Tuesday, December 8, 2015

two things and George Perec

Here's two things, from the many things, Stephen King advised in his book 'On Writing': “In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech. You may wonder where the plot is in all of this. The answer—my answer, anyway—is nowhere.”
The second thing. “Nobody is “the bad guy” or “the best friend” or “the whore with a heart of gold” in real life; in real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist, the big cheese; the camera is on us, baby. If you can bring this attitude into your fiction, you may not find it easier to create brilliant characters, but it will be harder for you to create the sort of one-dimensional dopes that populate so much pop fiction.”
Of the many writing tips in King's book these two things hit me full on this week. I struggled with a secondary character, found her too simplistic too informational. After all she was there to give information, to move the plot forward.
It soured me writing it - but the story needed this to get from A to B. Reading these, I knew this secondary character needed to exist in a sensory world, she needed to come to life and her world too. Even if for a brief memorable few pages. I could see her, the apartment, the light, hear the noises on the stairway. I mentally sat down across from her and re-worked this apartment scene.
The best friend, the concierge with a nose for other people's business, felt stereotypical. If they'd become stereotypes after Simenon's novels with Inspector Maigret it was because his concierges jumped off the page. King said in real life each of us regard ourselves as the main character - so whether it's a walk on, a secondary character, the salesgirl in the YSL boutique or it's, as King says, we're the big cheese, the camera is on us, baby.' Not one dimensional even if you rate a paragraph. I'd never read George Perec, once the enfant-terrible of the French literary world. He was famous for writing a book that had no 'e's in it or words with 'e's I guess. I never read it. But I got hold of a novella 'An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris.'
This novella consists of Perec's chronicling all the the people and things he saw over three days in the square fronting Saint Sulpice church in Paris. At the time he wrote this, the square had three café's one of which was a café-tabac. Now it has one café. Perec wrote from inside the cafe's, from a bench in the square by the fountain for three days. That's his book.
One overcast weekend in October 1974, he set out in quest of the "infraordinary": the humdrum, the non-event, the everyday--"what happens," as he put it, "when nothing happens." His choice of locale was Place Saint-Sulpice, where, ensconced behind first one café window, then another, he spent three days recording everything to pass through his field of vision: the people walking by; the buses and driving-school cars caught in their routes; the pigeons moving suddenly en masse; a wedding (and then a funeral) at the church in the center of the square; the signs, symbols and slogans littering everything; and the darkness that finally absorbs it all.
In An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, Perec compiled a melancholic, slightly eerie and oddly touching document in which existence boils down to rhythm, writing turns into time and the line between the empirical and the surreal grows surprisingly thin.
I tried to picture it as he saw it and as it is now. Not that different or the people or busses that cross it. Like a study in observation, a slice of the daily life in the quartier. Would I have noted what he did? Why did he slavishly record these details? What did he mean to say, to express? A review said he'd lost his parents in the Holocaust. Anaïs Nin said 'we write to experience life twice.'


  1. You have given me a wake up call to once more read "A Writing Life," as I'll be using it again to teach my Mystery Writing course this January. But this term I think I'll add a bit from "Black on Noir," as I love your line... "existence boils down to rhythm, writing turns into time and the line between the empirical and the surreal grows surprisingly thin."

    Great piece, Cara.

  2. You have convinced me too, Cara. I never read "A writing Life." I am afraid of books that tell what I am supposed to do, because I never think I can do what they advise. But you make Steven King's sound like I might have a chance of understanding it.

  3. The book is partly biographical and that in itself is interesting.

  4. Now I have access to my books, which have been in storage for two years, I can dig out my copy of King's ON WRITING and re-read it. Thanks for reminding me!

    Just one minor point, though. One-dimensional is a mathematical construct. They'd have to be two-dimensional as opposed to fully formed and three-dimensional :))

    I'll get me coat ...