Writing the city: bus rides with Lauren Elkin

No. 91/92: Notes on a Parisian Commute is a collection of musings, observations, and thoughts Lauren Elkin noted on her iPhone while commuting to work by Parisian bus lines 91 and 92.

Elkin provides an accurate definition of what she wants to capture: the “poetics of the city as viewed through the bus.” But before looking out the window at the city’s hustle and bustle, it is the microcosm of the bus that Elkin keenly decrypts. Its codes are deciphered. Its internal laws, written and unwritten, are attentively dissected and questioned. Who decided that priority must be given to those who want to keep the windows closed? And why? Why do people automatically occupy the outside seat, making it difficult for another commuter to sit on the inside one? And why is there no explicit rule that forbids people from eating on the bus? 

Lauren Elkin

Elkin asks herself these questions while observing the people that crowd her daily commute from one end of Paris to the other. A girl is playing an imaginary piano, a child is humming a tune, a woman is reading a book she has wrapped in pink paper. The poetics of the bus is the poetics of the unexceptional. Drawing on George Perec’s concept of infra-ordinary, Elkin believes that “what matters is not the importance of what is observed, but its triviality.” And her moveable diary is proof of that. Elkin uncovers the ordinary marvel of the city and its inhabitants as she watches them go by from her bus seat: the tobacco shop that opens early in the morning, the owner of an upholstery store among his chairs, a man mysteriously entering the majestic porte-cochère of a Haussmannian building. 

Perec elected Place Saint-Sulpice as the observation point to scrutinize Paris, Elkin chooses the bus. A bus is indeed an unusual, fascinating point of view on the city: always moving but at a relatively slow pace (“One Haussmannian building every couple of minutes. A Parisian way of measuring speed.”), often crowded but at the same time solitary, as the people we are surrounded by are usually reluctant to interact, immersed in their smartphone activities. 

Elkin reflects that we might or might not meet those people again: daily encounters in the city result from chance. The city uncloses infinite possibilities, not only about others but especially about ourselves:

“In the city we are forever brushing sleeves with our other possible selves.”

Like Elkin, I often ask myself these kinds of questions: what if I’d taken that train five minutes earlier? What if I’d gone to that picnic?  There is a poetics of the ordinary in the city and one of the possibility too. The invisible web of possibilities continuously unfolds in the city without our knowledge. We forever pass by possible lives without noticing. 

In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau argues that walkers in the city write urban texts through their paths. As Elkin provides the coordinates of her urban text, I trace geographical coincidences: like her, I have lived and taught in the 7th arrondissement. Like her, I’m familiar with bus 92. Her text and my text overlap in places. As I wonder about all the people I’ve crossed paths with, I realize that existences interweave, sometimes even overlay on the city tracks. De Certeau provides an illuminating notion in this respect, when he says that while moving in the city we write “intertwining, unrecognized poems in which each body is an element signed by many others.”

In Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London we had known Elkin as a walker, in No. 91/92 we rediscovered her as a passenger. What is always present is her rich experience of the city, bold and free from restrictions. I make her adage my own:

“Let me always venture out of my triangle, out of my bounds.”

No. 91/92: Notes on a Parisian Commute is published on 7th September 2021 in the UK by Les Fugitives https://www.lesfugitives.com/books/lauren-elkin-notes-on-a-parisian-commute

Pubblicato da aidamarrella

Aida Marrella is a PhD student in English literature at Université Paris III - Sorbonne Nouvelle. Her research interests centre on women’s postcolonial identities and the urban space in contemporary British novel.

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