My first major investigation of contemporary travel writing practices focussed on Paris. I examined the work and the writing methods of three important figures in French literature: Annie Ernaux, François Maspero and Jean Rolin, normally studied for their fiction writing. Along with a photographer, Anaïk Frantz, who worked with Maspero on his prizewinning travel book Passengers of the Roissy Express (1990). Maspero challenges travel writing by situating his journey on the Paris train that serves CDG airport.
Annie Ernaux ‘was born at Lillebonne in September 1940 but now lives near Paris. During the 1990s she published two collections of what appear to be diaries of everyday life. They are documents of her daily commuting on the RER and metro from a suburb of Paris, Val d’Oise in Cergy, into the city centre. The two books in this series are Journal du dehors, which is the main focus of this study, and La Vie extérieure’ (Mansfield 2007, 175).
Jean Rolin, too, stays on the periphery of his home city as he recounts his travels. All three writers reveal their own identities through these documented journeys thus fusing the travel writing genre with autobiography. The conceit of only staying in your own town to compile a travel journal is perhaps taken to its extreme with Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, republished in English in 2010 but known to our three earlier writers through the original French (1975) Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien. Instead of travelling, Perec stays put over the course of three days from 18th to 20th October 1974 in three cafés looking out across the square, La place Saint-Sulpice in the 6th arrondissement.
Paris in the 1970s, Perec captures that era even though the story is told with short statements. It was an era I know well from my Grand Tour with my brother, Darrell, in his mid-70s Ford Escort estate. The car was finished in British Racing Green. I can recall so many key moments from that June in 1979, now over 40 years ago; the first being able to park right beneath the Eiffel Tower. Next, locking the keys in the car as we stopped for the view, overlooking a town in Switzerland. Which town? I know the locals were really friendly and helpful. Discovery of that restaurant, Mövenpick, I think in Geneva. And, the River Swimmers of Bern. Ropes tied round them they plunged into the River Aare. Oh yes, and the musicians on the street corners of Zurich in the warm summer evenings. Why does travelling in Europe create so many good memories?
All the writers discussed, Perec and Ernaux included, had a project of what they were going to do as fieldwork for their travel diaries.
Mansfield, C (2012) Traversing Paris: French Travel Writing Practices in the Late Twentieth Century – An analysis of the work of Annie Ernaux, François Maspero, Jean Rolin and Anaïk Frantz, Saarbrücken: Akademikerverlag.
Mansfield, C (2007) ‘Paris Framed: Twentieth-Century French Writers Crossing the City’ pp.175-186 in Bolton, Lucy, Kimber, Gerri, Lewis, Ann and Seabrook, Michael (eds) (2007) Framed – Essays in French Studies (Modern French Identities 61) Oxford & Bern: Peter Lang.