Reading the City

The Measure of Paris started as an account of “the city as it appeared in the writing of certain Canadian writers who had lived there.” But the book takes on an elegiac form, with heartfelt tributes to and memories of the author’s late wife Maureen. Sections on cultural history have also been added to frame the author’s interpretation of the layout of Paris. The result reads “sometimes as literary criticism, sometimes as cultural history, sometimes as personal memoir. What holds the book together is Paris itself: Paris as the measure of all that I attempt to say about it.”

The title “sets Paris up as the definitive standard . . . by which many things (cities, cultures, histories, literatures) may be measured.” Had a Parisian adopted this stance, s/he would immediately be called egocentric—and rightly so. What makes it acceptable is the fact that Scobie is an outsider and is obviously in love with Paris, with his late wife, and with literature. And his book, which is tinted with nostalgia despite his efforts to resist it, is a measure of his love.

The book is organized into six parts. “Paris perdu” (1) is a cultural history focusing on the Haussmannian period and arguing against nostalgia for a hypothetical old Paris. “Parisian autobiography ” (2) is about the personas writers create in auto-biographical writing about Paris. “What Pleasure in a Name! The Long Poem of Walking” (3) elaborates on the figure of the flâneur and the importance of street names, before examining writings by Canadian authors Sheila Watson, Mavis Gallant, Gail Scott, and John Glassco. “Parisian Sites” (4) follows the steps of Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes, before focusing on the building where Scobie, like other Canadian artists and scholars, stayed during two extended stays in Paris. “Canadian Visions” (5) provides literary analyses of writings by Lola Lemire Tostevin and Gerry Shikatani. “Personal Postscripts” (6) focuses on Scobie’s first and latest visits to Paris, one with Maureen, the other after her death, alone.

The structure of the book fails to give it a clear direction as a whole, and some editorial restructuring would have been salutary. The notion of “the measure of Paris” appears as a contrived device to tie these varied pieces together. Scobie’s central focus is “the long poem of walking” on Parisian streets, or to put it differently, “the metaphor of the city as text.” This is when the chapters come into their own: how other writers have apprehended and written about Paris is Scobie’s core material, and the book is at its best, for instance, when the author retraces the steps of Gertrude Stein on her way to Picasso’s, speculating along the way on what would have been different in her days. Because Scobie knows those literary parts of Paris inside out and generously provides details along the way, he is able to vividly recreate the writers’ routes and lives, thus adding his own contribution, indeed, to the literature inspired by the city of his dreams.

This review “Reading the City” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 193-94.

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