Gail Scott’s new novel My Paris poses simultaneously as a travel diary, a city guide, and a collection of “ends of sentences.” A palimpsest of the postcolonial metropolis on Gertrude Stein’s mythologized City of Light, the novel also tangos with the work of German writer and theorist Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), who described Paris’s 19th-century shopping arcades and the flâneur (an idle urban stroller) in a unique analytic style. The narrator’s own experiences strolling through Paris are juxtaposed with and subvert her preconceptions about the city and about travel in general. Gail Scott’s previous books include the novels Heroine and Main Brides and the short story collection Spare Parts. She is also a founding editor of Spirale, a French-language cultural journal, and Tessera, a bilingual journal of women’s writing. We met in a Mile-End café and our meandering conversation was reminiscent of Benjamin’s own montage of quotations, discursively touring the gray areas between travel and anti-travel, gay and straight, subject and object, equality and conformity, and between one century and the next.
CF: Let’s start with B: Walter Benjamin. Tell me about his influence on My Paris.
GS: Both [Gertrude] Stein and Benjamin stroll through My Paris as literary ghosts. Benjamin is there in a particularly intimate way, almost a friend or lover whom she calls B and whose Arcades Project [Paris: Capitale du XIXe siécle] she reads in bed every morning. It becomes a site map for her exploration of Paris, but more than that, the work starts to infuse her way of thinking. The Arcades Project is actually a huge pile of detritus, 19th-century quotes and anecdotes, put together in a series of montages. Benjamin was looking for a way to write a history based on found objects, juxtaposed in unexpected or contradictory ways, in order to continually challenge the biases of both the historian and the reader. The point was to make the historian, as a writing subject, not disappear but become a construction of the whole. My Paris isn’t exactly a montage, but in a way the diary form is a montage, like it or not. It’s discontinuous. Sometimes things are juxtaposed in a shocking manner. For example the action in the men’s clothing shop window across from her studio on boulevard Raspail, always changing. There’s almost more action in shop windows than in real life.
CF: Those juxtapositions really struck me, like Bambi going by on the bus. They’re brilliant: very disruptive of the expected trajectory of narrative. Which came first, the idea for the novel, or your interest in the Arcades Project?
GS: Well, to answer sort of anecdotally, somebody gave me the book as a present and I went to Paris with it. And I wrote a diary, but all the time I was reading Walter Benjamin. At first I thought the diary would be a straightforward travel diary. But a so-called straightforward travel diary—there are tons of them around these days—features an essentially 19th century traveller: the One sucking up the exoticism of the Other. The old Imperialist model. Certainly that long careful reading I did of Benjamin in Paris showed me other narrative options. As reading Stein suggests other syntactical options. But whatever is learned from Benjamin or Stein gets subsumed into the artistic needs of the late 90s diary and character. The dead authors become traces in the work, clashing with new technologies and life in the streets now, which is both the same as and very different from life in the streets when they wrote.
CF: Had you been interested in Benjamin before?
GS: Oh yeah. I’ve been reading Benjamin for a long long time, ever since I was in the Left in the 70s. He’s somebody who really understood that place between Marxism and what they call the superstructure or means of production of culture, which I don’t think many Marxists really understood. He understood it without having to reject Marxism altogether. Or some kind of leftist thinking, not necessarily orthodox Marxism. Benjamin’s also in Main Brides, there are references to him. As a left person and later a feminist, I learned from writers like Benjamin and the Surrealists how to remain fluid in my thinking, to learn from these crucial movements without conceding, artistically, to the dogmatism that political movements, with their particular tasks, run the eternal risk of projecting.
CF: What about the flâneur. According to Benjamin, the flâneur as a historical persona vanished with the advent of modernism, but continued to be a rich allegorical figure. The narrator in My Paris is a flâneuse of sorts, but doesn’t feel comfortable in that role either. Do you see the flâneur as a useful figure for interpreting the contemporary city, or is it too problematic today?
GS: One interesting thing in the Arcades Project is that the flâneur has to find a means of economic survival at some point... The first flâneurs in 19th-century Paris were the sons of rich men protesting Daddy’s money—made on the backs of factory workers in the industrial revolution—by leaning against walls, wearing cloaks lined with scarlet. One incarnation of the flâneur was the dandy, who was picking up boys, mostly. The Oscar Wilde figure is a classic flâneur. But Benjamin points out that at a certain point the flâneur has to start surviving so he becomes a journalist and sells his observations; thus the flâneur becomes a complete mockery of what he represented in the beginning: resistance/flaunting representation of the increasing monotony of capitalism.
CF: You can’t escape economics.
GS: Right. But I still hear people talking about flânerie in Paris and it just strikes me as being completely ludicrous. A professor on sabbatical, or a person on their junior year abroad, or a writer, like myself, who gets a grant to a very comfortable studio, does not represent, unless she finds some very original way to live, the spirit of resistance and enforced marginality that the early flâneur aimed for. The flâneur flaunted his sloth in an insulting manner. Another point that Benjamin makes, that then gets juxtaposed on my own text, is who are the real flâneurs today? In Paris they’re the homeless people looking for cobblestones that aren’t too bumpy to sleep on. Or the sans papiers, refugees. Those are the flâneurs today.
CF: There are certain words from Benjamin that you fix on and use repeatedly, like physiognomy. What does that mean for you in the text?
GS: That’s a hard question, partly because the face in the crowd is one of the things I go back to again and again in my work, without getting to the bottom. Main Brides might be considered, on some level, an obsession with the face of the stranger. Anyway, there is the notion that the flâneur collects physiognomies. And inasmuch as [the narrator] has residues of this desire to be a flâneur I guess physiognomies are one of the things that she tries to collect, except it’s always so fleeting. I think some of her most successful attempts to do that are with faces she sees on TV. She certainly has a romantic idea when she gets to Paris that she’s going to be this flâneur, but she just doesn’t know where to go. She doesn’t know how to do it. She’s too timid, whimsical. Spends hours getting dressed to get lost in the crowd. Goes into cafés and looks at herself in the mirror, or looks at other people looking at themselves in the mirror, instead of actually walking around looking into faces and saying, I can tell a whole story from that face.
CF: Whimsical is another resonant word. The flâneur is whimsical, and the narrator seems modelled on that.
GS: Was the flâneur whimsical? I don’t think so. I think the flâneur took himself very seriously. And that’s precisely what she can’t do.
CF: There are references in the novel, for example, to the flâneur walking a tortoise in the arcades, and Benjamin has a quote about Nerval with a lobster on a leash. That’s the kind of whimsy I’m talking about.
GS: But I think the difference, and this is the difference between the 19th century and now, is that the flâneur had a kind of ironic stance, the flâneur’s flaunting of himself in his outfit was very ironic, and I think that’s very 19th-century and it requires someone who considers themselves a fairly well-constituted subject. Whereas this character is not ironic, she’s parodic. She’s in a different space—and we never know whether she doesn’t make it as a full subject because she doesn’t know how, or if, as she implies, she’s making herself minuscule, inconsequential, the better to not over-influence her story with her own subjectivity. In fact, the flâneur is lost in the crowd but is also in full control of his own individuality, Benjamin says. And that’s different from her clownish, Chaplinesque posture. Which is far more deconstructed in a way.
CF: More of an object than a subject?
GS: I think she marks a place where, in interesting prose today, which is not much prose [laughing], the subject has gotten displaced—between the subject and the object as opposed to being here, with the object over there. The whimsy has to do with that.
CF: Alright. Now GS: the review in The Globe and Mail calls you a Québecoise Gertrude Stein. What do you think?
GS: Well, I think that the person writing that review of the book didn’t get it. She didn’t get the fact that the narrator of the book has in fact a love-hate relationship with everything Stein and the expatriates represented. On one hand she totally admires Stein’s work. And I do think Stein is one of the greatest 20th-century writers. But at the same time she doesn’t want to have the kind of relationship to the world around her that these people had—they seemed to be defined to some extent by what was happening in the expatriate milieu, or bounded by it. The problems of others, the economic situation of ordinary Parisians, for example, rarely comes up as an issue. [James] Baldwin, not surprisingly, was an exception. The Globe and Mail reviewer didn’t see the parody.
CF: What is it about Gertrude Stein’s relationship to the world around her that you find problematic?
GS: There is Stein the persona and there is the writing. We can reframe with hindsight the limitations of her vision, her republican enthusiasm. Basically, Stein noticed that the Americans, in inventing the automobile, were inventing the 20th century, but she didn’t notice the Imperialist payback. I mean, the automobile is a very fraught sign for everything that was to come after. It’s true: it changed our world. It changed our lives, provided us with tremendous mobility. But, will the planet be around a century from now, given the automobile? So that’s not a useful trope anymore. At the same time, the way the automobile moves, and even the way it is produced, were picked up in Stein’s sentences. Her ability to see how extraordinary that invention was as a defining element of her epoch helped her revolutionize narration.
CF: Another intertext is from Balzac: the narrator’s favourite Balzac heroine is The Girl with the Golden Eyes. Why is that character important to her?
GS: Well, she’s like that person in a way. I mean, she would love to live this cloistered life where someone else takes care of her. At the same time, the Balzac heroine has a kind of split desire: she’s sequestered by the Marquise and likes that a lot but at the same time she desires the Tom who’s prowling around the tuileries and running after her.
CF: She’s between hetero- and homo-sexuality.
GS: Right. And I think the character in this book, she’s not bisexual by any means, but she’s (a) trying to avoid categories all the time, and (b) phenomenally interested in the question of exotic beauty which for her the Balzac heroine represents.
CF: There’s a really Orientalist portrayal of her in the Balzac story. By identifying with the girl with the golden eyes, is the narrator trying to turn herself into an exotic, Orientalized object, a figure from “the South?”
GS: She might desire to make herself an Orientalized figure. I certainly don’t think she succeeds. I think she probably does have some desire to do that.
CF: It’s interesting that there’s a slippage for the Western subject from desiring that Orientalized figure to desiring to become that figure.
GS: Right. But without any of the inconveniences of being that figure. Because she doesn’t want to be deported, she doesn’t want to live like the Algerians in Paris, or First Nations people here, or young Africans, whom the police see as perpetual culprits. She wants to live in her nice surroundings. I mean that’s one of her contradictions—in some ways she’s a very typical Western traveller.
CF: Mmm. What about Canadians in Paris? While writing this novel, or in general, do you feel a connection to Canadian expats such as Mavis Gallant or John Glassco? That tradition?
GS: Certainly not Mavis Gallant. I think she’s an important writer, but I don’t think she belongs to the same current in writing as I do. Wherever I go and whatever I do, I’m always looking for this thing that I think of as being about subversion, contradiction. The writer through her story-telling proposes new ways of seeing. Every writer does this in some way. But some choose the more direct, witnessing end of the scale, in terms of intention. I love John Glassco’s book about Paris [Memoirs of Montparnasse] but I don’t really identify with it either. Partly because he comes from the “other Montreal” I suppose.
CF: A colleague, Justin Edwards, pointed out to me that John Glassco constructs and perpetuates the “Lost Generation” myth without ever talking about being gay. Mavis Gallant also mythologizes Paris, and while she’s never come out as a lesbian, that seems to be a submerged theme in some of her stories. My Paris is somehow similar to but the opposite of their writing in that it “outs” that experience of Paris.
GS: Right. I would agree with that. But I also think that My Paris is a quest for something else that comes from a whole political tradition that I don’t think either of those writers are interested in, from what I can see.
CF: I found the way the intertexts are introduced really interesting. You refer to Walter Benjamin early on, then you start to call him B. Just as all the friends are named P, S, C, etc. That really integrates him into the social sphere. So I was wondering, while you were writing this book, how did you experience that relationship to these other texts?
GS: The narrator, as she becomes more and more intimate with Benjamin, reduces him to B. She also provides him with a double, her friend R from Winnipeg who looks like B. But her almost porous, inconsequential persona makes her incapable of real relationships—until the coda when she redoes the whole city in a fast take as a lover.
CF: So there’s a kind of confusion between the experience of the text you’re reading, the Benjamin text, and the experience of the “real” people.
GS: Oh absolutely. In that respect I think the Paris she experiences is very much a text. But then I think probably everything is text. Except sex maybe.
CF: I was thinking that all of your novels are some kind of travel writing.
GS: Nobody’s ever said that to me before! They’re always saying, oh the narrator’s so stationary, she’s either lying in a tub or sitting in a bar...
CF: No, but it’s true. Take the protagonist in Heroine: She arrives in Montréal from elsewhere, in search of a new experience of self. And although it becomes her home, it’s very much a site of exploration for her, and a means of escape. She lives in the Waikiki Tourist Rooms, after all. In Main Brides, there’s a lot of travel: at least in the portraits she continually imagines herself elsewhere.
GS: That’s true. I never thought of that before.
CF: Your new novel, though, is the most specifically a travel story. Why did you choose Paris as a destination?
GS: Well, first of all it was the luck of the draw because I won this studio. The leisure-lottery studio, her friends called it. But Paris for many many reasons. First of all, I think Paris belongs to the Western world. I mean you can’t look at Western 20th-century literature—until the advent of post-colonialism and the rise of minority culture writing—and not trace it directly or indirectly, to something that happened in France—the Surrealists, New Wave film, post-structuralism etc., May ‘68 was phenomenally important, Kurt Schwitters, all that stuff. So Paris in Western culture is huge. To me it makes a lot of sense to go there. London doesn’t do that for me personally. I just don’t see another single city like Paris in terms of being able to look back at the century and see what’s happened in the “tradition” of white avant-garde writing.
CF: So you feel a part of the Western tradition that is centred in Paris...
GS: I feel a part of the, for want of a better word, avant-garde tradition (that’s an oxymoron), which has roots in Paris. I don’t think it’s centred in Paris anymore. Paris is too expensive to produce the kind of easy-going excitement that the great exchange rates produced for writers in the 30s and 40s. That’s why you’re in Montréal now, right?
CF: Right. It’s cheap. That’s one reason. In the book, though, the narrator doesn’t really come in contact with those roots that she’s ostensibly looking for.
GS: No, she doesn’t. Well, she does between the covers of books and in occasional conversations. I mean, she can walk through the neighbourhood. She lives in one of the neighbourhoods that Proust lived in. Right around the corner from Gertrude Stein. Joyce lived half a block down. So she’s kind of surrounded. At the same time, contemporary Paris, with its huge minority communities, and the endless influx of refugees, upsets the romantic notions of Paris completely, including the notion implicit in the word “roots.” That’s the weird thing about Paris. It’s completely packed with history, beauty, memories, references, all the time. And yet, as in all major metropolises, survival is really the outstanding issue.
CF: According to the mayor quoted in the novel you need at least $4,000 a month to live there.
GS: Yeah. Even then. I mean, part of her thing about going to Paris, because she’s gay, is that she wants to find her “women of the left bank.” And who were they in the 20s or the 30s? They were people who had tons of money or had friends who had tons of money. None of the women she meets on the left bank have two cents to rub together. They’re all, virtually, blue-collar workers. Most of them have been through various struggles, various left-wing struggles—in Paris some women still walk around in peaked caps! It’s just not the Paris of expatriate writing any more at all.
CF: One aspect of the travel experience in the novel is constant paranoia. The imperative of passing as a native, as a Parisian. Do you think that’s a universal feature of travel, or is it a part of the post-colonial, centre-periphery dynamic? Does going to Paris from Canada involve searching for colonial roots?
GS: I think, for one thing, she makes it very clear in the book that she’s not authentic Québecoise. So she’s not searching for roots in the way a total francophone would be searching for roots and for whom that’s no joke because it’s the one place on Earth that nourishes the language of the francophonie—nourishes and at the same time mocks writing/language from the so-called margins. But that culture is necessary for the survival of this Québécois culture. She’s presented as a kind of half-and-half person who is looking more for a literary tradition than she is for a language. The post-colonial thing—I wanted to play a little bit with the whole business of being Canadian and travelling. I remember when I was a student and travelling in Eastern Europe, I naively thought people would be nice to me when they learned I was from Canada. But they just said, oh, like America! And I protested. No! No! But the Canadian thing is so contradictory. First of all it’s this business of being a non-nation that can’t seem to coalesce into what a republic represents. What is a republic? The French Revolution, for example, was in theory about equalizing subjects, protecting them so that each person could stand as an individual in Liberty, Fraternity, whatever.
CF: The preservation of our Western concept of individuality, essentially.
GS: Exactly. In Canada we buy into that and at the same time we pretend we don’t. On the one hand we’re the vertical mosaic and on the other there’s this constant struggle for the dominance of one culture over another. Canadian history just crawls with appalling incidents of that. So how does an anglo-Québécoise situate herself in travel? I saw this person as having a literary mission, a writing mission. So the place she could situate herself was in sentences. Not anywhere else.
CF: Not in a nationality certainly.
GS: No. So then the question is what kind of sentences. Which is why there’s this constant examination of Stein’s sentences with their big subject sucking up all the action generated by predicates. Again, Gertrude Stein said that the sentences were kind of like automobiles going across a landscape. So here’s this other person who comes not only from Canada but from Québec. You know: the whole question of nation-state, complete disaster. And in Québec even more than in the rest of Canada there is a strong republican desire. On one hand she’s appalled that it takes so much military hardware to prop up this notion of the individual—which we don’t see in Canada, everyone knows that our military is a joke—and on the other hand she’s very wary of creating, in her writing, the strongly bounded subject which in a sense is the literary equivalent of republicanism. So she’s looking for something else. And that’s why her sentences get smaller and smaller. With present participles which are kind of a way of looking backwards and forwards at the same time but not necessarily going anywhere. Maybe it’s in answer to that Globe and Mail review [by Stan Persky, of Main Brides] which said, you know, there’s no action in this novel. So here I invented a sentence where, really, nothing happens. I think that the desire to make herself small enough to take in the world in a way that she considers acceptable as a traveller—to get back to the post-colonial thing—acknowledges her own failures and her country’s failures to be non-racist. She somehow thinks if she can make herself small and porous enough she’ll be able to empathize with everything, every aspect of life in contemporary Paris. Maybe find a different way to narrate this. At the same time, she’s aware of the impossibility and hypocrisy of her own situation. Because while she tries to become smaller and more absorbant, eventually she ceases to exist as a person. And the less bounded she tries to be, the more paranoid she gets. She never gets laid in Paris, not the first trip. And when she returns with a lover, she doesn’t see the city. It’s all fogged in. As if she can’t find her place as a subject. And in this book, the difficulty of achieving subject status has little to do with feminism. I mean I’ve learned things from feminism that I’ve applied, but here the focus is not feminism at all.
CF: Hm. It surprises me to hear you say that. But we’ll get to that in a few minutes. I want to ask you more about republicanism. At first I thought the observations about republicans were incidental, but then I realized that in fact republicanism is fundamental to neo-Imperialism. Could the drive to assert one’s individuality—one’s sovereignty—ultimately lead to Imperialism?
GS: Well that seems to be the contemporary version but don’t forget that some of the greatest Imperialists of all were the Brits. Contemporaneously, there is no doubt that America rules the world. Small-r republicanism, which she refers to in the novel when she talks about Benjamin talking about Poe’s “Man of the Crowd”—the dangers of a notion of Equality where everyone is the same—is a metaphor for the endless thrust of the Imperial power towards hegemony of ideas and culture. But then, since there’s always a contradiction, if you look at the United States, it’s remarkably multi-cultural, increasingly so. Developments that perhaps point to the new millennium.
CF: If America or France as republics have this government-sanctioned sense of individuality, a unified self, does that make Canada, as a non-national country without the same unified identity, a more suitable place for writing a de-centered, post-modern subject? Or is that just an excuse for finding our own sort of agency in post-modernism?
GS: Or the whatever-comes-after-post-modern. Well, one would like to think it might. So far, there is not a lot of evidence for that in the Canadian novel. I think Canadians have a very fraught relationship with this stuff. I mean the narrator talks sometimes about how she likes the present participle because she can look backwards and look forwards at the same time. But she has problems staying in the present. She’s always got one foot in the 19th century. And hopefully one in the 21st. In Canada, we haven’t had a bourgeois revolution. We missed that stage somehow. Unfortunately, instead of looking forward to new possibilities, we are hopelessly nostalgic for some kind of dominance of a “national dream” that only suits part of the population: not Québec; not First Nations people, among others.
CF: That’s why you say Canada has a 19th-century mentality.
GS: Yes. But in a way what I’m trying to say in the book is: all you can do is put little things together. You can’t come up with big answers. So as soon as she puts something together she finds another element that contradicts that, and that changes what came before and what comes after. A huge puzzle...
CF: One curious thing in the novel is the way you use bold typefaces. All the place names, for example, the cafés, the famous buildings, the legendary bars, are in bold—in other words it’s dressed up like a travel guide. But it’s also antithetical to that. Is that a comment on travel guides, or travel in general?
GS: Well, in a way it could be a travel guide, I think. I mean it won’t turn up anything fantastically exciting. A café here, a café there. But actually with the bold text I was also thinking of old surrealist books which would occasionally put words in bold. Often in documents from that period people would put, not necessarily place names, but various things in bold. Because they were very interested in signs. It over-emphasizes that words are just signs, everything is a sign. So the signs that are literally signs, the place names, get to be signed twice.
CF: It’s funny because the premise of a travel guide is that a travel experience can be replicated. That one person can write about their trip, and then another person can read it and, by following the instructions, have a similar experience. Whereas the novel is so much about not having the experience you expected. I mean, Benjamin attempted to write a history in montage in order to disrupt linear thinking, but you took his history as a kind of travel guide. And because this guide is so disconnected, so aleatory, it disrupts the narrative of travel, the idea of travel as a story that can be re-lived by others.
GS: Well, it kind of raises the problem of direct representation, which we know from reading old travel guides—and you and Dana [Bath] know from the work you’ve been doing with travel writing—is incredibly problematic. I think one reason it took me so long to write this book was that I had to find a way to write it that really evacuated (to use a Gallicism) as much as possible that issue of who speaks. Travel writing can never be representational. You know, the best travel book I ever read, I can’t remember the name of it, but it’s by a British woman who rides a horse through the mountains of Andalusia, and the whole book is about her relationship with this old nag that she got cheated on when she bought it somewhere in Spain. It’s perfect.
CF: That would be a perfect example of anti-travel writing, in my understanding. Where it’s not about the Imperial subject sopping up observations of the exotic landscape, it’s about the traveller’s subjecthood intersecting with other subjects, or being called into question. Does the phrase anti-travel writing mean anything to you? Is it a phrase you would apply to My Paris?
GS: Well, I don’t know if my book is anti-travel writing. I think I try to avoid naming extremes, you know. I don’t want it to be this, that, or the other thing so much as to profoundly question what the whole activity might be. Could be. Anti implies that there’s a For. I did want to do something different than travel writing. In the beginning, these little funny sentences started to creep in. And I thought, now look Gail. For once in your life you’ve got a book that’s maybe going to make you some money. Don’t spoil it! And the more I tried not to, the more these sentences crept in. I kept showing it to people and saying, do you think I can use these?
CF: And the more you thought about it the more you couldn’t resist the impulse to spoil it.
GS: Spoil in the sense of using unusual grammar, grammar that questions the subject/object relationship in the sentence—as a conduit for questioning the same relationship in travel writing. Ultimately it’s more satisfactory, for me—and, I hope, the reader. So that’s what happened. In the studio, she travels as much on TV as she does in the city of Paris. Which she already thinks she knows from all the books she’s read, all the TV programmes, all the movies. So one of the issues is, if people travel to have experiences, well, experiences are not that easy to have, especially in a place like Paris that’s been so mythologized already. I experience Paris more like techno music or something—coming at you all over the place. And for me the whole question in writing My Paris was how to put the writing subject in a posture that would allow her to take in the city as densely as possible and at the same time juxtapose that against her hackneyed ideas, expectations, and very privileged white Westerner travel possibilities, you know, that other people don’t have. She’s walking around aware that people without papers are trying to not get thrown out of the country, because they’ve escaped from some war somewhere in Africa, or from Eastern Europe. People are jumping into the Seine because they don’t have the proper identity papers or they’re hiding behind posts in the subway at 5:30 in the morning while they sneak off to their under-paid exploitative job. So I mean, what is a traveller today? Who is a traveller?
CF: In the interview with Diana Tegenkamp, you said that the narrator of My Paris is not a real nomad. Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of deterritorialization, as a linguistic shift rather than a geographic one, seems more apt. Does she go to Paris in order to experience a linguistic deterritorialization?
GS: I’ll read you something I wrote about deterritorialization:
She is barely more deterritorialized than she is at home. The city is strange but so is what she sees on TV—the substitute for Sherlock Holmes’ 19th-century fire. Nomadism isn’t really about travelling. The exotic and new experience is getting harder and harder to find. The question here is more about how we are in relationship to community, country, gender, world. Something is breaking down. Identity is becoming a parody of itself as people drift and merge in new cultures. Virilio says the real nomads in the 21st century will be the poor, the people without countries, etc. We already see this in cities like Paris. The rich will stay home or go to outer space on vacation. Totally equipped and outfitted. Which I guess gets one out of the nomad category.
CF: Is it possible to be a nomad within your own language?
GS: For me, a place like Paris permits me to be somewhat of a nomad in my own language, just as Québec does. But even this is mediated by so much speaking and reading and living in French. In Paris people just laugh their heads off at my accent. At first they think I’m Québecoise and they adopt this really sympathetic posture, then English comes out invariably and they don’t know what to do.
CF: It’s a sympathetic reaction to the Québecois accent? Not patronizing?
GS: Well, maybe patronizing but sympathetic. But it’s hard for them to be sympathetic to an English accent, when English is the boss of the world. So it puts them in a real weird situation and me too. But that Deleuzian notion of deterritorialization is really at play in the way French affects my English. Even the use of verbs—participles don’t work really in French, but—the idea that English tends to be a far more descriptive language, while French is more intervening. I think nobody has ever looked at this in Stein and it would be interesting if they did: how the influence of living in Paris made her focus so much on verbs in writing English.
CF: Stein did talk about how being in Paris allowed her language to change because it was in isolation.
GS: But that’s the interesting thing about the expatriates of that period: that they did think of themselves as isolated. That’s impossible today, for us. I don’t think we can live like that anymore.
CF: Does that problematize the comparison between those expats in Paris and, for example, English Canadians coming to live in Montréal?
GS: I think yes and no. Being Canadian or being in Canada gives us a very conflicted and hypocritical relationship, historically speaking, towards the French language. Most people who come here already have some background in French; simultaneously, there is a malaise around language that signals all is not right, which comes from a fundamental dichotomy in Canadian history. Is there a guilt factor involved? Must one either feel guilty or closed off? So, you see, it’s not quite the same thing.
CF: For English Canadians who come here, I think there’s a general feeling that you’re not fully experiencing life in Montréal unless you’re integrated somewhat into the French-speaking community. Although most of us fail or succeed at that in varying degrees. But the “Lost Generation” in Paris, a lot of them never learned any French—Stein for example—and took a certain pride in that. There’s that quote from Stein that “foreigners should be foreigners”—that there’s no point in being there if you’re going to go native, so to speak.
GS: Right. Also there’s a whole question of consciousness, awareness, that marks books about other places from any epoch. I think in the 19th-century travelogue, for example, the point was to go to the most exotic place possible and to bring back as many exotic objects as possible. It implies a kind of Imperialist self-other relationship that I think is muted today by the fact that, first of all, we come from such mixed backgrounds ourselves, most of us, but also because we live in a time when people are talking about post-colonialism. You can’t ignore that when you’re writing a book about travel. In the big cities of the world today the Imperialist chickens are coming home to roost as it were. People of former colonies—whose countries the West has destroyed by creating false boundaries so that they’re in constant strife—have totally transformed the face of Western cities.
CF: Is there a sense in which the exotic, as a concept, has lost its meaning?
GS: I think when it pops up it’s extremely suspect. That doesn’t mean we’re not all prey to it. In some ways we still have that desire. Part of her big disappointment about being in Paris is the Paris she’s missing, that she keeps talking about and just can’t find. On one hand, it’s the Paris she read about in literature departments; on the other, it’s the very contemporaneous one, with North African music and mint in the margins, as she puts it.
Feminism & Postmodernism
GS: I’d like you to tell me why you were surprised about what I said about feminism.
CF: Well, because I think the postcolonial themes in the book are in some sense inseparable from feminism. Also, I see the main project of the book, and what I think it really accomplishes, as finding a way beyond the feminist/ postmodernist problem. The idea that in postmodernism you have a decentered subject, a fluid and inconstant identity, and yet feminist and postcolonial movements rely on having a stable self, an identity to defend and promote.
GS: The strategies I’ve learned that I try to apply in my work are definitely strategies learned from feminist attempts to express women in language. But not all feminist writing is about having a stable self. Some of us were trying to re-situate our selves as some other kind of subject less bounded, after deconstruction, when the subject, the self, was considered dead—which we all knew wasn’t true. Particularly feminists and visible minorities knew this wasn’t true. But in this book, I think the subject is more queer than feminist. She’s more uncertain about how she’s seen in the world and how she is in the world. She distances herself from feminism, both in the Sarajevo parade and when she sees the feminist on the sidewalk fasting as a protest against rape in Sarajevo. She’s not really quite there. And she walks around in this black suit which is very non-gendered in a way—it’s not like a skirt and heels, it’s a Charlie Chaplin suit. And I don’t think the clown is very gendered. Then when she does become gendered, i.e. takes on a woman lover, in the last part, she kind of ceases to be in the world. It’s like she’s split into two parts, she can’t do both things at once, you know.
CF: I wasn’t thinking of feminism in the sense of identity politics. Both the deconstructed self and post-colonialism have been obstacles to that kind of feminism in the last couple of decades. I see the book as a new possibility. I see it as attempting to write a way for feminism to survive postmodernism.
GS: I agree. So often when people use the word feminist it seems to refer to identity politics and I think that the writing I’m interested in right now is as much concerned with the cusps, the threshold, the movement between individuals, cultures, expressions and possibilities of gender. Having said this, had not all the other stuff gone before I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now either. It’s a process that’s taken me from there to here.
CF: Maybe it’s the focus on the in-between that makes travel writing particularly interesting right now, because it’s a way of escaping the self, and a way of finding that balance that you seem to be trying to find in the book, the balance between subject and object.
GS: Exactly. That’s a really good way of putting it.
CF: It occurred to me that My Paris also ties in to some of the things written lately in which the book becomes a kind of architecture. Because this is a guide to Paris, it becomes a sort of urban-planning novel. Do you think of the novel as a way of mapping the city, or is the city just the setting?
GS: I definitely think of it as a way of mapping the city. I did that in Main Brides too, where I projected the characters onto a vertical grid of the city, and I did a lot of research on the architecture and decoration of the city. I don’t think it’s architecture per se that I’m interested in, but I’m interested in making my work very very concrete and material. That’s really important to me, and that comes out of a desire to relate every-day life to the bigger structures around it. And in Main Brides it was to project a place for women particularly onto that structure, to map it as a space that was feminized in a way.
CF: Because the city is basically a structure of male control.
GS: But Montréal’s a very feminine city. It’s very unagressive for one thing. It’s low, as major cities go. It’s decorated in a very florid way. It has all this architectural stuff that’s completely dream-like. It’s also a city—and Paris is like this too—in which private space and public space come together more. You know, like in the East End people watching the TV on the sidewalk in the summertime. The outside stairs. The way people entertain out here as opposed to having people in. Paris is like that too. And Paris is shaped like a snail as well, which is labyrinthine but a very feminine kind of shape, I think. Also the manner in which Paris is so concerned with all the details of life, it’s almost domestic in a way. The incredible emphasis everywhere on food, clothes, getting your nails done and your feet done. Which applies to both sexes. So in that respect I think both Paris and Montréal have a thing that’s easy for me to slip into.
CF: Where else in the world do you want to travel and why?
GS: There are so many places I’d like to go. The cities I’ve been to that I really like are the free ports of the world. I love Tangiers for instance. It’s not really a free port anymore but it has that history. I’d love to go to Shanghai. New Orleans is city I adore too. For some of the same reasons. I like the cities that have a slightly illicit air about them, where all is not ruled by the work ethic. My mother’s family made their living running rum—well, part of my mother’s family—over the American-Canadian border. Perhaps I identify vaguely with that kind of illicitness. At least with the great stories it produces.
CF: Is that why you’re interested in Shanghai?
GS: I don’t know why. It’s just an idea... You know how you fix on places. It’s still the lure of the exotic I guess. One of the few exotic places.
CF: Any plans to go back to Paris?
GS: No. I think I’m finished writing Paris. I mean I’ll go back to visit but I kind of wrote out my obsession with Paris with this book. I don’t know where it is yet, but it’s somewhere else.
CF: You mentioned in the HOUR interview that our experience of otherness is undermined by the effect of TV on our perception: the simulated immediacy and accessibility of the world around us. This got me thinking about something Stein said in Paris France.
GS: I love that book.
CF: She said that Paris was the home of the 20th century, for various reasons, but largely because of the French nonchalant relationship to technology, the refusal to mix technology with lifestyle. Why don’t you tell me about your own relationship to technology. How does it inform or impinge upon your writing?
GS: Ah. Well now we’re into something that’s very different I suppose between generations. Hmm. Stein actually went even farther than that. At some point she said or strongly implied that the Americans, in order to invent the 20th century, had to go to a very 19th century place. In terms of pace of life. Where you still could and still can go into a shop and choose between ten different kinds of butter and a hundred different cheeses. That kind of artisanal production which the French still insist on is very different from the high-tech life that we as North Americans experience in everything we do. My relationship to technology depends on what technology I guess. I feel that I’ve learned an awful lot from, for example, surfing the net or whatever. Because it gives me this feeling that I never had before. We construct ourselves differently on the internet or using email than any kind of self has ever been constructed. We break ourselves up into little bits and project ourselves. People fall in love on email. It certainly has affected and continues to affect my work, but I don’t think I relate to it the way someone of your generation would, or someone younger who’s already doing this kind of thing in elementary school, so it really is a... what’s the Deleuzian term, an extension of the body...
CF: A desiring-machine?
GS: Yeah. For my daughter’s generation I suppose television was that. And she’s... how old are you?
CF: [It turns out I’m the same age as her daughter.] It’s true. Television has shaped the way I see the world in many ways. Less so with the internet, because it’s new, but maybe that’s what it will be for people who are kids now.
GS: Right. And I think that has really started to affect the way we see not only who we are as humans but who we are as writing subjects. It’s interesting that literary movements all through the 20th century have kind of foreseen in their writing practice what’s happening now. I mean the notion of the subject breaking down started really with the Surrealists, Artaud, etc. And then deconstruction came along and everyone said, oh no! But now we realize that we’re living in that world.
CF: It’s almost as if the thoughts of writers and philosophers create the pre-conditions for the next cultural shift. I mean, maybe we wouldn’t have been able to even conceive of something like the internet if we hadn’t gone through surrealism, deconstruction and all that.
GS: One wonders. It’s hard to do the cause and effect thing, but it seems there’s got to be some kind of dialectic relationship that goes on there. But I think one’s relationship to technology depends not only on what time period, but also what conditions you grow up in. Where did you grow up?
CF: P.E.I. In the country.
GS: Yeah. And I grew up in a small town, near Cornwall [Ontario, near the Québec border]. So we didn’t grow up in the 20th century in some ways. I think many people in Canada didn’t, in that respect. While a lot of other people did. Children of holocaust survivors, for example, certainly had to grow up in the 20th century. So it really depends where you come from.
CF: Speaking of the country. Your writing has always been distanced from one of the main characteristics of Canadian writing, according to Margaret Atwood, Northrop Frye etc. I mean the connection to landscape or wilderness. Your books, except for Spare Parts, are all urban in setting. Is that a conscious choice for you?
GS: It probably was a conscious choice at some time. I find that I have difficulty writing if I’m not living very intensely. For me, writing and living really go together. In that way, even though I don’t belong to the “performance generation,” writing has always been for me a kind of performance. I need a place where I can perform. I need the place to perform back. I’ve tried at various times to live in Edmonton for personal reasons, and I just couldn’t write there, at least not for sustained periods. There’s too much physical space, between people, basically. So I need to be in a big city, really.
Narrative & Grammar
CF: You’ve mentioned before that the kind of writing you’re doing features something you call the New Narrative subject, which is mostly written by queer writers. What is New Narrative?
GS: Well, it’s just what I’ve been talking about all along. I think it involves the abandonment of the beginning-middle-end kind of story in favour of all kinds of montages and juxtapositions of different types of stories in the same space. Many of the younger writers in Montréal are seemingly almost spontaneously writing what falls into my idea of New Narrative. In Robert Majzels’ City of Forgetting, there are some new narrative qualities, such as using characters from other times—inserted, almost pasted into or onto, a present-time narrative. But queer writers basically began this movement, for the most part, maybe because it involves a displacement of the writing subject in drag, plus a refusal to look away from questions of social, political, or theoretical import. There’s an explicitness and flaunting of the personal, which then of course ceases to become personal. Flaunting implies with style. Above all I’d say it involves a concern with texture and language which I don’t think a more teleological narrative has, because there’s a goal you have to get to. In fact, it involves a refusal of any goal. So the texture of the prose becomes extremely important again, as it is in poetry, and as it was in some 18th-century writing.
CF: That sounds very anti-narrative. What’s the relationship to narrative? Why call it “New Narrative” at all?
GS: Well, it is narrative. I mean Stein said it. Narrative is any one thing put after any other thing. For me narrative is what makes the really interesting prose being done today different from the interesting poetry being done today. Particularly the novel form is a choice you make because you want to ask big questions. And that requires certain connections and a working out of those connections. Not towards an answer, but towards really posing the questions well. I don’t think poetry can take that on in the same way—poetry does something else, that prose can’t take on. I say “New Narrative” faute de quoi dire; I can’t think of a better word. The explicitness in New Narrative about who’s writing, and about questioning that writing position is important because novels today are more and more about situating ourselves in history, and our relationship to history. And to the crimes of indifference that we, and our states, and our culture, commit all the time.
CF: You say that the role of the novel is to ask big questions, but on a grammatical level anyway, you don’t ask any questions in My Paris because there are no question marks.
GS: Because it’s just one big question! Question marks become redundant. I would have to put one after almost every sentence I suppose.
CF: Good point. What about commas? Basically there are no commas in the text except where they’re used for translation, to separate one language from another. The comma of difference.
GS: Right. That’s part of my discussion with Stein, who says in one of her passages, I can see you all together, no matter how many there are of you in a place, and I can write a portrait of you in about three words. And for me there’s a relationship between that and abolishing commas which is—and I think this is also a republican project—finding what is alike in everybody. In a way, it’s the genius of republicanism. But what are we afraid of in Québec, if that portrait happens? That difference will disappear. So I play with the comma here as a sign for the cusp of translation, and protecting difference from assimilation. As opposed to abolishing it altogether.
CF: I was unsure whether the verbs in the novel were participles or gerunds. I.e. verbs or nouns. I figure that because there are never any auxiliary verbs used with them, they’re not true participles. They’re sort of in between.
GS: Yeah, they are kind of in between. They are an attempt at moving backwards and forwards at the same time in the sentence. But by definition if you’re moving backwards and forwards at the same time you’re staying in the same place. When Carla Harryman read the book she said, Oh, this is a book of ends of sentences. She saw it as part of the sentence being missing. It’s typical of Carla to find a completely different and fresh way of seeing it.
CF: Gertrude Stein abolished the comma from this century. If you were to abolish one punctuation mark from the next century, what would it be?
GS: Maybe quotation marks.
CF: That’s a good idea. Why would you abolish them?
GS: Well, for the obvious reason: we’re all quoting each other all the time anyway, so why put anything in quotation marks? Also I hate long dialogue in prose. The kind of dialogue I like in prose pops forward as a performance in a text as opposed to representation of real-time speech. Which is how so many people use dialogue.
The Next Century
CF: I felt it wasn’t coincidental that My Paris was written at the end of the 20th century. There’s a sense of summing up what has come before, and of dreaming the future. How is writing going to evolve in the next century?
GS: Writing is really changing, the way it changed between the 18th and 19th centuries, and I don’t understand why so few people see this. For all the reasons we’ve talked about, and particularly the relationship of the younger generations to technology, there is no way that the kind of novels that are still sold by the dozen and advertised ad nauseum—I mean, nobody is going to care about them. It astonishes me that this industry exists that people make such a fuss about, when it’s over! I’m sure it’s over. I can tell from my students that it’s over. Before they even talk to me. It’s just the way they are in the world and they way they write about the world.
CF: So you don’t think that in the next century there are going to be murder mystery novels and so on?
GS: Oh yeah. But they’ll be different than they are. I just think that the book itself is changing, never mind the novel, the book is changing so profoundly.
CF: Do you have a sense in your writing that, like Stein, you are inventing the next century?
GS: No, I don’t think I’m the right generation for that. I hope my work is part of that movement, but I think the people who will invent the next century, in the sense of trends and styles, were born in the 1970s and 1980s, people who are dealing with new technology, gender, race, in ways that are so interesting. Actually, I have trouble speaking of history in a linear way. I would say that the way some of us have always been writing in the last quarter of the 20th century are elements in a field just now starting to really blossom.
CF: You said before that you think postmodernism is dead. Do you think that something else is being created to replace it, in terms of writing?
GS: Yes, I do. I think that’s a question you can almost answer better than I can, you know. I think this little Montréal scene of writers we have, our little enclave, is really interesting. Marta Cooper said to me once, it’s so bizarre that the writers who are kind of our elders don’t have any weight—I mean we’re not the Atwoods and Ondaatje’s. The good side of that is that we learn an awful lot from each other all the time. It’s not like a mentor-protégé situation. Or maybe because we’re a small community, there’s an ongoing discussion that happens on some level.
CF: Well, I think it’s also that the Montréal writers I think of as mentors, including yourself, are much closer to what I want to be doing than the writers with mainstream clout.
GS: But getting back to your question. There’s a way that younger writers in this scene—people just starting to write—are using narrative, that kind of absorbs what has gone before in a very different way than the way somebody like myself uses narrative. But it’s important that it’s absorbed. I mean it doesn’t “evacuate” the writing that has gone before, but absorbs it in a different way and projects something else. I find that really interesting. And while you’re doing that, learning maybe from something I’ve done, I’m also learning from what you’re doing as a generation. The generational differences are definitely there in all kinds of ways, but I think it’s possible to learn from each other.
CF: It’s hard for me to think of writing like yours, or for example Kathy Acker, as something that has gone before. It’s actually what I’m immersed in as a reader. It feels very connected to contemporary life, and that’s why I feel much closer to it than more mainstream, representational writing. Like we were saying, the writing seems to precede the culture or mentality. The way I perceive the world today, having grown up with certain technologies, is reflected in work that Kathy Acker was doing in the 70’s, or in your work.
GS: Yeah. Kathy Acker. What a life.
CF: Do you have any resolutions for the new millennium?
GS: I guess just the desire to keep changing with time would be my personal resolution.
CF: I really liked that quote from Benjamin in the book, about the danger of things staying the way they are.
GS: Yeah. I love that too. Que les choses continuent comme avant: voilà la catastrophe.
The conversation originally appeared in Matrix 54 (Montréal, 1999).
by Gail Scott
50. Waking feeling empty. Then tedium vitae. Providing axis Benjamin saying. On which turning old wheels of melancholy. Falling back asleep. Dreaming Holmes by the fire. 19th-century subject. Cosy. Contained. Yes. This is what “one” missing. Earlier looking out at little house on straw. In left vitrine across street. Seeing it for a divine small silver rabbit. At store closing they letting out to run around display space. His shit small and tight. Like mine. The shit turns black from soot.
Pulling on jeans. Black sweater. Jacket. Outside cool and windy. Half-running out. Towards La Coupole. Nose running copiously. To appropriate one of those menus with checkerboard logo. Conjuring stage sets. Of Russian expatriate Diaghilev. Who among first to bring time into 20th. i.e. rendering it disjunctive. By lengthening dancer profiles. Into giant shadows. While choreography (gestures). Hachured. Kinetic machines. Like cube-faced landscape. Flowing in fake line of continuity. Past window. Of Gertrude Stein’s automobile. But just as I slipping. Menu into bag. Waiter grabbing it. As if all foreigners. Behaving the same.
Maybe mistake to come. Air conditioning so strong it taking two coffees. First. Express. Second. Au lait. To stay warm. Watching dowagers in dyed hair and shoulder pads. Bantering with waiters. Walking home to studio. Thinking growing old in Paris. Maybe nice. City being circular. Contained. Métro. Every half-kilometer. Provided “one” having money for apartment. Even great Baudelaire. Fort éprouvé par la maladie, sick. Shuffling from pension to pension. At end of days. Miming--with sarcasm of despair--post-revolutionary hailings. Between citizens. Who en principe on equal footing. Therefore each saying bonjour Monsieur. Bonjour Madame. To other. Though worker-bourgeois entente having ended. When latter squeezing former. Economically. Toward periphery.
In absence of fire--turning on TV. Fourteen families from “south.” Expelled from Montparnasse squat. Sent to hotel. For two weeks only. After which-------------------------------------------------------- Then extreme right leader Le Pen. Plus gaggle of followers. Singing nationalist song. Hands on hearts. Somewhere en provence. Turning off again. Opening B to see again how he conjuncting dream-time (nostalgia). With contemporaneous. Volume falling open at section on dream houses. In which he juxtaposing Le Corbusier's light airy abode. Minimalist interior. Looking out on highway. Next small-windowed turned-in-on-self over-stuffed Victorian home.
Que les choses continuent comme avant: voilà la catastrophe.
I taping it to TV screen.
59. Yes ennui covering a tear in the surface. The word t____ hard to write here. Because for true ennui--t____ must be of collective origin. Not ennui if only mirroring one's private stageset of afflictions. P in hospital. Or gallery of rogues arriving from chez nous. Spreading gossip. Re writer. In leisure lottery studio. Doing absolutely nothing.
Squirting on drop of Poison by Dior. Primping hair almost 60s bouffant. Descending into métro. On platform guy selling yo-yos. Lighting up when thrown. Sitting with knapsack against vandalized map of Paris. So not getting stolen. Unfortunately nothing major to report. Except lemony smell. On neck of expensive blonde. Having wasted yet another morning. In expectation of large French publisher. Calling re Bk of Md’d Wm’n. Albeit knowing in Paris a promise. Primarily intended to flatter interlocutor.
Waiting. I opening B. To passage explaining. How “one.” If melancholic 19th-style persona. (As opposed to wily contemporaneous version--perpetually narrating paradox into fake line of continuity.) “One” needing ruse to achieve constant state of dreaming (nostalgia). The trick being staying out of light. Which is why famous loiterers. Perpetually at post before dawn. Imitating port clampins and goliards. Full of maxims to protect themselves from sun.
Phone in fact ringing once. R calling to report he and friend set up in lovenest. Then having lovely lunch yesterday in Luxembourg. Followed by thé dansante. On right bank. Some high glassed-in terrasse. With palm trees. Near Pigalle. R praising the Tintin look of the boys. Little cowlicks or crewcuts. Very sweet faces. Others too muscled. Like they'd be afraid to take their shorts off. In case pricks had shrivelled. From steroids.
62 . . . Glad to say: it raining. Rain coming down straight between the 3-to-4-storey walls. Curved with age along pale curved street. Outside mirrors. Reflecting inner walls of boutiques. Carefully done in beige or white to catch light. Re-reflected on bent head of woman. Black hair cut with oriental precision. Writing on desk painted same beige as walls. Picking up beige of floor. Vase of the same shade of beige right beside her. Holding almost same colour flowers.
For lunch beige osso buco.
63. Waking. Thinking relationship to Paris. Now one of vague familiarity. People complaining letters not describing streets. As they used to. Clothes. Façades. Etc. “One” being increasingly caught up. In rhythm of trajectory. As if sentences. Like steps. Driven not by multifarious predicates (as in certain prewar republicans). Rather by some kind of back-and-forth-gesture. Befitting subject. With foreign queen on dollars. Walking down Saint-Germain. Thinking marvellous surely to be had. Simultaneously fearing 19th-century buildings. Over shoulder. About to dissolve into dust.
But headache getting worse. Unusual acrid smell of diesel fumes in air. Cloud cover imprisoning pollution. To catastrophic proportions. Causing paleness of physiognomy. Getting up and looking in row of convex mirrors. Face white as museum pieces. As in "classical" Parisians. With their jet bangs. Violet eyes. Fente in chin. Possibly constipated. Or expressing some high of sadism. E.g. Proust's Albertine. Coming to his room. Black satin making her even paler, making her into the ardent pale Parisian languishing from lack of air, from the atmosphere of crowds and perhaps a propensity for vice. I.e. not wanting him. Word vice summoning regret. For not staying longer. At women’s bar last night.
Raining in Bosnia.
64. Speaking of physiognomy. It is to the realm of memories that the familiar belongs. B again. E.g. tics. Expressions. Rendered familiar through unconscious repetition. Accompanying gestures. Getting up in dark. Anticipatory face looking through cracks in the store. Checking weather. People. Walking down below. Today woman in white imper and white sneakers. White "Scottie" on leash. Baguette tight beneath arm. At this hour street still quite deserted. Little ritual. Repeated daily. Opening casement window. While store kept closed. Letting in air. Making coffee. Then closing window because traffic racket increasing. Back to bed. Store still down so concierge won't knock. Given her little trick of going out in street. And looking at window. To see if I up. Very pleasant since I giving her 100 francs.
Her rituals signalled by position of her curtains. I was going to say routine. Language being precise as mathematics. G Stein saying. Anyway lace curtains on concierge's glass door. Opening at 8a. Drawn at noon for lunch. Once I knocking then. She appearing pointedly chewing huge chunks of beef. Mouth half open. Beyond pink satin half-curtains. 10-by-10 room. Total absence of natural light. Curtained off place for sleeping. Plus kitchenette. From which food and laundry smells floating. Smells so stuffy I feeling nauseous. Particularly with my cold.
Or--one's ritual may be another's routine. Where class or privilege entering. The way she emerging late afternoon. Sitting on green leather sofa in lobby. Listening to radio. Having no one in little loge for talking. Therefore intercepting residents to chat. About certain people not attending daily properly to garbage. Concierges having to get it out wrapped. In green containers every working day but May 1--International Workers' Day. She sympathizing totally. Though disliking immigrants. Allegedly usurping conciergeries all over Paris.
66. Some evenings. Rather than adrift in Paris. I'm in a television in Paris. Watching bad American thrillers. Or good documentaries. French people remembering. Or drowning in little arty video. Fat woman sucking chocolate from profiterole. On her lips. While husband complaining: you don't understand me. This I passionately absorbing. Head turning as if for a kiss. Or in murmur of agreement. When I turn it off the screen is hot. Magnetic. Energy rising from it. Paper can cling.
I applying Il est plus tard que tu ne crois. To the surface.
The excerpt of My Paris was gratefull reprinted by HOW2 with the permission of the author. The text was originally published by: Mercury Press, Toronto, 1999. Copyright © Gail Scott.
BIO: Gail Scott is the author of the novels My Paris (Toronto: Mercury Press, 1999), Main Brides, Heroine, a collection of short stories, Spare Parts, the essay collection Spaces like Stairs, and la théorie, un dimanche (co-authored with Nicole Brossard, France Théoret, et al). Her translation of France Théoret's novel Laurence was published by Mercury Press in 1998.
BIO: Corey Frost is a graduate student in études anglaises à l’Université de Montréal and the author of Tonight You’ll Have a Filthy Dream.