Earlier this year, I read and loved Flâneuse, Lauren Elkin’s fascinating exploration of notable flâneuses down the years, a book that celebrates various women walkers in touch with their cities. Elkin’s latest book, No. 91/92: notes on a Parisian commute, shares something with its predecessor – a curiosity and a sense of engagement with the inhabitants of a metropolis.
From September 2014 to May 2015, while teaching at a Paris university, Elkin jotted down various notes during her twice-weekly bus journeys to and from work (the numbers 91 and 92 refer to the bus routes she used). These diary-style entries are presented in No. 91/92 with very few edits, preserving the spontaneous, unfiltered feel of Elkin’s impressions. The initial aim was for Elkin to observe her surroundings from the position of a commuter, using her phone to note these thoughts and observations; however, as the project progressed, a more personal record emerged – something I’ll return to later in this review.
Elkin openly acknowledges a debt to Georges Perec here. His book, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (a collection of observations which Perec wrote as he sat in a café in Saint-Sulpice Square for three days in 1974), is clearly a touchtone for Elkin, as is the work of Annie Ernaux. Like Perec, Elkin is interested in capturing the regular rhythms of everyday life – not the big dramatic events or occurrences, but the small micro-observations that might otherwise go unnoticed.
The individual entries vary in length from just a few sentences (often unpunctuated) to a couple of paragraphs – few vignettes extend over a page. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Elkin’s fellow commuters feature heavily in these notes, highlighting a sense of curiosity about other people’s lives and the stories we imagine from the clues and hints we can see.
I clamber into a seat and move aside the coat of the man sitting next to me to keep from sitting on it. Excusez-moi I say politely. I have a headache. He is wearing too much cologne. When this man gets off the bus I notice his head is completely bald under his blue woolen beanie. Not the kind of bald that comes naturally for some men with age. I don’t know how I know he’s been sick, it’s just something I feel I know. (p. 17)
Some passages are playful, almost like flash non-fiction or poetry, often demonstrating a sharp sense of wit.
Blue tutu Chanel bag fake lashes girl you look amazing. (p. 35)
Your glittery sandals are awful but the rest of your outfit is good. (p. 27)
Occasional flashes of anger and frustration burst through, especially in Elkin’s observations of other commuters’ treatment of their fellow passengers, particularly women. Bus etiquette and common codes of courtesy feature regularly in these notes. For instance, the reluctance of some passengers to slide over to an adjacent window seat when another person wishes to sit, forcing the latter to clamber over them to reach the unoccupied space.
When Elkin falls pregnant, she starts noticing different things on her journeys, such as the practicalities of getting on and off the bus with toddlers in strollers, what children do on the bus, and how pregnant women are treated – sometimes very poorly.
A pregnant woman tries to get on but another woman nearly throws her off the step in her hurry to get on the bus first. She finally makes it on but the only open seat is inhabited by a woman’s bag. The pregnant woman is able to make her move it but only with effort. The woman thinks her bag needs her seat more than a woman with a soccer ball for a stomach. (p. 82)
It’s a revealing picture, highlighting how, in our rush to save time, we often lose sight of general pleasantries towards others, especially those who may be more vulnerable or fragile than ourselves.
As the diary progresses, the tone changes somewhat as we realise both Elkin and the city of Paris are dealing with the fallout from loss. For Elkin, it is the loss of an unborn child due to an ectopic pregnancy, an experience that leaves her feeling shattered – both physically and emotionally.
The days have come apart. I don’t leave the bed. Don’t use my phone except to write this. Check email on my laptop. I can’t answer any messages though people send nice ones.
I watch television, I lose myself in other people’s plot lines, I watch people who exist pretend to be people who don’t exist. (p. 101)
For Paris, it’s the 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices which prompts the city’s inhabitants to reflect – an incident that ultimately leads to twelve deaths and the injury of several others. As Parisians try to process the impact of the attack, a delicate balance emerges. While most people feel anxious, as if their world has shifted in some terrible, uncontrollable way, this is balanced by a sense of defiance, a necessity to carry on as normal to get through the days.
We’re all thinking the same thing, it’s the first day back to work since it all happened and it feels like we swallowed something down the wrong pipe and we’re just starting to be able to take regular breaths again we came out of our houses ok I came out of my house and we marched in defiance but the defiance has taken a backseat to our commute as we try to get on with things even though there are seventeen fewer Parisians than there were this time last week. (p. 50)
What works so well here is Elkin’s ability to capture the sense of togetherness that stems from the regular commute, especially in a time of crisis. While each individual traveller is alone with their own thoughts and preoccupations, they are also united with several others through a shared activity and spirit.
The penultimate entry in the book is one of the most thoughtful and reflective. Writing in November 2015, a day or two after the Bataclan attacks, when the mundanity of everyday life was so cruelly interrupted, Elkin begins to see things in a slightly different light, one that emphasises the fragile nature of our existence and how our lives can turn on the tiniest of moments. A train caught or missed; a decision to go out or stay in; the choice of one concert over another. These reflections and more highlight the importance of appreciating our surroundings, the sense of wonder to be found in the ordinary and everyday.
In summary then, a really interesting book that may well inspire readers to look at their immediate world with a fresh perspective, ready to jot down whatever catches their eye.
No. 91/92: notes on a Parisian commute is published by Les Fugitives; personal copy.
This is immensely appealing. A word version of the daily photograph taken in the same location that I remember remember from the film Smoke.
Oh, I remember seeing that film in the cinema. It’s the one with Harvey Keitel and William Hurt, if I’m thinking of the same film as you? That connection hadn’t occurred to me before, but now you’ve mentioned it I can see what you mean…
That’s it. It was based on a story by Paul Auster who also wrote the sequel Blue in the Face. Lou Reed had a cameo in that.
Ah, of course. I’d forgotten about the link to Paul Auster. Thanks for the reminder!
I’d love to see both again. Must see if I can track them down online.
I was very interested to see your review of this one, Jacqui, as I enjoyed Flaneuse, with reservations, and have been attracted to this one as I adore Perec (and loved his “An Attempt…”) It certainly sounds like she succeeds in her attempt to make the reader look again at the everyday around them, although I’m still not sure if I will read this. It may be that I just love the Perec too much to take this one on!!
I totally get that, especially given your love of the Perec! Funnily enough, even though I preferred Flaneuse (for its breadth and richness), I found these spontaneous impressions very compelling. There’s something appealing about observing the rhythms of city life as they play out around us, and I liked the way Elkin captured this in her book. I guess I’m someone who likes to imagine what a person’s life might be like from the little glimpses I see of them on the train or tube. A people-watcher, so to speak.
Books that take prosaic experiences like commuting and turn them into a way of looking at things from a different angle can be so interesting when done well. From your description it sounds as though Elkin has caught that feeling of seeing with crystal-like clarity when something major happens to us, either personally or as part of a community. An intriguing book!
That’s a great way of putting it, Jule. I really like the way Elkin combines the micro and macro elements of Parisian life here, from the deeply personal to the broader mood of the community. I’ve just finished reading Ana Kinsella’s book ‘Look Here’ which also touches on similar themes. It’s more meandering (and maybe less focused?) than Elkin’s books, but an enjoyable read nonetheless.
This sounds right up my street, I love those fragmentary books that add up to a surprising whole. Lovely review, Jacqui.
Yes, it’s definitely that kind of book. I think the fact that Paris had to deal with such a shattering attack helped to give some of Elkin’s observations an additional degree of heft – an extra layer of meaning or poignancy that added to the mood of the book. Plus she was trying to cope with her own personal loss from the ectopic pregnancy. I can’t imagine how hard that must have been for her…
Her books sound very enticing, Flaneuse especially.
I think you’d like Flaneuse, Claire. It reminded me a little of Olivia Laing’s book The Lonely City. I can’t recall if you’ve read it, but Elkin’s prose has a similar feel.
I read Flaneuse during one of my Great Summer Reads so can’t remember all that much about it. I know I found it a little disappointing, and I seem to remember towards the end she spent time describing the films of Agnes Varda.
I very much like the sound of this one. I love the diary form and commuting in Paris is always interesting. Is it reminiscent of Patrick Modiano ?
Yes, she does talk about Agnes Varda’s films in Flaneuse, particularly Cleo 5 to 7, which is probably my favourite Varda (of those I’ve seen to date).
Oddly enough, I’ve only read one Modiano so far, Villa Triste, which I liked but probably not enough to rush out and acquire a load more. There might well be similarities between this and some of Modiano’s work, but I’m probably not best placed to say. From the little I know of his work through reviews, Modiano seems very interested in memory and how the past continues to haunt us in various ways, whereas Elkin’s bus book feels more about capturing the present moment, the spontaneous impressions that cross the mind as we go about the day?
Ah that is an interesting difference. Modiano has a great deal of travelling around Paris on trians, but always that quality of searching for the past.
That’s interesting to hear…
A book that will greatly appeal to the people watchers among us. What a excellent way of portraying a city and its inhabitants.
Yes, definitely – especially given the events that happened in the city during this time. I find Elkin very enjoyable to read, someone you’re happy to follow to see where she takes you…
This sounds so appealing – I really enjoyed the Perec and it sounds as if there are a lot of parallels with the London commute I endured for many years!
Definitely! It almost made me want to have a regular commute on public transport, just to experience something similar to Elkin’s trips.
I love the idea of paying more attention to the little everyday things we tend to ignore or overlook in what has become the tenor of life today.
Yes, me too. All those lockdowns during the pandemic gave many of us a chance to do that, perhaps more consciously than before. It almost makes me wish I had a regular commute by public transport, just to experience something similar to Elkin!