At the onset of the pandemic, when seemingly the world went into lockdown, life became a series of digital approximations. Everyone took to their screens. Math classes and banal office chats were reincarnated in pixels. There were Zoom stand-up meetings, yoga workshops, and dinner dates. I was invited to more pub quizzes than ever before, and while it was nice that everyone wanted to chat, it was also enervating. To see the world primarily in two dimensions is to experience a loss: on screen, there are no smells or the accidental jostling of two shopping carts, nor spontaneous friendships struck up in the queue to the bathroom.
While all these technologies make it easy to keep in touch with family and friends, what I miss are the strangers. Certainly, I have not stayed in London for the weather. I am here for the crowds that spill out onto the pavement, the ladies’ pond in Hampstead Heath, the chaos of Kingsland Road—what Jane Jacobs referred to as “the ballet of the good city sidewalk.” I live in London for its strangers, for the unknown meetings that might take place. In her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs explained that cities “differ from towns and suburbs in basic ways, and one of these is that cities are, by definition, full of strangers.” Jacobs’ impassioned argument had its weaknesses, particularly its refusal to take the role of race into consideration, but she understood the importance of a density of overlapping lives. Strangers represent chance and the ephemeral. They present endless and magical possibilities.
What does it mean to be attentive to such momentary encounters? Such is the question posed by two publications about cities and their inhabitants: Lauren Elkin’s No. 91/92: A diary of a Year on the Bus, and a new edition of Annie Ernaux’s Exteriors (translated from French by Tanya Leslie). No. 91/92 opens with Elkin riding the bus to work. Noticing a sign put up by the RATP, or the Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens, she reads, “Your telephone is precious. It may be envied. We recommend vigilance when using it in public.” Elkin agrees and becomes determined to use her phone as a lens “to see the world see the world itself” as part of an “exercise, not in style but in vigilance.” So begins her observations, which she compiles on her iPhone’s Notes app; all were written between September 2014 and May 2015 while riding Paris’s 91 and then 92 buses to and from her teaching job. In Exteriors, Ernaux too practices vigilance: more than three decades ago, Ernaux moved to Cergy-Pontoise, a new town outside of Paris. Disconcerted by its lack of history and the “acute yet indefinable feeling of modernity associated with a new town,” she begins to pay attention to the interactions and gestures of “unknown people whom one meets once and whom one never sees again.” Between 1985 and 1992, Ernaux kept a diary, believing herself a passive witness to her co-habitants, their frustrations and needs, to the “moments she wished to freeze.”
No 91/92 begins on a Monday. Elkin is tired; commuting is always tiring, especially after the weekend. She has little tolerance for her fellow riders, whose movements and conversations she has begun to chronicle in the Notes app. While riding, Elkin listens to music, she reads (including Ernaux’s The Years), she occasionally greets the children who stand in the aisles. Little of what Elkin writes is unto itself that interesting: she sees women in red hats, a pair of awful glittery sandals, a mom with kids who kick and squirm. The observations are hurried and unedited. Some moments are inconsequential, some affecting, and all merit her attention. This universe changes frequently as the doors unfold and let in the world beyond their reach.
In her previous book Flaneuse, Elkin described the walks she took when she first moved to Paris to study. Enchanted by the city, she jotted down everything she saw, the taxis, pastries, coffees, bookshops, the bits of life that, citing Georges Perec, happen when it seems like nothing much is happening. “Learning to see,” she writes, “meant not being able to look away.” In the ensuing decades, much has changed and yet Elkin continues to look. Where previously she had “an astonishing immunity to responsibility,” now she is older and, aware of the electricity bill and rent, employed. Her days have become more repetitive, but the thing about a routine, however, is that almost everything remains the same until it doesn’t. I can hardly distinguish between trips to the market, every time I’ve had to buy new soap. In high school, I took the bus home and all the journeys have bled together now, save for the one where the bus broke down mid-route and we were all stranded halfway home. But in purposefully attending to the world, Elkin is forced to differentiate the dailiness from the Event. She finds the stunning in the mundane, her notes witness to a series of Events. A girl wearing a “blue tutu Chanel bag fake lashes” is beautiful. So, too, is the unique vantage point the bus affords its riders; the morning’s “gentle” cold air; the “warm people pressed against each other’s bodies, like some kind of wordless woolly love-in.” Paris can look as if it’s been “passed thru an Instagram filter [where] the darks are darker the stone more wet.” Paris can simply be dark.
In January, between the semesters and thus between Elkin’s observations, the Charlie Hebdo and Hypercacher attacks took place in Paris. The Event has punctured everyone’s daily. That April, Elkin suffers a miscarriage which necessitates an operation. Fate is cruel: just that previous October, in an effort to further dissect the routine, Elkin had listed out the six hospitals that her route connects. (How many of the bus’s passengers are sick, she wonders.) From a book by Jacques Roubaud in which he rides bus 29, she had learned that all lines that depart from Montparnasse begin with a 9. It’s Monday afternoon, autumnal probably, and Elkin is aboard the 92 on her way home; she is, she writes, “on the other end of his proposition.” And six months later, she is again on the other side of an entirely different proposition.
To commute is to travel regularly, to follow the same route, and this is what Elkin—and, to a lesser extent, Ernaux—has decided or feels compelled to do. Elkin maps the 91 and 92 busses, Ernaux her new town; Exteriors, too, opens with public transit, though not on a bus but in the parking lot of an RER station. The Réseau Express Régional is the transit system that serves Paris and its suburbs. Cergy-Pontoise, where Ernaux lives, was established as a commuter’s town in the mid-1970s. The town forms the terminus (or perhaps the origin) of two RER lines. On the wall of a parking lot, Ernaux reads the graffitied “INSANITY.” That evening, she drives along the “gaping trench excavated to extend the RER,” feeling as if she is “riding towards the sun.”
When she first moved to the new town, now over twenty years ago, Ernaux was “seized with a feeling of strangeness” to find herself living in a place “sprung up from nowhere…bereft of memories.” It is a sense replicated in what she witnesses: this is an estranged land. Drunk “tramps” ride the RER. A high rise near Saint-Denis looks “empty, black, malevolent,” while the sterile aisles of a Leclerc market come to resemble a “hospital or a morgue.” (With this, I agree: I became a vegetarian after a confrontation with the meat counter.) And in a neighborhood wasteland resides the “evidence of human company, of repeated loneliness” now rotting away amongst the thickets. Everything seems a reminder that life can rub like a pebble trapped in one’s shoe.
Cergy-Pontoise is inhospitable and solitary, perhaps because it is so new and Ernaux so new to it. Aboard the 91 and 92, Elkin is forced up against the other passengers, but there is little touch in Exteriors. Only one couple kisses—and that’s at the Eglise Saint-Vincent-de-Paul in Paris. No one holds hands, apart from a tall man on the Paris-Cergy train who joins his own “quivering” pair together. On an escalator, Ernaux experiences a “fleeting impression, a light touch against [her] hip.” Turning, she finds her handbag undone (though nothing is missing) and a young man smoking a cigarette on the step behind her. As he passes, he smiles and says, “Excuse me, Madame”. Proximity can be frightful, and here it signals not community but rather alienation.
Much has changed since these diaries were deemed complete. So too have their authors. In an interview with The Guardian, Elkin cringes at her younger self who judged so harshly the people—especially the mothers—she encountered. Likewise, Ernaux now recognizes that the “utter confusion” in which she operated was brought about by her mother’s then-recent Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Unlike Elkin, whose desires and hates saturate her observations, Ernaux sought objectivity. In an attempt to “convey the reality of an epoch,” she tried to view the new town as if through a vitrine. In doing so, it was rendered strange. But when looking back over the diaries, Ernaux recognized that she put more of herself into the text than originally intended. “It is other people,” writes Ernaux, “who revive our memory and reveal our true selves through the interest, the anger or the shame that they send rippling through us.”
Certainly, that is the joy of a diary, home to schadenfreude and unnuanced pronouncements, where one can be rude, mawkish, petty, absurd. We are all probably less sympathetic than we wish to be, and these two books are at times inconsiderate, their authors cranky. But such is life in a crowded arena, where different existences knock into one another. Eleven months after the Charlie Hebdo attacks 130 people were killed in Paris again by terrorists. Elkin finds herself looking at the other people in the city with fear and with “care” but it’s the “closeness” she realizes that will get everyone through.
What Ernaux and Elkin embrace is the collectiveness of urban life, its inherent and unavoidable communion. Although anonymous amongst the crowds, we are all, as Ernaux writes, “secretly play[ing] a role in the lives of others.” Each stranger Elkin and Ernaux describe may one day be a friend, a partner, someone to love, someone to detest; this is the ballet that Jacobs intended. In the afterword of No. 91/92, written at the height of the coronavirus lockdowns, Elkin admits to feeling nostalgic for public transit in “all its fleshy reality”. In the mornings now, I have started to take the Overground from Canonbury Station towards Richmond. Mine is a long, meandering journey across north London, which I share with builders, teachers, nurses, the hungover, the exhausted. I despise the sweating man who sits too close, the woman with the loud music, the keening child—and yet, and yet, I love them too.
by Annie Ernaux (Translated by Tanya Leslie)
Seven Stories Press
Published on October 19, 2021
by Lauren Elkin
Published on September 14, 2021
Grace Linden is a writer and art historian based in London.