Madeleine Feeny

The view from the Paris bus — an appreciation of everyday life

Lauren Elkin begins with gentle vignettes of her fellow passengers — and when the city is disrupted by terrorism in 2015, the daily grind suddenly seems precious

[Alamy]

Many would say the commute was one thing they didn’t miss in lockdown. But when Lauren Elkin was ‘yanked out of the public sphere and resituated, inescapably, in the private’, she felt nostalgic for the bus’s incidental intimacy. The Franco-American writer and translator revisited notes made on her iPhone between September 2014 and November 2015, after she pledged to ‘observe the world through the screen of my phone, rather than to use my phone to distract myself from the world’.

The diary entries record biweekly journeys between her home in Paris’s fifth arrondissement and the university where she taught in the seventh. These private jottings take shape as No. 91/92: Notes on a Parisian Commute, a celebration of the commonplace observations and interactions that comprise urban living, and a vivid montage of what it meant to be a Parisian in a time of siege.

Blending memoir, history and criticism, Elkin’s work engages with the literature of both her native and her adopted tongues. Her bestselling book Flâneuse reconsidered the role of the female wanderer in urban environments, mapping a feminist psychogeography. Its slender successor — handily sized for your commute — continues her investigation into how we negotiate public space and coexist in cities: a short film to follow the feature, if you will.

No. 91/92 is influenced by Georges Perec, the French literary innovator whose work honoured the ‘infra-ordinary’ over the ‘extra-ordinary’. In chronicling the approach to and aftermath of tragedy, Elkin captures, in real time, the moment at which the quotidian is invaded and becomes ‘the big event’.

It begins gently, with vignettes and seat etiquette. The bus forces us to acknowledge other people’s needs but some, insulated by screens and headphones, remain unaware. Elkin’s spontaneous narrative veers from empathetic to drolly exasperated as she studies her fellow travellers, juxtaposing the superficial (outfit critiques) with the significant (her battle for French citizenship).

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.

Or

Unlock more articles

REGISTER

Comments

Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in