Just Like Tomorrow

Posted by Diana Caudill

On the last page of Just Like Tomorrow, Faïza Guêne’s Doria makes one of the most ironic statements contained in the entire book: “I’m getting way too political.” This is part of the last sentence of the book; it sticks out because it expresses something that we may not have noticed while reading it–that is, that Just Like Tomorrow is not as political a book as we would believe it to be, at least not at the surface. Faïza Guêne’s tale of the banlieue is a surprisingly apolitical account of this potently political subject.

The New York Times review describes Doria as, “A 15-year-old Muslim girl living in a housing project outside Paris.” When we read a description like this, what resonates with us? Most likely, the words “Muslim” and “housing project.” This, to me, sums up the tone of the book as being very political, probably because the press generally mentions these terms in dramatic, political contexts. Guêne, however, has managed to keep her account relatively uneventful. Yes, there are social workers and literacy courses, but no riots, no accounts of police beatings, and no particularly dismal portraits of their living environment. On the surface it is a story about a 15-year-old girl experiencing what is, for her, a very normal year.

Why, then, do we think of the book as being so politically charged? Part of this is due to the year in which it was released, only a short time after the violent riots in the French suburbs. And part of this is simply due to the fact that reviewers have a tendency to dramatize the theme of the book because they are attempting to explain it in so few words; it is difficult to communicate just how melancholy and un-dramatic the book can be at times, when they could be focusing (as the New York Times review did) on the dramatic socioeconomic circumstances of Doria’s family, paired with the “bitter” nature of her commentary, and Guêne’s personal ethnic background. These polemic topics make for a more interesting summary, even if they are not really those that stick with you when you’ve finished the book.

For all its predominantly apolitical nature, Guêne does put Just Like Tomorrow in a political context to a certain extent; however, it doesn’t occur until the last paragraph– the one in which she mentions La Haine. Doria states:

“I’ll lead the uprising on the Paradise estate… But I wouldn’t want a violent uprising, like in that film La Haine which doesn’t exactly end happily-ever-after. It’ll be a smart revolution with nobody getting hurt, and we’ll all rise up to make ourselves heard.”

It is clear that Guêne is trying to draw a comparison between her representation of the banlieue, and that of this movie. The passing mention of La Haine reminds the reader, if they are familiar with the movie, that this book is not steeped in the harsh realities of the banlieues that other “voices of the banlieue” tend to focus on. Guêne may want to communicate that she is aware of what she is doing–that it is no mistake that she has left out the “violent” aspects of the suburbs. I personally believe this comparison is drawn to make the point that, yes, she is aware that the banlieue is normally construed as scary and violent, and that there are truths to the fact that its residents are not happy with their current state; however, these portrayals of the banlieue have been done, and she wanted to show a different side of life there–that most of the time, it is business as usual, and nothing particularly dramatic is going on.

Work referenced:
New York Times Review: “Catcher in the Rue” by Lucinda Rosenfeld

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Final exam review

Thank you all so much for coming to Julie’s talk the other night. I hope you found it illuminating, and we’ll integrate her observations and arguments into our discussion on Tuesday.

As I mentioned, the final exam will be cumulative– all of the texts from the beginning of the semester onwards will be legitimate points of discussion. And you may bring your textbooks to class if you think that will help you (but not, of course, your notes).

The major concepts I’d like you to think about are much the same from the midterm:

1. The role of landmarks in Paris (as opposed to monuments)

2. Beauty
– know the different definitions and conceptions of beauty from Baudelaire to Breton to Varda to Guène

3. Borders/boundaries/frontiers
– between madness and sanity
– between dreams and “reality”
– imagined borders between spaces
– physical borders between spaces
– interior/exterior
– any others that came up for you this semester

4. Questions of the gaze
– who has it
– what it means
– how it sees
– how it organizes what it sees
– how it is productive of power

5. The relationship of the individual to the crowd

6. The figure of the flâneur and the way it brings together all of the above concepts, as well as: movement, mobility, class, passivity

Please email me with any questions.

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Balzac’s House

By Kathleen Harvey

Balzac lived in many houses but one of his only remaining ones is situated not far from our New York University Campus. While walking there I felt that it was necessary to imagine the neighborhood as it might have been when he moved into the house in 1840. It was a time when Paris was expanding to create ten new arrondissements. Instead of the ritzy, fashionable neighborhood we see as students, Balzac came here to escape creditors. He had a plan if creditors came to this house by requiring all people to give him a password before seeing him and if it was indeed a creditor, he would use a different exit to avoid them. This put a very entertaining image in my head; he is a character perfect for a slapstick humor, or a silent film in my head. Mainly because I could picture the stout, overweight man trying to quickly and quietly run away. For what an amazing writer he became and from all the great works he produced it is amusing to recount all of his struggling and the failures he encountered in his life time. After learning more about Balzac, I couldn’t help but want to read more of his works, particularly his La Comédie Humaine which apparently reflects some of him many failed attempts at making money as a business man. Unfortunately for him, he only acquired a lot of debt but luckily for his readers he produced some greatly entertaining works.

The museum that was once Balzac’s home to escape his mass amounts of debt would in no way be a cheap place for students to live today. Not only because one of France’s greatest writers lived there but because it seemed rather spacious and, again, it is in an extremely more developed neighborhood. It doesn’t looks like many of the French buildings that you would see because it is small and unimpressive. I tried to picture it without the much taller and modern buildings that border it today, which wasn’t too difficult because it is situated down in a hill surrounded by a courtyard. I could imagine how this would be conducive to writing and avoiding creditors.

Past the blue door and gate and inside the museum, I finally got a glimpse of where the writer spent some of his last years and where he finished many great works that led to the development of realism. One of the most famous processions of Balzac that was left in the room was his famous tea kettle that he would use while staying up to finish his novels. I couldn’t help but relate to that. I have passed many nights alone trying to drink as much tea to keep my eyes open and the creative juices flowing. Unfortunately for me, I have not, and will never create what Balzac did in his home. Some of his writings that he edited by hand were on display and all his busy pen marks show his mind at work.

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Rue Mouffetard

by Ellen Frankman

Like crooked teeth, the cobblestones of Rue Mouffetard wedge themselves haphazardly against one another, struggling for space in the narrow passageway where overcrowding yields snaggles of rock and the occasional gap.  Over time the street has been smoothed by a seemingly endless flow of pedestrians, but a sense of the unrefined still clings to this Parisian market street, long associated with the daily purchases and sales of the lower class.  Despite the occasional tourist stall, self-suffocated with brassy Eiffel Towers and crudely sewn t-shirts, Rue Mouffetard in fact remains much unchanged.  Chosen for this reason, l’air of Mouffetard is still largely defined by commodification in the simplest sense, set within storefronts of buildings that slouch overhead with age.   Though the bells of meandering livestock for sale are no longer heard, creperies, fromageries, and boulangeries now perpetuate a trade environment and an openness of exchange, both commercial and personal.

Along with George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway perhaps most markedly beckoned Rue Mouffetard onto the stage of the expatriate Parisian literary scene in the early twentieth century.  Hemingway lived with his wife Hadley just off Place Contrascarpe, the square at the top of the hill from which Mouffetard tumbles downward.  The neighborhood at this time was below middle class, though Hemingway and his wife brought in enough income to allow for the vacations and dining that supplemented the plot of many of the author’s works.  In The Sun Also Rises, Rue Mouffetard arises in a scene of a shared cab ride between Hemingway’s protagonist Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley.  A transition from the smooth asphalt of St. Etienne du Mont to the ill-pieced cobbles of Mouffetard finds Barnes to be “jolted close together” with the woman who at once elevates and destroys Barnes’ masculinity, a point of serious thematic concern for Hemingway.  The lights from late open shops shed a light upon both the cab, and figuratively upon the relationship of the two troubled friends, who exist at this moment and throughout the novel in a modern world propelled by the commodified exchange in which money can successfully purchase both experiences and relationships, as Jake’s money often does for the attentions of Brett.  
Rue Mouffetard more largely represents the environment into which countless expatriate writers are thrust, existing as a world that operates at a marginal distance from society and one which is fueled by a system of daily bartering and give and take between individuals.  While it is, and always has been, a site of commercial exchange, it literarily serves as a setting for emotional relationships that drive expatriate novels.  Jake and Brett find themselves thrust together in a moment that realizes the unbalance inherent in their relationship, in which Brett drains Jake emotionally and Jake fiscally supports these interactions so that they continually occur.  The commodification of relationships appears in other expatriate works as well, including Andre Breton’s Nadja (between the narrator and Nadja) and Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight (between Sasha and the many men she encounters and permits to pay to continue her marginal existence).  In this way Mouffetard functions as an ideal site of literal trade that also allows for a great deal of human interaction, as individuals stroll and browse and observe along the ancient street.

Constructed as an old Roman road, Rue Mouffetard historically derived its name from the mouffle or “stink” from the Bievre River that lay at the foot of the hill and served as a sewer system for the skinners, tanners, and butchers of the of the marketplace [Burke].  Under Paris’s period of Haussmanization, Mouffetard escaped any drastic changes owing to its lack of visibility relative to the rest of the city [Jordan, 172].  The street’s memory is therefore largely preserved in its present state, in which Parisians and tourists alike make their way to its lowest point at the Square Saint-Medard to visit the open-air market, while others simply take the time to flaneur down the hill in appreciation of the visible spectacle.  An understanding of this sort of promenading is further supported by the street’s weekly closure to vehicles, allowing only foot traffic to pass through.  Nevertheless, in an attempt to maintain the memory of the preserved, it is easily forgotten that Rue Mouffetard once warranted its name, and was not always considered a pleasant place to live.  For many, Mouffetard was an inexpensive local for foreigners (including expatriate writers) to settle, though its fair share of tramps, vagabonds, and the French clochards passed through, leaving behind them a stench of “insalubrity” in which feeding one’s self hand to mouth was a priority over cleanliness.  Little of this residual grime remains on Rue Mouffetard today however, as it’s historical nature has prompted a tourist boom encouraging overpriced crepes and gawking amateur photographers.

Works Cited
Jordan, David. Transforming Paris: the life and labors of Baron Haussmann
Burke, David. Writers in Paris

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La Haine

Camille White-Stern
In Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 film La Haine, we follow three kids, Vinz, Hubert and Said, from the banlieu of Paris, but La Haine is about more than following the lives of three suburban kids for 24 hours. La Haine is riddled with social commentary, focusing on racial, generational, and class issues in city of Paris and its suburbs. The film begins following a riot in the banlieu, which results in their friend Abdel being hospitalized. Though the film does not show the riot, knowing that it precipitates what does occur in the film adds to the perpetual sense of tension in the film. Throughout the film viewers get the sense that there is a ticking time-bomb waiting to go off. Kassovitz creates this effect through the film’s narrative in addition to his cinematic choices as the director.
In the narrative Vinz, Hubert and Said are constantly getting into verbal and physical fights with each other and with people they encounter. Vinz helps establish the tone of the film when he announces that if Abdel dies, he will kill a police officer with the gun he had found during the riots.  This indicates to viewers that we are waiting for something to happen.
Cinematically Mathieu Kassovitz brilliantly reflects and enhances the narrative of La Haine. First off, the decision to shoot the film in black and white has meaning. My own opinion is that it represents the idea of seeing the world in black and white. Vinz is a character who tends to see things in black and white, especially when it comes to identity. In terms of his own identity, Vinz feels very strongly that he knows exactly who he is and where he comes from; being from the banlieu is a central part of his identity, and it could even be said that he feels it is his whole identity. Hubert serves as a foil to Vinz, as he Hubert does not see things in black and white. For instance, while Vinz condemns every member of the police, Hubert recognizes and tries to convince Vinz that killing a cop will not solve any of their problems; Hubert understands and tries to explain to Vinz that “hate only breeds hate”.  Another potential understanding for the film being shot in black and white is that it reflects the way the rest of the world sees Vinz, Hubert and Said. As kids from the banlieu of Paris, there is a stigma attached to them that they cannot escape, especially when dealing with the police. Kassovitz also comments on the way Parisians view kids from the banlieu in the scene where Vinz, Hubert and Said cause a scene at the art gallery in Paris.  After the three boys exit the gallery the old man comments, referring to them as “troubled youth”.

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Mobility in the Banlieue

The three primary characters of La Haine are persistently focused on the concept of mobility. Saïd, Vinz, and Hubert devote a majority of their time on film to a series of fruitless efforts at finding means of transportation. Their activities over the course of the narrative include wandering aimlessly, hitching rides from sketchy acquaintances, listening attentively to the sound of a moped, running to catch trains, and attempting to steal a car. Despite these endeavors, the characters never reach an acceptable destination. They manage to move around quite a bit, but they never really get anywhere (except occasionally the police station). They perceive a discrepancy between the supposed mobility of the typical Parisian lifestyle and the reality of their lives in the estates. Most of the actual conflicts that take place in the film derive from their frustration at this reality, and the problem is subsequently attributed to a number of sources: racism, lack of money, police brutality, etc. None of these factors is to be ignored, but it is also worth considering how much of their alleged immobility is a direct result of their own actions. One telling scene depicts the characters expressing pleasure at the sight of a friend’s torched car. It becomes difficult to judge the origin of their specific circumstances, and ultimately, in failing to adequately assess their dilemma, they remain trapped.

One of the main reasons for their being trapped might be the fact that they accomplish very little over the course of the film. Saïd, Vinz, and Hubert each speak endlessly about things they are going to do in the near future. Saïd is going to make some money and maybe find a girl. Vinz is going to shoot a pig. Hubert is going to get away from the banlieue. Instead of realizing any of these goals, the characters spend the film in a state of passivity. Most scenes consist of them sitting idly in parking lots and parks discussing inconsequential topics. The repetitiveness of their daily activities is exemplified by the inane nature of their dialogue. Saïd often repeats aimless and unheralded questions like “How did he get on film?” after spotting a friend in television footage of the riots, and “Why did he tell us that?” when told the story of the ill-fated Grunwalski. The film’s violent conclusion further asserts the persistence of their passivity. The characters do not instigate the climactic confrontation, but rather, are assaulted and compelled towards a rash response. The relevance of the Grunwalski anecdote becomes clear at this point. The characters are doomed because of their habitual inaction and poorly conceived reactions; they have allowed their respective fates to escape from them.

The content of La Haine helps to develop the continuing discussion concerning the traits that constitute a contemporary flâneur. Much like the novels The Sun Also Rises, Good Morning, Midnight, and Giovanni’s Room, this film relies on the concept of the gaze. This gaze is established during the expository shot of Saïd staring down a patrol of police officers. Furthermore, the film concludes with Saïd closing his eyes in terror. Similar to the protagonists of those aforementioned narratives, the characters in La Haine are mobile spectators who perceive limitations to the extent of their mobility. They observe changes to their environment, but distance themselves from the action. The characters are also subjects to the spectacle described in Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. The often-discussed banlieue riots are depicted exclusively through the use of news footage. This medium creates a significant distance between the spectator and these all-important events, and subsequently renders the riots a mere spectacle. It remains to be said whether their status as passive onlookers is enough to confirm their flâneurship. Perhaps these characters represent a modern cultural phenomenon attempting to emulate the archaic flâneur archetype. They do not possess the financial freedom required for total mobility, but their low status on the societal hierarchy and lack of responsibilities afford them some compensatory liberty.

The stylistic choices of director Mathieu Kassovitz serve to distinguish the complex nature of his protagonist’s mobility. On several occasions, the camera is allowed to move freely around a large, yet enclosed space, such as a parking lot, a rooftop, a playground, or a gym. This represents the ability of the characters to cover a significant area within the Parisian space, but also reflects their inability to free themselves from their social status. When Hubert proclaims, “This isn’t Thoiry!” he compares his group of friends to a pack of animals that roam freely but do not perceive the actuality of their captivity. The recurring image of a man falling from a fifty-storey building perfectly illuminates their situation. Saïd, Vinz, and Hubert are moving quickly and continuously, but they have no control over the direction.

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A couple of reminders

Don’t forget this Thursday night we have an event– Julie Kleinman will be giving a talk entitled “Inclusion and Exclusion in Urban Public Space: Narratives From the Gare du Nord,” and this will greatly enhance our discussion of “La Haine” and Just Like Tomorrow.

Also, could you please let me know if you would like your site project to be reprinted on Writers Houses? Allison, the editor, is planning a special “Paris week” featuring your submissions (and one I’ll write as well!), probably running sometime in early 2011.

(How weird is it that we’re talking about 2011 as being a few months off and not, like, 10 years off? Very weird, I tell you.)

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