"I'll do my best," said the man from Saint-Montron, and exclaimed, leaving the garage driveway, "Ah, to have a subway at Saint-Montron! Isn't that right, my little one?"Back in the '70s, Richard Sennett defined a city as "the kind of place where strangers are likely to meet." That's hardly the best possible definition, of course (as his reviewers sarcastically noted), but it undoubtedly captures something essential about urban life. To live properly in a city, one must confront unfamiliar things and make them familiar. Although it is easy to romanticize this process--as, for instance, in the schlocky faux-art film Paris Je T'Aime or its innumerable cousins--in fact it usually goes on all the time in the unconscious of almost any city dweller. (How else would New Yorkers develop their mental subway maps to such an elaborate extent?)
"This right here," said Zazie, "is the kind of foolishness that especially sickens me. As if we'd be able to have a subway in our little town."
"It will come one day," said the man. "With progress. There'll be subways everywhere. It'll even be really nifty. The subway and the helicopter, there's the future of urban transport. We'll take the subway to Marseilles and come back by helicopter."
"Why not the other way around?" asked the widow Mouaque, whose nascent passion had not yet completely obliterated her native Cartesianism.
"Why not the contrary?" said the man anaphorically. "Because of the speed of the wind."
- Raymond Queneau, Zazie dans le métro (1959)
To be fair, this vision of the city can never be quite stripped of its sentimentality; Baudelaire and Jane Jacobs have conspired to make sure of this. It is this remnant that forms the central target of Queneau's novel. The titular protagonist of Zazie is cast as a kind of neo-flâneur: despite her lack of innocence in other matters, she fully expects to find in the Paris subway the kind of big-city culture shock a girl from the provinces is supposed to experience there. But Zazie never finds the subway. Instead, she discovers a set of narrow-minded middle-aged men who know nothing about anything except their own little corner and its bistro.
Most glaringly and hilariously, the Parisians' ignorance is demonstrated by their inability to tell the Panthéon from the Gare de Lyon or locate the Sainte-Chappelle. These are not your mythic street-savvy New Yorkers who know every little Jewish deli and possess engaging stories about every intersection. In fact, they may as well not even be living in Paris at all, since the city's noise and confusion seems to disconcert them much more than Zazie.
Even the city's lone stranger--"le type," who appears in various costumes and under different names on almost every page--frustratingly turns out not to be a stranger at all. By the middle of the book, he is so familiar that it begins to seem as if we were actually reading a novel about a small village or a murder-haunted cruise ship. In the hands of "le type," the city ceases to be a utopian (or dystopian, as in T.S. Eliot) projection of modernist obsessions and becomes simply a place where one lives. It invents nothing and creates nothing.
When an (apparently) different "le type" begins to blather on about "progress" and helicopters, he is simply and ironically underscoring the same point. Only a provincial can entertain Le Corbusier-style science-fiction dreams of what the urban landscape can be, because the city-dweller lives in a space that has been completely drained of utopian sentimentality. In one of their manifestoes, the Situationists mentioned a map that tracked the movements of a girl as she went about her daily life in Paris. The map had only three points--home, school, music lessons--and the Situationists, naturally, found this intolerable. For Queneau it was an inevitability.