With or Without U

by Mersiha Bruncevic

For better or worse, I have managed to write full-time for a while now. Living like this causes me more worry than ever, for all the obvious practical and financial reasons. Writing is uncertainty — materially and creatively. Also, day-to-day life is mostly bookended by two words that seem so very brutal out of context: submission and rejection. And perhaps they are as brutal as they sound. In order to be able to sit down and write each day, my strategy has been to reduce these words to a merely perfunctory meaning. I submit, I am rejected, so it goes.

This pragmatic, controlled attitude implemented to combat the uncertainty of writing worked well. Until about a year ago when I decided, for some reason, that the moment had finally come to write a novel. No more half-hearted endeavours. I was all-in, for real this time. There was a method in place, a schedule, everything. But when the first lockdown hit, that well-crafted plan for a story, supported by an established writing routine, flew right out the window.

My idea for a novel was loosely inspired by Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, an explorative novel inspired by psychogeography — the art of meditative urban observation. Perec was interested in recording the marginalia, the unnoticed shadows of Paris, not the splendour of the city. He positioned himself in Place Saint-Sulpice and wrote down what he saw, disregarding the imposing surroundings, focusing on randomness instead.

I wanted to do something similar — a story about the intimate, unassuming things and fragments that make up Paris, not about the blockbuster opulence of an impossibly beautiful place. This city, where I’ve lived intermittently over the past decade is, honestly, far more exciting and diverse than most curated or produced media content suggests. I wanted to find a way to represent that. It was going to be my attempt at exhausting parts of Paris, as they appear to me. But in order to do that, I would have to watch and experience it all, actively.

Then, Paris closed down. And, bizarrely, only those great things remained, the Louvre, the Haussmannian boulevards, that strange rose-coloured light of the sky — a perfectly lit, empty blockbuster set. All the tiny moments and things had been locked away. Paris disappeared when I needed it the most. And I wasn’t even there anymore. I was staying in Gothenburg, where my family lives, where there were no real lockdowns, no face-masks, living in simulated normality. As an uncertain spring began in uncertain times, I turned to Perec again. This time to his novel A Void, a noir mystery written entirely without using the letter e.

In French, the novel’s original language, ‘without e’, sans e, is pronounced like sans eux, meaning ‘without them’. The book was inspired by the death of Perec’s parents during World War II and how he learned to live without them. I’ve always thought that it was unfortunate that the English translation was too literal. It was translated without using the letter e, when perhaps without u would have been better. Without u would have more accurately rendered the real and human absence at the heart of the story. Although, I don’t know if such a translation is materially possible. The thing with Perec’s novel, why I thought of it as I did in these circumstances, is that it shows that it is fully possible to write with voids about a void. I was trying to write about something that was missing in lockdown, but it didn’t have to be a creative hindrance.

Leonora Carrington said this in her surrealist memoir Down Below: ‘to possess a telescope without its other essential half — the microscope — seems to me a symbol of incomprehension. The task of the right eye is to peer into the telescope, while the left eye peers into the microscope.’ And when I think of my initial, lofty ambition now: ‘oh, I am going to write a book about Paris,’ I understand that idea was the product of looking through the telescopic eye alone, neglecting what the microscopic, left eye could see. I am not saying my initial idea was bad; I’ll call it enthusiastic instead. It was motivated by the great love I feel for the only place that has ever felt like a home to me, after a very nomadic life. I’ve lived in many countries, some of which don’t even exist anymore.

Paris has had an anchoring effect on me, something which I thought was impossible. This is what I’ve been trying to write about. It probably has little to do with the place itself and a lot to do with a desire to understand what constitutes a home. During the pandemic, I imagine others have been wondering about this too. A flat or a house can’t be the thing that makes a home, because we’ve been staying put, sitting in some flat or house, feeling more lost and alienated than ever.

Another year in and the writing rolls on. There have been stretches of writer’s block, the constant flow of submitting, pitching, and rejections of course (but I’ll keep ignoring the sting of that). I am still working on that novel, though it seems to have become a different story over time. Now, like a version of Perec’s A Void that never was, I am writing without u. Not without u as in without some letter, or u meaning Paris. But without u, as in the established routines that superstitiously ward off writer’s block. Without u, the expectation of what it is to write, and its brutal uncertainty. Without u, the me I no longer am after sitting inside for too long, creating another world in which somebody else’s story plays out according to an arc. Without u, the story that flew out the window after I planned it so meticulously, when I knew nothing of pandemics and disappearing cities.