Paris made vividly per­sonal

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - DAVID L. ULIN BOOK CRITIC david.ulin@latimes.com

I am a walker in the city. For me, the side­walk is the corner­stone of ur­ban life. In my Los An­ge­les neigh­bor­hood, I go days with­out get­ting in a car, walk­ing to the bank, the dry cleaner, the gro­cery store, strolling the streets in the late sum­mer evenings, watch­ing the sky turn pur­ple, black.

We think of cities as anony­mous, as sprawl­ing — and they are. But they are also pri­vate, in­ti­mate, land­scapes sus­pended be­tween lone­li­ness and com­mu­nity. This is what ur­ban walk­ing of­fers, a way to nav­i­gate the bound­ary be­tween our­selves as in­di­vid­u­als and part of the col­lec­tive: city as iden­tity.

Such an in­ter­play sits at the cen­ter of Vic­tor Hussenot’s beau­ti­ful, ethe­real “The Spec­ta­tors” (No­brow: 96 pp., $22.95), a graphic novel — or is it? — about city walk­ing, city haunting, all the ways the me­trop­o­lis can get be­neath our skins. The city here is Paris; Hussenot is a French artist who has pub­lished three books in his na­tive coun­try, although this is the first to ap­pear in the United States.

There is no story per se, just a se­ries of riffs, imag­i­na­tive leaps. “Each of us,” he ob­serves, “sees the city in our own way. ... From the rift be­tween sleep and wak­ing bursts of lights. ... The mind’s eye is set free. ... The in­vis­i­ble is re­vealed.”

In part, Hussenot is re­fer­ring to the voyeuris­tic as­pects of city life, how we are of­ten on the out­side look­ing in. But even more, he is point­ing out its lay­ers, mul­ti­ple lives and mul­ti­ple eras over­lap­ping in real time.

One of my fa­vorite se­quences de­scribes the Metro and its role as “the Parisians’ ephemeral and shift­ing home.” What Hussenot is get­ting at is history, both its pres­ence and, in some sense, its col­lapse.

“Above their heads,” he writes of the train, “it trav­els through the ages.” Be­neath that sen­tence, three ver­ti­cal pan­els il­lus­trate the point. The first is a black-and­white evok­ing the early years of the 20th cen­tury, the sec­ond an im­age of punk rock­ers and the third a con­tem­po­rary scene. That all take place on the same stretch of side­walk is the point pre­cisely, that we in­habit our cities only briefly, that they have a life that ex­tends be­yond our own.

“The Spec­ta­tors” of­fers both mys­tery and grace. It evokes the city as I know it: full of unimag­in­able com­plex­ity. What draws us to such land­scapes? That we can be alone and to­gether all at once.

Vic­tor Hussenot No­brow Press

AN IL­LUS­TRA­TION from “The Spec­ta­tor.”

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