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My Paris

by Gail Scott

My Paris is not for those who dislike grammatical experimentation. But for those who do enjoy playing with language, this memoir (billed as a novel) of six months in Paris in 1993 is a pleasure.

The unnamed narrator, a 40ish Anglo-Quebecker, arrives in the City of Light in June having won the “literary lottery,” a studio apartment that Quebec’s art council maintains there for the use of artists. She records her experiences nearly day by day: the encounters with the concierge, the changes in the window display across the street, the people from the “south” who are hassled on the Metro about their immigration status. In the background is the war in Bosnia, while over all floats the ghost of Gertrude Stein, a North American lesbian like both Scott and her narrator, who shattered conventional uses of language in order to present the world with a new face.

Scott’s strategy is to use the gerund form of verbs almost exclusively and to break sentences up into segments rarely more than five words long. For example, “The marvellous is to be had. I thinking at 5:30a. Looking out window. Pale blue sky beyond anarchy of chimney pots. You just have to pierce the smugness of the surface.” At first this is annoying, but the device refracts reality so that experiences that could merely be the stuff of a travelogue take on much more weight.

In the afterword Scott also says that she was inspired by Walter Benjamin, a German observer of Paris whose Paris, Capital of the 19th Century demonstrates a “revolutionary method of recounting history through montage of found textual ‘objects’ and anecdotes.” Certainly her book’s short sections, juxtaposing sometimes seemingly discordant observations about French life, add up to something greater than the sum of their parts.

The central, unnamed memoir is framed at the beginning and the end by references to a painting of a Saltimbacque, a clown-like figure “balancing as if on a highwire tightrope.” One leaves the book wondering how much of Scott one should see in the figure and how much of all of us, since we are all poised between ordinary life and war in places like Bosnia.


Reviewer: Mary Soderstrom

Publisher: The Mercury Press


Price: $17.5

Page Count: 180 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 1-55128-068-X

Released: Apr.

Issue Date: 1999-6

Categories: Fiction: Novels