- EmpiritextsMapping Attention and Invention in Post-1980 French Literature
Tel était mon projet: porter le texte là où il n’a aucune place, où il est, au mieux, incongru, déplacé, et observer ce qui se passe. Faire non pas du reportage, mais quelque chose qui ressemble aux rebondissements des skaters sur les escaliers, les rampes et les murets: une performance limitée dans l’espace et le temps …—Philippe Vasset, Un Livre blanc
Mais où est-elle, notre vie? Où est notre corps? Où est notre espace?—Georges Perec, L’Infra-ordinaire
A Growing Trend in Post-1980 French Letters
Published in 1974, Georges Perec’s Espèces d’espaces challenged its reader with the following proposition: “Observer la rue, de temps en temps, peutêtre avec un souci un peu systématique. S’appliquer. Prendre son temps. … Noter ce que l’on voit” (70–71). To read French literature since 1980 is to understand to what extent authors have, in fact, taken up Perec’s wager. Authors increasingly venture into real spaces, following what are often ludically pre-established itineraries, in order to observe and lyrically document urban settings. What proves so striking about this observation-based and performance-bound literature is the diversity of authors engaging in it, and the wide range of approaches they employ. One remarkable example is Philippe Vasset’s 2007 Un livre blanc. For this project, Vasset locates fifty surprisingly blank spaces on the nevertheless highly detailed Institut Géographique National map of Paris. Vasset is intrigued. How can Paris contain blank spaces? For Un livre blanc, he physically sets out to see what his map is hiding, and to find the content and the form of his literary text. In this way, his project—and others like it—brings the text “là où il n’a aucune place” and makes of it “une performance limitée dans l’espace et le temps” (Vasset 104). [End Page 93]
Because such writing projects are geographically situated, we can imagine them spread out on a map of Paris. The first blank zone Vasset visits—which turns out to be a massive construction site—is located at the northern edge of the nineteenth arrondissement, sandwiched between the bustling Boulevard Macdonald, the périphérique, and Canal Saint-Denis. Moving slightly West from there, to the place where Boulevard Macdonald becomes Boulevard Ney, we discover the site of Jean Rolin’s La Clôture (2002). For La Clôture, Rolin devises a self-admittedly convoluted and perhaps unrealizable project: he will stroll upon and write about Boulevard Ney, attempting to do so from the point of view of Field Marshall Michel Ney (1769–1815). If Michel Ney remains a historical figure who readily conjures images of France as a powerful 19th-century empire, Boulevard Ney, as Rolin’s text shows us, reveals a 21st-century nation that Napoleon’s “bravest of the brave” would scarcely recognize. Indeed, the people who frequent Boulevard Ney today turn out to be, more often than not, immigrants from those very former colonies that once enriched the empire Ney fought to forge. The institutionalized French History with a capital H that the Ney toponym seeks to impose—and which is all we see looking at the official map—is thus betrayed and replaced as Jean Rolin turns to these present-day inhabitants (including the homeless, prostitutes, and drug dealers) documenting their gestures and their stories, re-mapping this ambiguous territory in its real-time facets.
More examples of works that use maps and pre-established urban grids subversively in the name of attention-bound literary projects include Jacques Réda’s Le Méridien de Paris (1997), in which Réda attempts to walk the Paris meridian line in as straight a line as possible. If the cartographic line—slicing through Paris with no regard for buildings, rivers, or traffic—is theoretically possible, the walk remains a physical impossibility. Réda’s playful text demonstrates just how much directionless wandering can be involved in trying to emulate the linear precision of a map. Annie Ernaux, in her journaux extimes—Journal du dehors (1993) and La Vie extérieure (2000...