What does "psychogeography" mean? In the hands of Paul Auster and Iain Sinclair it is little more than a return to old routinesby Philip Oltermann / October 21, 2006 / Leave a comment
Travels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster (Faber & Faber, £12.99) London: City of Disappearances ed Iain Sinclair (Hamish Hamilton, £22.50) Psychogeography by Merlin Coverley (Pocket Essentials, £9.99)
Here’s a mystery for aspiring literary detectives. Case one, Paul Auster: popular New York crime writer with experimental pretensions. The “bard of Brooklyn.” Born in the 1940s. Years on the breadline, translating French poetry. First work, New York Trilogy, published in 1987. Since then, highly productive, ten books since 2000 alone: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, film scripts. Has collaborated with the conceptual artist Sophie Calle on Double Game (2001). New book, the novel Travels in the Scriptorium, published in October: an uncanny tale of an old man who awakes to realise that all his memories have vanished.
Case two, Iain Sinclair: popular London-based experimental writer with a penchant for metropolitan crooks and lowlifes. The “psychogeographer of Spitalfields.” Born in the 1940s. Years on the breadline, writing poetry. First novel, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, published in 1987. Since then, highly productive, six works since 2000 alone: fiction, non-fiction, documentaries. Has collaborated with the conceptual artist Rachel Lichtenstein on Rodinsky’s Room (1999). New book, the anthology London: City of Disappearances, published in October: uncanny tales of things that have vanished from London.
Paul Auster and Iain Sinclair are not, as one might suspect, one and the same person. And yet the parallels between them are revealing. Over the last two decades, both have brandished a very similar kind of literature: stories in which lonely male protagonists roam the labyrinthine streets of the metropolis. Their protagonists are not, as Baudelaire had it in the 1850s, flâneurs—they don’t breeze through the city but walk with a sense of purpose, tracing the steps of other urban wanderers. In Lights Out for the Territory (1997), Sinclair likens himself to a stalker.
For Sinclair and Auster the metropolis is a place where social paths interweave, historical narratives overlap, coincidences bring people together. But the urban jungle is also a place of mystery, where people vanish in the crowds.
When associated with Sinclair, this literature has a name, a brand even: “psychogeography.” It’s a term that is rarely used in relation to Auster, but then what does it actually mean? In his recent book Psychogeography, Merlin Coverley points out the curious nature of the genre: everyone wants to be part of it, but hardly ever for the same reasons. For…