Reviewed by Helen Parry
‘I think people are made of the places not only where they’ve been raised, but that they’ve loved; I think environments inhabit us […] By understanding people you understand places better, by understanding places you understand people better.’ (Agnès Varda, quoted in Flâneuse)
The flâneur, essentially a nineteenth-century confection, is a ‘figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention [who] understands the city as few of its inhabitants do, for he has memorised it with his feet’, writes Lauren Elkin at the beginning of this fascinating ramble through the world of the street haunter:
What happened here? Who passed by here? What does this place mean? The flâneur, attuned to the chords that vibrate through the city, knows without knowing.
The masculine noun, flâneur, and most writing about it, suggests that flânerie is not really something women do. But Elkin, herself an enthusiastic wanderer of streets and observer of what goes on in them, rebels against this. Her book is an exploration of what it means to be a flâneuse, a female flâneur, for, she points out, women have and still do occupy public spaces in a different way from men – less confidently. It’s an attempt to construct a definition of what it might mean to be a woman idling around a city and, in fact, how you inhabit a city.
Walking is mapping with your feet. It helps you piece a city together, connecting up neighbourhoods that might otherwise remain discrete entities, different planets bound to each other, sustained yet remote. I like seeing how in fact they blend into one another, I like noticing the boundaries between them. Walking helps me feel at home. […] I walk because, somehow, it’s like reading. You’re privy to these lives and conversations that nothing to do with yours, but you can eavesdrop on them. […] You are not alone. You walk in the city side by side with the living and the dead.
Elkin, a novelist and academic, grew up in Long Island but has lived in and walked around New York, Paris, London, Venice and Tokyo. She structures her book chronologically around her life and the cities which she successively inhabits, and around the writings, artworks, lives and films of women who have explored the streets there and whom she finds interesting. This pleasingly gives her book the energy and personal aspect of a memoir and the depth of cultural criticism. Her approach expands to consider how the city shapes us and how occupying public spaces can become a gesture of defiance and solidarity. Historically in the West, a flâneuse flouted the convention that a middle-class woman should not wander about unaccompanied. Elkin expands this gender-specific rebellion to other city-related acts of resistance, examining revolutions in Paris, memorably those of 1830 and 1968, and how people responded to the banking crisis of 2008 and the Islamist terror attacks on Paris of 2015 by taking to the streets to express anger, outrage, grief.
And so we follow Elkin following Jean Rhys round 1920s and 30s Paris, Virginia Woolf round London at the beginning of the twentieth century, Sophie Calle in twenty-first-century Venice. With her we reconstruct their cities through our reading, we become flâneuses of new cities of the mind as we turn the pages. But Elkin is also interested in the geography of cities, how they can fragment into districts with their own flavours yet how the act of walking reconnects them. With George Sand we explore the city as fomenter of revolution, both violent and liberating, nexus of radical ideas. With Agnés Varda we consider the invisible boundaries in cities, between one neighbourhood and another, which the flâneuse transgresses as she tramps the streets. Elkin’s final flâneuse is Martha Gellhorn, who is a sort of über flâneuse in that the whole world becomes her city; she is always at home and always an outsider, walking, looking, crossing borders.
Unlike the classic flâneur, Elkin’s flâneuse is not a true idler. She stalks the city with a camera, like Sophie Calle, or a notebook, like Elkin herself, to record what she sees. Her observations may become art or journalism. She is the enemy of apathy. There are times when the discussion of flâneuserie opens out so much it becomes more about living in a city generally than about walking it, as a woman. Yet it is no coincidence that the city Elkin finds hardest to love is also the one with most rigid ideas about a woman’s place and the hardest to walk around – in fact, all but impossible to walk around – sleek and automated rather than noisy and graffitied. Tokyo is also the city with the least depth to it, as Elkin fails to penetrate far into its literature and culture (and in fairness, she only lives there a short time). Here she is isolated and trapped in her apartment much as Woolf remembered being constrained by her Kensington home. A flâneuse needs to attune herself to a city, and Elkin cannot do this in Tokyo.
Happily, she ends Flâneuse back in Paris and keen to inspire her readers to do some of their own flâneuseing:
We claim our right to disturb the peace, to observe (or not observe), to occupy (or not occupy) and to organise (or disorganise) space on our own terms.
It’s a call that is hard to resist.
Helen Parry blogs at a gallimaufry
Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Venice, Tokyo and London (Chatto & Windus: London, 2016), ISBN 978-0-7011-8902-0, 336 pp., hardback and eBook
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