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Alternative Routes: A Conversation with Lauren Elkin


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Photo by Lauren Elkin.

Lauren Elkin’s new book, No. 91/92: Notes on a Parisian Commute, is composed of short diaristic notes that she made on her phone while traveling twice weekly to her university teaching post in Paris between 2014 and 2015. The idea that they might be collected in a volume and published did not occur to Elkin at the time of writing; the purpose of her project then was a personal one. It encouraged her to “observe the world through the screen of my phone, rather than to use my phone to distract myself from the world,” she writes in the book’s introduction. At the core of Elkin’s work is a commitment to noticing, paying attention to the everyday and the communal places we share and move through. Inspired by the cataloguing methodology of Georges Perec and Annie Ernaux’s journal keeping, No. 91/92 is a thrillingly intimate work. In a recent interview, Elkin describes it as a “hinge book,” since writing it facilitated a shift in how she brought together external influence and direct personal experience, bringing about “a transition from feeling like a secondary source, to feeling like I could be a primary source.” Elkin is an incisive, playful, sensitive, and deeply curious thinker. We exchanged emails regularly over just a few weeks, a period of time that saw us both visiting friends and family as the world was beginning to open up again. It seemed apt that we were discussing the origins and significance of a book written in transit while we were both on the move, and I felt fortunate to have such a smart and fun traveling companion to help me navigate back into public space as a writer, as a woman, as a body.

 

CLAIRE-LOUISE BENNETT

I read an essay recently by Sontag about Elias Canetti and his capacity for admiring other writers, such as Broch and Karl Kraus. “Writing in 1965, Canetti evokes the paroxysms of admiration he felt for Karl Kraus in the twenties while a student in Vienna, in order to defend the value for a serious writer of being, at least for a while, in thrall to another’s authority.” I love that idea of being “in thrall” to another writer—it seems more exhilarating and entwining than the rather more contrived and oft recommended exercise of merely imitating an author’s writing style. I know Sontag’s writing had a big impact on you when you were starting out as a writer—can you recall the nature of that impact and how you sought to attest to it? What “value” do you think there is in admiring another writer to the extent that one is “in thrall” to them?

LAUREN ELKIN

I love the Canetti essay—that’s one that really means a lot to me. I remember reading it in grad school and being struck by this part: “The message of the mind’s passions is passion. I try to imagine someone saying to Shakespeare, ‘Relax!’ says Canetti. His work eloquently defends tension, exertion, moral and amoral seriousness.”

This is something I felt so strongly about in my twenties, at a time when there seemed to be no room in the mainstream literary culture for that Sontagian seriousness. Now, rereading this passage, I realize the lines just before are: “Canetti is someone who has felt in a profound way the responsibility of words, and much of his work makes the effort to communicate something of what he has learned about how to pay attention to the world. There is no doctrine, but there is a great deal of scorn, urgency, grief, and euphoria.”

I had to purge the defensive need to carve out a place for seriousness, in a mode that would not be macho or snide—writing in the mother tongue rather than the father tongue, as Sara Fredman recently put it in a great essay on Kate Zambreno—in order to see that in attending to the world, in a mode free from doctrine but fueled by urgency, I could speak as a writer.

I was in thrall, as you put it, to Sontag all throughout my twenties and thirties because she was really the only model I could see for how to write rigorous criticism for a nonacademic audience. So throughout my twenties and thirties I wrote long, dense essays—and, of course, my Ph.D. thesis—under the sign of Sontag. Looking back at that writing, I can see the places where I was in thrall to the seriousness she saw in Canetti, and the places where I was willing to experiment with the attentiveness she saw in him. You can see the conflict in Flâneuse—the dutiful, I-am-a-responsible-critic sections, and the parts where I let the work go where it would. The split is there in Sontag’s work as well. She wanted to be celebrated for her fiction, not her essays—as a practitioner of literature, not only a critic of it. I’ve been trying, in my writing since then, to find a way to write with both seriousness and levity, to find a way to be both critic and practitioner at once. And keeping these diaries was, I think, a way of writing myself out of that critical obedience and into a kind of hybrid disobedience.

BENNETT

When I began work on what became Pond I thought I was creating something for the theater. At the time I was really interested in postdramatic theater, which was, is, a movement that seeks to unharness theater from drama and all the imperatives that the dramatic form enshrines, such as plot and character. What excited me about this was that I love the aliveness of theater, yet—and this is something that Peter Brook writes about so well—much of what goes into a theatrical space has already been worked out, and rehearsed, and finessed. So something pre-existing and sealed up and impervious gets slotted into this live, living space—flattening it, making it “deadly.” That paradox was something that both Artaud and Brecht, through very different means, were railing against. I didn’t know you had a background in theater, though I’m not surprised to learn that. Many writers I enjoy—Deborah Levy, Eimear McBride, Jon Fosse, Thomas Bernhard, Marguerite Duras, Sartre, Beckett—have been involved with or have written for theater. When I think about it now, what engages me about all these writers’ books, including yours, is the phenomenological dimension of their work, which I can engage with and am moved by much more than say a purely psychological mode. These writers are really gifted in being able to create a sense of presence in their work—which is something I find really exciting, and works quite differently than character, which is a more psychologized, Stanislavskian representational model of selfhood. It’s a quality that’s certainly there in your new book, Notes on a Parisian Commute, which could be read as coming out of an overwhelming desire to be in the world, and experience the world as and through a body. A female body. Does that align in any way with what was going on when you started work on it?

ELKIN

I’m so nostalgic for my acting days because I was so rooted in my body then. You know what it’s like—in acting class, in rehearsals, you’re always rolling around on the floor, or breathing while draped over a carpeted block, jumping around, playing with your voice. I have a good friend who’s a novelist who trained at Jacques Lecoq in Paris, Yelena Moskovich, and she has a very physical approach to writing her novels, finding her characters’ physicality, their walks, pacing around her flat to work out a section or dialogue or whatever. You feel it in her books—they’re so alive, the language is so visceral. I really admire that. Or Deborah Levy, another writer whose work I revere, I’ve heard her say in interviews that she learned economy by writing for the theater—in hearing your words spoken aloud you learn to strip back language to its most essential form. You want only writing that’s going to muscle its way to the back of the auditorium. Pond, too. I love that book so much. When language is in this hyperalert state—the most ready image is a boxer hopping from foot to foot—you can see every gesture, every move, with such clarity.

In my post-Sontagian life as a writer this is exactly what I’m after, and I can’t find my way to it writing pure criticism. I have to be in the text. I have to be playwright and actor. Except—to come back to your observation about Peter Brook—the most interesting writing, writing that invites more writing, isn’t the space of the finished, polished performance, but the black box of rehearsal and experimentation.

It’s really the most politically urgent kind of writing for women to do, because it stages a confrontation with the female body. By which I don’t mean we forever need to be rebelliously defending or promoting the female body as abject—though that’s not a bad thing to do—but we need to find ways of telling the truth of our experiences as bodies, to paraphrase Woolf. That’s the greater challenge, to normalize the female body in all its manifold physicalities. That’s the argument of my next book, anyway, and I hadn’t realized until I read your question that it’s also what I was up to in the bus book.

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Jàures Paris. Photo by Lauren Elkin.

BENNETT

I’m writing this on my phone while sitting on the train, waiting for it to depart for Dublin from Galway. It’s 7:30 A.M. It feels synchronistic to be corresponding with you in this way, since it mirrors how you wrote Notes on a Parisian Commute. One of my favorite passages from that text is this one: “I want to be polite to her to show that I too am fair and civilised and well-brought-up. But my voice betrays me. It’s rough and uncouth, the voice of fatigue and illness, the uncontrollable, the abject. I am a bit more body than mind.” This idea of your body giving you away resonated so much! And maybe, yes, by involving the body in whatever ways we can in our work, we introduce an unpredictable, uncontrollable quality to the prose. Another passage that struck me is: “This bus is on diversion. The driver breaks the fourth wall to tell us. Then so do the passengers, consulting and commiserating with each other whereas ten minutes ago they pretended they were invisible. All of us departing from convention.” So here we have a theater analogy! I feel that your writing breaks the fourth wall—the way you describe overcoming an airtight doctrinal approach alludes to “urgency” and “disobedience,” uncontrollable qualities and energies that disrupt the surface of the text, break the fourth wall, not to labour the point. The notebook form is always alert and open to diversion, it thrives on it—pre-existing, rehearsed thoughts don’t really have a place in the pages of a notebook. I, too, am very much drawn to writer’s journals and am also inspired by Perec and Ernaux. What I love about Notes is that you left them exactly as they are. You didn’t use them as a basis for a longer serious essay with bigger things to say. There are a few pages at the very end where you reflect on the project and you explore some ideas around community and the everyday, and that feels very natural and unforced. Did it cross your mind at any stage to use these notes for something more weighty and analytical? I’m so glad you didn’t! It means as a reader I get to have those thoughts, I get to participate in generating and understanding the significance of these snapshot moments. It made for a completely engaging and active reading experience.

ELKIN

There’s this great Erving Goffman book called Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings, and he talks about the phenomenon of public transportation, where you have all these strangers in small tight spaces who ignore one another, and how this might seem to be a violation of some social contract, not to acknowledge our fellow travelers, but that actually it’s an immense sign of respect not to acknowledge them, to leave them alone. Civil inattention, he called it. It’s a form of social courtesy. It’s also a form of according people their privacy, which I hope I didn’t transgress by writing about the people I saw on the bus. I didn’t talk to them or anything, just quietly noted what they were doing, or wearing, or saying.

But yes, I think those moments when someone breaks through through the facade and acknowledges that we’re all doing this thing together are so interesting. Not in a one-on-one sense—I’m one of those people who hates to be chatted up on a plane. I like finding out how things work, going behind the scenes, reading a writer’s diaries and letters, and those moments I describe in the book are a bit like that. The departure from convention that makes you aware of how the convention functions. And yes, I think that’s how I feel about writing as well—my own and other people’s. Which isn’t to say I love postmodern self-consciousness, I really don’t, but it’s great when you can feel that a work is thinking about its form instead of taking it for granted, following a blueprint or a behavioral mode. I love Elizabeth Bowen for this reason—it seems like she’s writing pretty conventional novels, they have chapters, they seem to be about recognizable people in recognizable situations, but the syntax of her sentences is completely baroque, they double back on themselves, they twist into cubist sculptures, she’s doing all this weird stuff with temporal inversion and weird slips of address in The House in Paris. You could read that novel as a straightforward story about childhood, or loss of innocence, but she’s up to something so much more devious. She’s a very theatrical novelist! She’s someone who’s had a huge influence on my work, across all genres.

It’s Perec and Ernaux who taught me to do the thing you’re talking about, though, of just letting the work build up by accretion instead of trying to turn it into something more monolithic. It did occur to me, when I was trying to find a publisher for the book, that I ought to work up the second half of the book into something along those lines. The concern was that the notes themselves were “slight.” And they may be! But what is wrong with slight? How are we asking books to be when we dismiss them for being slight, what isn’t in them that “should” be there?

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Paris Gare du Nord. Photo by Lauren Elkin.

BENNETT

I spent yesterday afternoon being what I call “really general,” which involves going into shopping centers and looking around major chain stores for stuff like sleeping attire and leggings and storage boxes. I spent a lot of time in TK Maxx reading the back of serum bottles, comparing their various antiaging ingredients. Then I went to Marks & Spencer, tried on a couple of puffa coats, bought some plums and reduced free-range chicken, and when I came out I sat on one of the gray seats that go around a big pillar and checked into a flight I’m taking tomorrow. I could have done that at home, it occurred to me, but I was kind of reveling in this sensation of being really general and undistinguished. I felt curiously unburdened. Experience is increasingly curated and there’s a pressure for everything—everything!—we do to be special in some way. It’s a relief not to always aspire, to feel fine with being just another passerby, one of the crowd, a woman with her shopping looking at her phone. Unburdened by the weight of wanting every moment to contribute to a specific idea I have about myself. So what. So what. That’s the quality in the bus journals that captivated me, and it’s a dimension of living that’s always there in Perec and Ernaux. I’m really looking forward to reading Exteriors, which takes the form of journal entries that Ernaux made while living on the outskirts of Paris. I’d love to hear how this book inspired your own, and if my somewhat vague notion of “being really general” resonates with you in any way—what might this apparently slight and anonymous mode of being in the world consist of? Why does it occasionally feel so good?

A quick follow-up to yesterday’s missive. I realize what I was describing is in line with something I experience in a variety of modes—a generalizing of the self. I recall experiencing it when I lived in a cottage and cut up vegetables. Aubergines especially. Women have cut up aubergines for centuries in a range of countries, and that was apparent to me, bodily and emotionally, whenever I prepared them. So even though I might well have been on my own, I didn’t feel alone at all. My self wasn’t an individual separate entity, it was a continuation, a function of womanhood more generally, doing what had already been done and perhaps containing the potential to further the female project.

ELKIN

“Being general”—I love it. Not to be confused with “being basic.” I’m sitting here in a neon-green hoodie I bought when I was being general in Target in Arizona. We’re in the realm of sociology now. Paging Henri Lefebvre!

I do love that about the bus. In this project in particular I was becoming aware (in a way I wouldn’t fully be until later) of the way that social media participates in this curation of the self—it’s not just about maintaining or escaping from an idea you have about yourself, but of maintaining it online. And I could say that the bus project was a means of turning away from that online curation, that I purely used my phone to look at the world around me, but I didn’t. I would swipe between apps even as I kept the diary, and there are loads of entries about tweeting or seeing things on social media. The social media voice definitely creeps in, in the occasional lack of punctuation—which I love, that’s something that I find very freeing about social media voice—the ironic, but now, to me, dated, hashtagging, the use of concepts like manspreading, it’s all very The Internet in 2014. So the bus book—with its cover that is both a picture I took for myself on my phone and love in its own right, and also something I posted on Instagram—is both outward-facing in an anonymous way, and also outward-facing in a curatorial way. Isn’t a writer’s oeuvre another form of self-fashioning?

Annie’s book was an important one for me. I don’t think I’d have been able to conceive of what I was doing as a book if it hadn’t been for hers. But her project is different to mine, even in some ways opposed. She is writing purely about the people and things she observes on her trips in and out of Paris on the RER, in the supermarket, in parking lots—she doesn’t write about herself at all. It is a strictly social kind of observation, you can see a direct line to the “we” voice of The Years. What can “we” observe about the world together—that’s a level of observation I think resonates with your notion of “being general.” But there are of course different ways of doing that. If I cling to the I within the we it’s to acknowledge that my ways of seeing are not other people’s, and I can only speak for myself. But that we is important. I think it’s the work of life-writing to find a way to negotiate between the two, work that forgets the group is going to, perhaps rightfully, be accused of navel-gazing or solipsism.

Your point about gendered generalizations is a good one—you are so good on vegetables and cottage life in Pond. I couldn’t help noticing the women more than the men on the bus. The older women especially. I find myself studying them more and more the older I get, because I know I’m going to be one soon, and I’m looking for models. I want to do the transition into the next part of my life in a smarter way than I did the transition into young womanhood. I didn’t have the right models then or even the tools to know how to find them. Maybe if social media had existed then I would have had an easier time finding them. I think being raised in the American suburbs was a very bad kind of being general, for me. Now I’m thinking about Checkout 19, which I’m in the early stages of reading. I don’t want to presume that’s an autobiographical book, but the teenager in those opening chapters seems to have a more functional sense of her own difference than I did. I knew it was there but I didn’t know what it meant or what to do with it because I didn’t recognize myself anywhere. I think that was the beginning of being a feminist—feeling aslant to everything.

BENNETT

There’s an entry in the diary where you mention these older women who eschew the Metro and always take the bus. I couldn’t help but imagine that with age they had developed a fear of leaving the earth’s surface and descending beneath it into the ground. Perhaps once they got down there they’d never be able to come back up again? I’d love to include those lines here, the way you describe them is spot-on and so evocative—ordinary and mythical at the same time, but I can’t since I don’t have the book with me. Throughout the journal there’s this subtle, tentative, age-sensitive thread that registers and reflects upon the presence and appearance of woman, young and old, with various attitudes of curiosity, mournfulness, criticism, pleasure. It really registered with me. We are in that zone where we are neither young nor old, but know with each day that passes that we are moving inexorably from youth to seniority. It’s a profoundly unsettling transition, as confusing and tectonically disruptive as adolescence. Checkout 19 draws on those experiences, and I’m curious about what you mean by the narrator having this “functional sense” of her own difference. I had a little chuckle at that. Being back in my hometown these last couple of days has brought back to me just that circumstance you describe, of how distressing and lonely it was to grow up somewhere where not only could you not recognize yourself anywhere in the immediate environment, but nobody seemed to recognize you either.

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Porte de Versailles. Photo by Lauren Elkin.

ELKIN

This is the passage: “You never see people begging on the bus. Taking the bus you only see a certain kind of person. There are some women who just to look at them makes you think they smell like cigarettes and heavy secret smells and would get eye makeup all over your pillow. These women I often see on the bus.”

It’s hard to access the right mental state during a commute to appreciate other people’s idiosyncrasies, and reflect on where our observations of them leave us. But I think one thing that’s different about the bus is that it’s still connected to the world in a way the Metro, deep underground, isn’t. The buses in Paris can get busy, but rarely as crammed as the Metro during rush hour. So they create all this physical and mental space to look at other people and ruminate. We look at other people to know how to be—we compare ourselves to them to make adjustments. They’re not even only older women, these women. They’re just other. Other women are such a mystery to me. How do they do this thing of being embodied and socialized as female? What can I learn from them about sex, fashion, motherhood, aging, being?

And I’ve got my eye on the younger women, too, as you do. Watching the millennials, the oldest of whom are a few years younger than me, get older and be displaced by Gen Z, or whatever they’re called, has been weirdly really nice—it’s nice to settle into being older. Freeing.

About your book, Checkout 19—functional in the sense that her awareness of her difference seems to be something she has absorbed and can work with. There’s a self-awareness there that I didn’t have, of how the difference could perhaps be cultivated and become useful—even if it’s unclear how.

 BENNETT

“Other women are such a mystery to me.” Wow, yes, that really hits on something. In Checkout 19, reflecting on how women appeared to me when I was a young girl, I write, “I saw more of women than I did men, yet at the same time I felt I saw nothing of them. The way they managed to be practically omnipresent yet not really here at all was continually disquieting.” I love this looking for and at women that goes on in so much of your work. It’s important that we see each other.

 

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Photo of Lauren Elkin. Francesca Mantovani for Gallimard.

 

Claire-Louise Bennett is the author of Pond, Fish Out Of Water, and Checkout 19

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Michael Neff
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We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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