The Bull Calf

Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism

The Measure of Paris by Stephen Scobie

Reviewed by Amanda Clarke

Stephen Scobie

The Measure of Paris. U of Alberta P, 2010.             

340 pp.                                                                


Stephen Scobie’s The Measure of Paris deliberately “misses the direct way” (70) and takes the reader on a tour of the city in and as text. The book is an “attempt to survey some of the measurements of Paris” (xii) recorded in the works of Canadian authors. The project, though, exceeds it central aim and performs a generic flânerie, blending cultural history, criticism, autobiography, and travelogue (and extending beyond Canadian fiction to consider the work of Stein and Hemingway). Scobie’s fascination with walking in the city shapes the project, and, like Julien Green’s Paris, it takes the form of a long, “wonderful, anecdotal, reminiscent” (100) perambulation. 

The survey of Paris and its writing coteries is broken into six sections. “Paris Perdu” focuses on the politics of Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s creation of the city’s aqueducts and iconic wide, tree-lined boulevards. Haussmann’s large-scale projects made the act of walking in the city possible—even pleasurable—heralding the age of the flâneur. The alterations, however, also generated a sense of nostalgia for the “old Paris”—the cramped, dirty streets, the working-class neighborhoods, the texture and social fabric of the city that was demolished in the process. In this unit Scobie sets up the historical and theoretical discourse that allows him to examine two prevalent themes in writings on Paris—recording Parisian street names and longing for an ideal version of the city.

“The 'I' is an other’” centres on the North American vogue of writing Parisian autobiographies that resulted from Stein’s publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933. These chapters form a short study on reading autobiography critically. Scobie cautions against the premise that author, narrator, and protagonist are a singular I, and examines the gaps between these roles in the memoirs and travelogues of Stein, John Glassco, Gail Scott, Robert McAlmon, and Kay Boyle.

“What pleasure in a name” begins with two astute chapters on the politics of mapping, naming, and walking (and writing about walking) grounded in readings of Benjamin, Bergson, and Solnit. Scobie considers the flâneur at length and illuminates the figure’s three potential roles: socially liminal nomad, detached observer, or idler in search of pleasure. Through his ruminations on the politics of flânerie  and attention to authorial obsessions with walking, he deftly weaves together the work of Scott, Glassco, Sheila Watson, and Mavis Gallant.

In “Parisian Sites,” Scobie moves away from critical engagement with literature into his own experiences in Paris. He re-traces Stein’s steps through the city, provides a brief tour of the sites in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, and recalls anecdotes of his former flat on rue Rousselet and its later inhabitants, Adrienne Clarkson and Borduas.

“Canadian Visions” examines the role Paris plays in Lola Lemire Tostevin’s Frog Moon and Gerry Shikatani’s Aqueduct. While the section is primarily critical, the tone is somewhat awkward. For example, the reading of “The Pont Neuf,” which is dedicated to Scobie and his wife, Maureen, prompts a tension between  personal and critical stances.

In the final section of the book, “Personal Postscripts,” Scobie briefly considers his own Paris writings and provides readers with a collection of journal entries and poetry from his personal travelogues. These final pages form a touching tribute to his late wife, Maureen, as he reflects on their visits to Paris together.

The weakest aspect of the text is the substantial shift in tone and genre between these sections. While each component functions brilliantly as an independent study or as a personal memoir, the stylistic leaps between cultural history, literary criticism, and personal travelogue are sometimes quite sharp. In particular, the divergence between the cultural study mode in the first section and the literary analysis of autobiography in the second produces a discordant reading experience. The alternation between intimate personal narrative and critical engagement in the latter half of the text provokes a similar unease. Scobie acknowledges these shifts in stance and style in his introduction and suggests that the subject matter, Paris, will bind the sections together. More than simply Paris, though, it is the city’s streets that provide the study’s structure.

At its strongest, the text illuminates the implications of creating, measuring, and recording a continually changing urban space through its avenues. The Haussmanization of the city—the manifestation of political power and socio-economic division—through the clearing of visual space, “sweeping perspectives of long avenues and boulevards, framed by buildings of uniform height, leading up to defining monuments” (16), is the most fascinating aspect of Scobie’s study. The allure of measuring the city as a map of street names and the role of the flâneur in turning that map into a tour through “the individual act of walking (both le geste and la geste, gesture and poem)” (89) hold the text together.

Scobie translates the itineraries of Paris recorded in writers’ journals into tours of the city, bringing readers along on the authors’ “devious routes.” The Measure of Paris is a compelling survey that illuminates and contributes to a cycle of walking and writing in the city.

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 At press time: Amanda Clarke is a PhD student at McGill University. Her current work focuses on the figure of the tramp, domestic deconstructions, and theatrical nationalism in Ireland.

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