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My Paris by Gail Scott

Scott, Gail. My Paris (1999). Dalkey Archive, 2003.

I will begin by simply recommending this book, very highly. Gail Scott has written a novel that is decidedly else: memoir, diary, travelogue, social commentary, stylistic experiment; she pulls it off admirably.

The book is structured in numbered (but undated) journal entries written by the narrator, a quebecoise writer in Paris thanks to some kind of grant or prize enabling her to stay in what she calls her “leisure lottery studio”. There isn’t much plot to speak of: the narrator walks around, visits friends, cafes, galleries, and other location, reads, and comments on her surroundings and herself. The interest lies in the way numerous elements are woven together. One doesn’t read to find out what happens next but rather to find out what will come up next, what will be seen or examined or recognized.

A number of themes recurr throughout the book; I wil only mention a few. The narrator travelled on short notice and worries about her visa. All around her the government is cracking down on illegal immigration, and she becomes almost paranoid that she will be deported. Yet, the people around her point out that the aliens being arrested and hassled are not white Canadians, but rather black africans fleeing their own countries for various reasons.

The narrator’s literary knowledge inserts itself often into her comments. Early on and often later she relates herself to Balzac’s Girl with the Golden Eyes. She also works in Breton and Aragon in connection with their urban wanderings and the search for the marvelous, as well as the best known American expats such as Stein (both in connection were her as a resident of Paris and her stylistics as a writer). The most often cited work, though, is Walter Benjamin’s unfinished The Arcades Project (as it is known in the current English translation), a montage history of 19th century Paris. The narrator finds the book in her studio and continues to read it throughout the narrative. She goes in search of some of the old arcades and uses Benjamin’s work (after the first or second time he is referred to as “B”) to examine her contemporary surroundings.

Another aspect of examination in the work revolves around the narrator’s marginal status. Her status as a French speaking quebecoise creates language variances which Parisians inevitably point out to her. If I am interpreting the text correctly the narrator is also a lesbian, but an interesting bit of the stylization — all the characters are only referred to by initials — creates a blurred gender field for the majority of the people and thus makes any evaluation of sexuality difficult. The narrator most often seems to comment on women and her acquaintances are often directly identified as lesbians. The narrator herself always seem to feel marginal to any of the people she interacts with, even a friend who visits from home.

One of the most immediately striking aspects of the book is Scott’s use of language. There is a preponderance of sentence fragments relying on gerunds, which create a fragmented sense of experience. Late in the book a passage stuck out that comments on this stylistic trait: “Strolling. Not noun. But not verb either. I.e. neither excluding. Not caricaturally absorbing other.” (129) Again this element of marginality. Time feels out of juncture, present or past, it is hard to decide from where the narrator is coming. Descriptions and events are often ambiguous or almost opaque to interpretaton, yet one quickly adapts to the choppy sentences and the fragmented grammar. I offer a simple sample from early in the book:

Walk with S along a curved white street. Rue de varenne or rue du Bac. Hot and sunny. Stark shadows cast by walls of 18th century buildings. Small French cars parked half on sidewalk. Two cops by the cafe. Le ministere est par la, the ministry’s over there. S saying with a shrug. A veteran of May ’68. And subsequent productions. Knowing when to regard them. As furniture. (8)

One can also note the use of French, almost always translated subsequently for the Engish speaking reader.

I can’t at all do this book justice. I’ve read it twice and enjoyed it immensely both times. I’ll admit that my general interest in French and related matters makes this book of specific interest to me, but I believe that many readers, open to adjust themselves to the oddity of style, will find much her worth considering. I plan on reading more from Gail Scott.