.
The Casier reports, compiled between 1894 and 1914, had declared Belleville an îlot insalubre – unhealthy block – as part of a process of improving hygiene in Paris. Seventeen areas of Paris were designated unhealthy, and a programme of demolition and rebuilding was eventually undertaken, a policy that was pursued in earnest from the late 1950s onwards. Pierre Merlin notes of these unhealthy areas that the ‘hygienist tradition, prolonged by the modern movement, pushed for the consideration of their destruction’. As the older houses were cleared, residents were offered new housing in modern blocks. While most decaying buildings near the centre of the city were preserved or restored, whole streets at the edge of the city were destroyed to be replaced by radically different forms of housing. By the late 1960s, this process had reached îlot 7, the area in Belleville around the church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Croix, which included rue Vilin.
Perec began his description of the rue Vilin on 27 February 1969. Arriving at the foot of the street, level with no. 29 on rue des Couronnes, he notes the presence of the new HLM buildings – habitation à loyer modéré: low-rent housing – writing that they ‘already have something old about them’. At the intersection with rue Julien Lacroix, he notices a sign that reads ATTENTION ESCALIER; he explains that it refers to the stairs at the end of the street – which cannot be seen from the intersection – and that it is warning drivers that the street is a cul-de-sac. He remarks of no. 1that he has been told his mother’s parents lived there; he mentions that no.24 was the house in which he had lived. He closely observes the ladies’ hairdresser at no.24, noting that the inscription (COIFFURE DAMES) above the door is fading away – he explains that the hairdresser was run by his mother, and that he and his family lived in the building next door. Progressing up the street, crossing the waste ground at the top of the hill, he reaches the steps: ‘At the top of the steps, you come to a small crossroads, leading to the rue Piat to the left, the rue des Envierges facing you, the rue du Transvaal to the right.’ He returns after dark to find lights on in buildings he thought uninhabited.
On his second visit, on 25 June 1970, the woman in the paint shop at no. 3 mistakes Perec – large curly mop of hair, goatee beard, notebook in hand – for an official, and asks if he has come ‘to destroy us’. Again he looks for the inscription at the ladies’ hairdresser. On 13 January 1971 he sees a compulsory purchase order on the building at the corner of rue Julien Lacroix and again mentions the inscription at no. 24. Returning on 5 November 1972, his descriptions become increasingly economical, drawing closer to his aim of recording his surroundings as objectively as possible: walking up the street, he lists the buildings, or in some cases just the empty sites where buildings had previously stood. Perec is witnessing the winding down of a neighbourhood: when he returns on 24 November 1974, everything above no. 30 has been cleared, leaving waste ground at the top of the street. Although no. 24 is still standing, the buildings around it have been stripped, and an expropriation order for the creation of a public park hangs on no. 30. On 27 September 1975 he stays only briefly, noticing on the cement fence that lines one side of the road graffiti that reads: TRAVAIL = TORTURE (WORK = TORTURE). He writes no further descriptions of the rue Vilin, and his project soon grinds to a halt.
I found myself returning repeatedly to rue Vilin over the years, to try and walk the landscape and reconstruct at least something of Perec’s experience as he attempted to meticulously document the area. Even though the locale has changed beyond recognition – the street itself has been truncated, pedestrianised and, at one end, landscaped and turned into a park – I still felt some sort of odd connection with the place, filtered through Perec’s texts. I thought of him scribbling in notebooks as he moved up the hills towards the concrete staircase that had previously stood at the upper end of the street, allowing the pedestrian to climb the cliff face to the top of the hill. This street obsessed me, on some level – I know this. But I understood that my obsession wouldn’t exist without Perec’s texts.
However, I didn’t have to look far to find an altogether different depiction of the place, in the work of the Situationist International. Guy Debord’s avant-garde collective lived out the interplay between urban space and psychology in their wanderings around Paris in the 1950s. The group was drawn to investigate the subjective nature of the city, and used the term ‘psychogeography’ to refer to the psychological and emotional impressions particular to certain areas. The fast movement or drift through urban space which the Situationists believed provided a wider critique of urban society, they called the dérive. The working-class quality of the area around Belleville should have given it the sort of atmosphere that the Situationist dérive treasured. Indeed, one of Debord’s favourite places in the city was nearby: Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s Rotonde de la Villette, which looks out onto the broad basin of the Canal Saint-Martin. Métro trains rattle along a curving viaduct almost directly above the Rotonde: it’s an odd, almost beautiful place where the old and new collide. A map made by Debord in January 1957 highlighted the Rotonde, the rue d’Aubervilliers and the boulevard de la Villette as ‘unités d’ambiance’ – units of atmosphere – in the area.
Debord and Gil Wolman recorded a dérive they undertook to the quarter on 6 March 1956. Beginning near the Marais they moved rapidly towards the east and traversed the upper part of the 11th arrondissement, which through its ‘poor character of commercial standardisation’ they found to be ‘a good example of repellent petit-bourgeois landscape’. When they reached the 20th arrondissement – passing buildings that had ‘a grand air of abandon’ – they travelled through a series of narrow passageways that crossed a ‘no-man’s-land’, connecting rue de Ménilmontant to the rue des Couronnes. They had wandered into the territory that would later be documented by Perec. On the north side of the rue des Couronnes, they ‘reached by a staircase a system of alleyways of the same type [as those they had recently travelled through], but spoilt by a regrettable picturesque quality’. They then travelled northwest towards Ledoux’s Rotonde, via the small streets between the avenue Simon Bolivar and the avenue Mathurin Moreau.
The trajectory taken by Debord and Wolman places them in the vicinity of the rue Vilin. The staircase that they take to the ‘picturesque’ system of alleyways led from the top of the rue Vilin up to the rue Piat. To get to rue Vilin they would have, presumably, walked along the rue Julien Lacroix, which intersected the rue Vilin at its halfway point. The flight of steps was an unusual one, with a single, slightly curving concrete staircase which was bifurcated three-quarters of the way up to form a Y-shaped construction. It effectively bridged the height difference between the rues Vilin and Piat, the latter elevated dramatically above the former. A photograph of the staircase, taken by Willy Ronis in 1959, emphasises the peculiarity of the feature, showing a group of children crouching in a space in the shadow of the stairs. The upper part of rue Vilin, including the staircase, has latterly been expurgated from the urban environment and replaced by the parc de Belleville. To Debord and Wolman, however, the street and its steps were less intriguing than Ledoux’s Rotonde, which was the ultimate destination of their dérive. Their disdain for the area around Vilin can be partially explained by its marginal status: it falls outside the boundaries of their designated unités d’ambiance.
The rue Vilin is where Perec and the Situationists cross paths: Guy Debord had a greater connection to the area than his dismissive description would suggest. His maternal grandfather, Vicenzo Rossi, had owned a shoe factory less than a mile from the rue Vilin, and Debord’s father, Martial, had run a pharmacy on the nearby rue des Pyrénées. In spring 1936, when Guy Debord was 4 years old, his father died of tuberculosis, a disease which regularly swept through the quarter – and which the proposed slum-clearances were intended to allay. In the autumn of 1939, after the outbreak of the Second World War, the family relocated to Nice.
So, Debord, whose work eschews autobiography except on a fragmentary and refractory level, was a relatively close neighbour of Perec’s for about three years (Perec was born in 1936). Debord’s denigration of the area around rue Vilin is actually directed against a landscape which was familiar to him from childhood. This attitude fits in with the Situationists’ hostility to the constraints of family life: Debord left Nice in his teenage years to pursue a life of avant-garde rebellion. This entailed a return to Paris, but his regular haunts became the more bohemian enclaves of the Marais and Contrescarpe, rather than the industrial fringes. Nevertheless, when practicing dérives, Debord sometimes returned to working-class quarters to soak up the unique atmosphere, which he frequently sampled in the local bars.
In his early twenties Perec stood up at a meeting of the left-wing journal Arguments and spoke of how he wanted to found an avant-garde artistic group similar to the Surrealists. Years later, Perec joined an organisation that had been formed in reaction against some of the Surrealists’ central tenets – namely, the group’s belief in the power of the unfettered imagination, and their preoccupation with the products of automatic writing. The Oulipo group, co-founded by former Surrealist Raymond Queneau in 1960, substituted literary constraint in place of artistic freedom, and used formal restrictions cribbed from mathematics and science in the composition of texts. (The word ‘Oulipo’ is an abbreviation of ‘Ouvroir de littérature potentielle’ – the workshop of potential literature.) Perec, who had been suffering from writer’s block when he joined the group, thrived in this experimental literary atmosphere. In 1968 he famously wrote an entire novel, La Disparition, without using the letter ‘e’. Perec’s Lieux project, which immediately followed the writing of La Disparition, was an ambitious attempt to utilise Oulipian constraints in urban space. The city, to Perec, became a grid onto which his memories and descriptions could be plotted – literally so, as Perec drew out his plans on squared paper, in a twelve by twelve grid that served as a planning aid for his project.
The grid, according to critic Rosalind Krauss, is ‘what art looks like when it turns its back on nature’. This is what the Situationists saw when they looked at the functionalist architecture of modernists such as Le Corbusier, whose designs – intended to be mass produced – became highly influential on French post-war public housing. The Situationists made constant comparison between the gridded, concrete apartment blocks, and prison architecture, and rechristened the Swiss architect ‘Le Corbusier-Sing-Sing’. Where the Situationists saw blocks and grids as inimical to life, Perec saw possibility. At an early stage in the group’s history Oulipo defined their members as ‘rats who construct the labyrinth from which they propose to escape’. Literature, to Oulipo, is a rule-bound game; approached in this way, a structure such as the grid could be used as a climbing frame to enhance rather than restrict play. Although his Lieux project ground to a halt in the mid-1970s, the grid returned as a creative framework in the planning and execution of his masterly novel of 1978, La Vie Mode D’Emploi (Life a User’s Manual), which consisted of ninety-nine chapters plotted by Perec on a ten by ten square. In many ways his crowning achievement, the novel was the product of years of obsession with structures, plotting and creative uses of the grid.
I had been standing in Père Lachaise cemetery for some time. The longer I stood, and the further I stood back and stared, the more the squares of the columbarium began to seem like a giant chessboard. I felt humbled, but also queasy, when confronted by these walls filled with human remains. What does it mean to think of life as a game? Surely, I thought, there was nothing more human than Oulipo’s emphasis on both the inevitability of constraints and the possibility – necessity, even – of escaping those restrictions. Responsibility, rules, laws, cultural norms: not smoking on the Métro, standing to one side on escalators. These were the invisible limitations that guided our everyday lives: some things you had to do, and some places you had to be. Perec’s work illustrated to me that these constraints could be responded to creatively. I turned away from the wall of names and dates, taking a last look at Perec’s memorial plaque. I walked back towards the entrance to the graveyard, in the direction of Paris: I had somewhere to be.