Gail Scott's My Paris
(Mercury Press, 161 pages, $17.50) is a delightfully odd book. Its narrator is a flâneur, a French-Canadian writer who has been awarded an extended stay in Paris in a "leisure lottery studio", but who spends most of her time wandering the streets of Paris-both on foot and through the pages of Walter Benjamin's famous Paris arcades project, Passagenwerk
. My Paris
is a kind of diary, a flâneur-like stroll through her activities, desires, insecurities, and changing perceptions of the city.
The narrator, with characteristic humour, insists she is not a flâneur in the least. Plagued by a recurring cold and eczema, she claims: "But exhausted. So late again when slipping off cushion. Clearly not a flâneur. In late 19th-century sense of industriously strolling. I.e. practically an A-type personality."
Of course, the fact that she is unquestionably a flâneur is emphasized by Scott's diaristic style. Her sentences are choppy and incomplete, and lack conjunctions and articles. Like footfalls: "As if sentences. Like steps", explains the narrator at one point. She continues: "Driven not by predicates. But by gerund. Or back-and-forth-gesture". This creates a sense of a perpetual present tense, as though we were taking each step with her and experiencing each moment as she does. The technique is influenced by Gertrude Stein, an inspiration to the narrator both as a writer and as a lesbian exile in Paris. More than a homage, however, this style is the articulation of a unique voice. Although it is initially somewhat alienating, it soon becomes so hypnotic that we find ourselves thinking in the same cadence. Once we warm to it, the use of the gerund in place of a verb creates a convincing sense of immediacy and intimacy.
Gertrude Stein, of course, is just the beginning when it comes to the literary history and mythology of Paris. Although it is Benjamin who serves as her Baedeker, her strolls are equally influenced by Baudelaire and Hugo, as well as the history of exiled writers in Paris. Visiting café after café, she is hoping to find the Paris she has always imagined. Sometimes she comes across it-"S and friend the publisher popping into new café. Suddenly I feeling in Paris I expecting. Espresso machine bubbling"-but, increasingly, she discovers that the City of Lights is subject to the same perils as any other urban centre. Incivility, labour strife, and racism plague it, too. Her dialogues on these subjects with Benjamin ("B"), her friends, and herself form a substantial part of the text.
The writing never becomes repetitive or didactic, however. She explores the issue of immigration, of intolerance toward newcomers, with great subtlety, and brackets it with references to an extreme example by using the frequent refrain, "Raining in Sarajevo".
My Paris is a spectacular achievement, a novel/travelogue/journal that satisfies the requirements of each of these genres and transcends them all. Scott's style is solidly singular and captivating, and within it, she is incisive and amusing, political and personal à la fois.
Alana Wilcox is a Toronto writer.