British author Iain Sinclair on French influences and London Orbital

British author Iain Sinclair’s work is almost exclusively associated with London and more particularly the city’s East End. Meeting him in Paris is a bizarre experience. But eight years after it was first published in the UK, his book London Orbital is being translated into French.

The publication may surprise some of his UK readership but Sinclair says that getting the book translated and coming to Paris has allowed him “a completely new way of interrogating the book.”

First appeared on RFI 20 November 2010. Listen to interview here.

French journalist Philippe Vasset joined Sinclair at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo to speak about the release and how the British author’s book influenced his short novel Un Livre Blanc.

Sinclair arrives slightly late during which time Vasset comments on the event that the two writers are taking part  in here,  the worryingly titled exhibition “Fresh Hell”. The concept  proves difficult to grasp from a presentational text which claims it “skims horizontally and non-linearly generating multiple paradoxes.”

Sinclair looks remarkably well for his 67 years and comes across as smart and almost business-like in manner.

We initially discuss Guy Debord and the Situationists, French neo-Marxist theorists of the 1950s,  although it turns out the connection is not as immediate as might appear. Debord is attributed with inventing “psychogeography” and it is something with which Sinclair is often associated.

However, it is rather with 20th-century novelist Louis Ferdinand Céline’sGuignol’s Band and London Bridge and 19th-century poet Arthur Rimbaud that he feels a closer spiritual heritage.

“The whole story of Rimbaud in London, I thought, was a richer take on London than any of the British poets were doing in the sense of derangement and walking through the docks.”

In his student days Sinclair was excited by the French new wave cinema and works by the likes of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.

We move on to the concept behind London Orbital, which he says was very much a reaction to British politics at the end of the last century and a feeling that the centre of power was being pushed out from the centre of the city to the outskirts.

The book is part documentary, part fiction and charts in hallucinogenic prose (it was only the petrol fumes, he insists) his walk with artist friends around London’s M25 ring road in 12 separate episodes. As he tramps along the hard shoulder and the surrounding fields, he constructs a layered history, interweaving it with his own personal stories and those he meets.

He also gives credence to Michel Foucault’s idea that society tries to hide the insane from public view,  remarking on the large number of asylums situated on the outskirts.

Vasset takes on a similar task to that of Sinclair in his book Livre Blanc. It is a somewhat gentler voyage  – although he says it has something to do with violence – that attempts to refashion the way that we look at Paris by going to its dead zones, or rather the areas on France’s official maps that cartographers have simply left blank.

They are the areas – normally derelict scrubland or military bases – that have been deemed unworthy of the cartographer’s attention.

“If you go outside the péripherique [the ringroad], which basically circles the city, it’s a completely different experience. I think that the outer edges of the city are the less well-known territory of the modern world. You can go to Tibet, the Himalayas or to the Sahara desert, nobody goes to the suburbs,” says Vasset.

In these “white zones” he finds a kind of final frontier of the unexplored much in the way described in the Concrete Island by JG Ballard. He also speaks about other French authors such as François Maspero and Jean Rolin who have engaged in a similar creative process.

So, Sinclair is not alone in his attempt to chart city hinterlands – there is a movement of writers that are engaged in similar projects across the world.

But could Sinclair transpose his writing outside London? His contemporary and author of London, the Biography by Peter Ackroyd recently wrote Venice: Pure City.

Could Sinclair do the same and chart Paris with a map of London? Is there a Paris-based book in the pipeline?

Sinclair remains noncommittal. But he does note that there was a metro station at the end of line 8 that shares the name of his mentor: Balard. The topic for a new book perhaps?

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