Sunday, December 23, 2007

Things seen at Mabillon Junction

An alternative to soundwalks is to stay in one place and record the sounds heard over a period of time. Or, one could enumerate things seen... Georges Perec's Tentative de description de choses vues au carrefour Mabillon le 19 mai 1978 was a two-hour edited condensation of a day in which the writer used a mobile recording studio at Place Mabillon in Paris to describe everything he saw over the course of a day. I've never heard this, but David Bellos describes the finished product, broadcast on French radio in February 1979, as 'a hallucinatory audio experience' where repetition turns into rhythm: 'no one but Perec could have had the combination of self-restraint (he never comments on what he sees, he just says, another 68 bus, three red cars, a lady with a dog...), modesty, and sheer gall to carry on for hours on end, to the end.' (Georges Perec: A Life in Words p640).

While on the subject of Perec, I can't resist noting on a landscape theme that the main character in his magnum opus, Life A User's Manual, spent twenty years travelling the world painting watercolours of sea ports. Having completed each one in to an identical format, the artist, Percival Bartlebooth, sent them to a craftsman, Gaspard Winckler, to have them made into increasingly complex jigsaws. For another twenty years, Bartlebooth would complete these jigsaws at the same rate at which he had painted the original seascapes, one a fortnight. As he went along, each painting was removed from its backing, returned to the original spot at which it had been painted twenty years earlier, and then erased so that the final product was a fresh sheet of watercolour paper. However, Bartlebooth died (on the night the novel is set) before he could complete the great project. The puzzle he was working on at the end depicted 'a little port in the Dardenelles, at the mouth of the river which the Ancient Greeks called Maiandros, Meander.' As David Bellos remarks, 'the story of Meander figures both the tortuousness of attempts to defer the moment of dying and the impossibility of doing so forever.'

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