Give Me Inquisitiveness, Exuberance, Neuroses: Lauren Elkin Interviewed by Stephanie LaCava

On writing Paris today.

No 91 92 5

Lauren Elkin’s No. 91/92 (Semiotext(e)) begins with two epigraphs: one is a quote from Hervé Guibert’s Ghost Image calling a bus a “big machine for taking pictures… [a] dynamic tripod.” The second epigraph is offered in French from Georges Perec, De l’autobus, je regarde Paris (“From the bus, I look at Paris”). At the end of No. 91/92, Elkin explains how the book’s narrative and form connects to Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, in which Perec notes his surroundings while sitting at Place Saint-Sulpice. Elkin takes photos, just as Guibert and Perec did, but with her iPhone. Like them, she also writes her observations of Paris, but from the 91/92 bus.

Elkin’s first book, The End of Oulipo, was a critic’s exploration of the movement’s impact on experimental literature. Perec was a member of the Oulipo, a group of mathematicians and writers that used restrictions to generate literary projects. No. 91/92 steers away from the critiques and indulges in the pleasures of Oulipo instead: writing only scenes from the bus to give way to a new form. There is a diaristic quality to Elkin’s text: a date and time of day for each entry. And, of course, wordplay.

Elkin and I have a decade-long friendship. Both of us are what the French call “New Yorkaise,” with strong ties to Paris. She has lived there for the past twenty years, and I lived there as a child. Her French is much better than mine, and she’s a celebrated translator, Woolf scholar, essayist, and novelist. Sadly, we’ve never ridden the bus together.

—Stephanie LaCava

Stephanie LaCavaIn Perec’s essay “Approaches to What?” he talks about culture’s obsession with the “big event” rather than the daily, the “infra-ordinary.” In No. 91/92, you write, “Oulipians are never so happy as when they’re on the bus”… You never explicitly mention the “big events,” which you call “Events” with a capital “E,” save for in the introduction and epilogue: about Charlie Hebdo and the Hypercacher attacks. How did your work surrounding the Oulipo inform this book?

Lauren ElkinMaybe it’s too elliptical to stand out, but I do mention the “big events.” In January the Charlie Hebdo and Hypercacher attacks happen, which I write about in the passages about there being seventeen fewer Parisians in the world, how I keep crying in buses, how we’re all sort of figuring out how to inhabit the new now. That’s what I meant when I said the book was an attempt to understand the way the Event weaves into the everyday. You have to get on with things; you can only stay at home and rend your clothing for so long before you have to go back to work, get back out into the world. And then there’s that period right after where the Event and the everyday sit awkwardly together, and then eventually the Event is absorbed and it’s another thing that’s happened.

In terms of the Oulipo, I had this idea when I was writing these diary entries (before I thought of them as a book) that I was in dialogue with Perec, because I was teaching An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris that semester, and I used to take my students to the Place Saint-Sulpice and have them carry out Perec’s experiment: trying to write down everything he sees around him. It’s actually impossible to do, Perec finds out, and so do my students. Your attention can only take in so many things; there is so much that gets away. This is how they learn about perspective. The things we see and those we don’t say so much about us, our upbringing, our education, our willingness to look outside ourselves. No one is omniscient; we are imperfect beings, and as writers, we bring our attention in all its imperfections to bear on the world. That attempt at looking and recording is an exercise in getting better at taking in, turning over, putting together. Writing is made out of the bits of the world we’ve taken in and reassembled.

The Oulipo book was a chance to immerse myself in a movement that I found fascinating yet problematic; the problematic parts I covered there, but the fascinating bits I didn’t really delve into. It’s really just a long essay critiquing the group from a feminist standpoint. I feel like I’ve spent all the years since then elaborating why I think Georges Perec was one of the great writers of the twentieth century, and why reading him as an Oulipian—someone interested in the relationship between constraint and literary freedom—is so crucial to understanding his genius. This book is a little tribute to him.

SLC One of the things I loved in No. 91/92 is when you play with absence. I’m thinking also of the sentence about the charms on the nun’s cell phone where you say, “neither is a cross.” What do you think of this?

LEThat’s such a good question. I hadn’t realized I was playing with that. I mean, that’s a Perecquian thing as well: if you think back to what’s probably his most famous novel, A Void, written entirely without the letter “e,” he didn’t choose that letter randomly. It’s a homonym for the French word “eux,” which means “them.” It’s a detective novel in search of all these people who have gone missing—“them.” This has historical resonance for Perec; his father died in the early part of the Second World War, when France was fighting Germany (they call it the drôle de guerre, or Phoney War) and his mother died at Auschwitz. So that “eux” can be thought of to refer to those who died at the hands of the Nazis, including his own parents. Without “e,” you can’t spell père, or mère, not to mention Georges or Perec. Who is Georges Perec without them?

And who am I without Georges Perec? Or Annie Ernaux, for that matter, who was also a big influence on this project? Just a graphomaniac lady on a bus.  

SLCWhat is your relationship to Ernaux? It’s funny you mention her. She’s so important to me as well. Simple Passion is the book. I am curious how she influenced this project.

LEAh, I love Simple Passion—it was the first book of hers I read, quite possibly the first book I ever read in French that wasn’t assigned as coursework. I loved how direct it was. It gave me so much permission as a writer to just write as I speak, instead of trying to craft these beautiful sentences. (If they turn out nice, great, but ornament or lyricism isn’t the point.) A couple of years ago I wrote an essay about how that book has served as a kind of tuning fork for my voice in the Paris Review Daily. And I got to go to her house and interview her for the White Review! She’s so wonderful. (It was during a heatwave, and I was eight months pregnant, but it was still one of the greatest thrills of my life.)  

The direct inspiration for 91/92 wasn’t only Perec, it was Annie Ernaux’s Journal du dehors (1993) and its follow-up La vie extérieure (2000), which Fitzcarraldo is publishing this fall as Exteriors in Tanya Leslie’s translation. In those books, she keeps a diary where she makes notes about the people she sees on the RER as she commutes from her home in the suburbs to central Paris, as well as other kinds of in-between places: in the parking lot at the local hypermarché, on the street, or in an airport bookstore. I guess you could call them anti-diaries. Instead of writing in her journal about her own personal feelings she’s constructing a portrait of a time and place, and the way people give meaning to their surroundings, however uneventful or unglamorous they may seem. Instead of journaux intimes, they’re journaux extimes. A vision of daily life as lived within the collective that really appealed to me when I first read them in the early 2000s, and that has stayed with me ever since. Annie’s also written about how important Perec has been to her, and I wrote about the two of them together recently for a Cahier de l’Herne devoted to her work, which I think will be out (in French) next year.

SLCYou mention wordplay and talk about “pedestrian,” using it to mean “commonplace.” The book is not on foot! It’s on a bus! (Your last book, Flaneuse was about being on foot.) So funny.

LEYes! That’s definitely meant to be a joke—a simultaneous reference to my book about walking and a dig at prose-writers, who can be more casual with their language than poets. Certainly, I was being casual with language in this book. I didn’t even know I was writing a book for most of it; I was just keeping myself busy on the bus. I had just submitted Flâneuse to my editor when I started keeping this diary, and I think there was a fair amount of excess flâneuse-ing energy that had to be directed somewhere. So I focused it on my commute! But I wasn’t weighing each word the way you have to when writing poetry, especially classical poetry in French (see the reference to Roubaud, who has often used the alexandrine in his work—a poetic meter with six iambic feet, as important to French literature as iambic pentameter is to English). Or even the way you would if you were writing a proper book and not a bus diary.

Lauren Elkin Self Portrait

Self-portrait of Lauren Elkin. Courtesy of the author.

SLCAs a kid, I rode the RER a lot—back and forth from Le Vésinet to Paris—and all I could do was watch. No phones, no iPad. It makes me cringe to think of what I would have missed now. I like how you say that people still read underground, but above ground it’s all phone. Do you think that’s a matter of Wi-Fi? Am I being too logical? Tell me more.

LEYes, I know! You were on a different branch of the same RER line—maybe we were on parallel trains at the same time. I taught at Nanterre University from 2005 to 2007 and took the RER A often, but it did not inspire much writing then, just commuter’s angst.

As to why people still read underground but not above ground—it could be Wi-Fi (the Paris metro has Wi-Fi service but it can go in and out) or it could be that people get carsick reading on the bus. Not sure why they’d then be fine reading on their phones, but there you have it. I’d like to think there’s something more urban romantic about reading on the metro; it’s almost like spying on someone, when you can see they’re in a world of their own, as if they were alone with their books. My friend Audrey Siourd has an Instagram account devoted to pictures of women reading on the metro called Les Liseuses. Some of her shots are so evocative. I don’t mean to sound nostalgic or reactionary or anything; I just happen to think books are sort of magical objects and reading on paper makes more of an imprint on our brains than reading on a screen. I’m also not one of those people who treat their books like sacrosanct objects: I dog-ear mine, mark them up, toss them in my bag.  your phone can’t show evidence of having been lived-in and inhabited and absorbed like a book does. All you can do to a phone is slowly destroy it.

SLCI would like to destroy mine. I try. It’s so perverse. But in a way, this book is an ode to the phone, as an artistic appendage, no?

LEIt is, definitely—an extension of my mind, a way-place between my head and the page. But the ultimate destination is the page!

SLCI started using my phone to watch movies in transit, even little portions. 

Do you think there’s something special about writing a book without the intention of writing a book?

LEI do! It’s so hard, as a jobbing writer, not to constantly be thinking about what this is going to be, who is it going to be for, how much can I get for it. So, this book was a lovely departure from that. It’s possible that if I had been thinking, while I was doing it, that I would publish it, I probably would have censored myself a bit more, or tried to sound a particular way. But that was part of the “constraint,” such as it was. Once I realized I had a bunch of these diary entries, and saw that between the Charlie Hebdo attacks and my pregnancy and emergency surgery there was actually something like an arc, I thought, Ok, well, this is a book, but it has to be just as I wrote it at the time; no going back and dressing it up or cutting the parts that make me cringe now. There is at least one section that I completely disagree with now that I’m a mother, and look back and think wow, that was harsh.

SLCI’d love to talk about the essay on ectopic pregnancy that was in Harper’s around the same time you chronicle your own experience in the book. I remember you posting about the story and us discussing it.

LEThe one by Vanessa Gregory? That was a very good essay. And I read it right after I had my ectopic pregnancy; it was in the June 2015 issue of Harper’s, and my thing was in April. Incredibly well-timed. You know how we don’t, as a culture, talk much about miscarriage? We talk even less about ectopic pregnancy; I’d never even heard of it before I had one. Of all the things that could go wrong in a pregnancy, I did not think the egg could implant in a place other than the uterus. But that essay was so great, and perfect, and well-researched—the definitive essay as far as I was concerned. So as the book was taking shape in my mind I thought: this is another completely valid way of talking about those things.

I was mesmerized by the statistics Gregory cites—that in the United States one in fifty pregnancies is ectopic, and that until they devised ways to detect and treat it, somewhere between seventy-two and ninety-nine percent of women who had ectopic pregnancies died. It was one of those really jarring moments when you think: if this had happened to me one hundred years ago, I would probably be dead.

I did eventually have a healthy pregnancy, thankfully, and we have a son who’s almost three. In my book, there’s a scene where I encounter a mom out with her three kids, and one of them keeps bumping into the back of the bus shelter and jostling me. I wrote something like, “she’s too busy texting to notice,” and then judged her further because one of her kids had a wet gash on its nose, and I’m like, Lady, trim your kid’s fingernails. This poor woman! Out with her three kids getting judged by this stupid thirty-six-year-old who calls her dog her baby and knows jack shit about how hard it is to be a parent to an actual child, much less three of them!

But that was me back then, so I left it in. Il faut que je l’assume: I have to own it.

SLCI feel this so strongly about my books. Maybe because I’m embarrassed or have grown or time just never leaves us satisfied.

LECompletely! I think—speaking for myself, but maybe other people feel this too—there’s something about social media that makes you really self-conscious, second-guessing everything you tweet or post or whatever—not only out of fear of inadvertently offending someone (though that’s part of it) but also feeling like it makes you sound really cringe-y and earnest and therefore deeply uncool. It’s so dangerous to carry this over to our writing. I definitely am not interested in reading anything written by anyone cool, with maybe a couple of exceptions—I’m thinking of Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band. I can’t think of another one, can you? Because cool is so boring, affectless, individualist, macho. I am so much more interested in writing that is willing to expose itself—not for the sake of exposure but out of an investment in emotional honesty. Give me inquisitiveness, exuberance, neuroses.

SLCThough not directly related, this makes me think of a scene in your book. There’s a line where you say of your fellow bus passengers—anyone observed in the real world: “we cannot right click on them to download their history.” On one hand, it made me laugh imagining that the internet allows us instant access to background “facts,” and yet it’s so much false information and projection, someone’s public “missteps” or desired interiority. But this line also makes me think about how the book is a perfect distillation of a limited omniscient narrator aware of her limited point of view, which is even more interesting as you’re also a novelist and researcher and scholar. You are here telling us only what you see. No facts.

Another vocation and role you have within this book is that of translator. I like your translation on 9/22/14 of RATP signage about cell phones, how “It may be envied.” How does your mind work “in translation” as you observe? I know it’s a strange question, but do you “see” in French idioms or words, even subconsciously, that sometimes there’s not quite an English equivalent? Something like that?

LEI really like the space in between French and English where they get all jumbled up, where neither is sufficient, you need both. That’s where I feel most at home, linguistically, affectively. I get a kick out of translations that are kind of askew—like the bit you mention. I can hardly even tell anymore if that’s how you would say it in English; would we say “your phone may be envied”? Obviously when I’m doing an actual professional translation I think really hard about these things and talk to some native English speakers to be sure—not that I’m not a native English speaker; it’s just that after so many years in France I’m sometimes not sure what sounds right. And, of course, I can never tell exactly what sounds right in French because I only came to it when I was twelve. I don’t have that in-built sense of whether something is masculine or feminine or an infallible sense of syntax, so I often say some offbeat or convoluted things in French as well.

I like the way you put it—if I “see” in French idioms or words. That’s a big yes and tant mieux. My son’s current favorite expression is “tant pis oh well,” like it’s one long phrase. It’s so cute.

SLCIs that like “tahnpee”? My son loves to run around and say “ahutteh,” which is basically me yelling “stop!!”

LEExactly. His accent is so much better than mine! I will never have that level of precision.

Stephanie LaCava is an American novelist and writer based in New York City. In 2020, her novel The Superrationals was published by Semiotext(e). I Fear My Pain Interests You is forthcoming from Verso next year.