Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin

When we hear the word ‘flâneur’, we probably think of some well-to-do chap nonchalantly wandering the streets of 19th-century Paris, idling away his time in cafés and bars, casually watching the inhabitants of the city at work and play. Irrespective of the specific figure we have in mind, the flâneur is almost certainly a man – a well-dressed dandy, possibly like the central pen-and-ink sketch on the cover of this Vintage edition of Flâneuse. The flâneur is a consummate observer, looking without participating, preferring to remain somewhat distanced from the action in his leisurely pursuits.

In this fascinating book, the critically-acclaimed writer and translator Lauren Elkin shows us another side of flâneusing, highlighting the existence of the female equivalent, the eponymous flâneuse. While the male flâneur has been well documented over time, much less has been written about his female counterpart, possibly due to the social restrictions placed on women’s movements around the cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, as Elkin eloquently argues, women walkers have often been present in cities; they just haven’t been identified or mythologised as flâneuses.  

To suggest that they couldn’t be a female version of the flâneur is to limit the ways women have interacted with the city to the ways men have interacted with the city. We can talk about social mores and restrictions but we cannot rule out the fact that women were there; we must try to understand what walking in the city meant to them. Perhaps the answer is not to attempt to make a woman fit a masculine concept, but to redefine the concept itself.

If we tunnel back, we find there always was a flâneuse passing Baudelaire in the street. (p. 11)

Through a captivating combination of memoir, social history and cultural studies/criticism, Elkin walks us through several examples of notable flâneuses down the years, demonstrating that the joy of traversing the city has been shared by men and women alike.

Each chapter highlights a different female walker in touch with her city. So, we have Virginia Woolf walking through London’s Bloomsbury, an experience vividly portrayed in the writer’s evocative essay Street Haunting; George Sand, who has to dress like a man to roam freely in 19th-century Paris; and Martha Gellhorn, the journalist and travel writer who captures the Civil War through a series of remarkable reports, straight from the front line in late ‘30s Madrid.

Elkin also explores leading cultural figures that fit the bill, most notably the acclaimed writer Jean Rhys and the legendary filmmaker Agnes Varda – two of my favourite artists in their respective creative fields.

Many of Rhys’ early novellas and stories feature desolate women marginalised from society through poverty, abandonment, banishment and ageing. They drift around the Left Bank of Paris, frequently shuttling from one down-at-heel boarding house to another, totally reliant on men for clothes, meals and drink. It’s a solitary and painful existence, brilliantly conveyed through Rhys’ laconic, incisive prose.

Varda, on the other hand, shows us how a woman in the city – essentially a flâneuse – can move from being the object of someone’s gaze to the one doing the looking. In one of her most famous films, Cléo de 5 à 7 (shot in 1962), the camera follows a young woman as she moves around Paris, nervously awaiting the results of a biopsy, naturally fearing the worst. Elkin posits that the film challenges the view that a woman could not traverse the streets of Paris the way a man does – i.e. anonymously, observing without being seen. However, by shifting Cleo’s status from object to subject – i.e. the one doing the looking as opposed to being watched – Varda is portraying a new sense of liberation for women in the city.

As Cléo stops thinking of herself purely in terms of how others see her, the camera stops watching Cléo only from the exterior, and begins to represent the world from her point of view. The film specifically challenges the idea that a woman could not walk the streets the way a man does, anonymously, taking in the spectacle; a woman is the spectacle, goes this argument. Looking, not simply appearing, signals the beginning of women’s freedom in the city. (p. 220)

Interspersed with these portraits from cultural history are Elkin’s own thoughtful reflections on her explorations of various cities around the world. Flâneusing is Elkin’s preferred method of getting to know a city, exploring its geography on foot, crossing through different areas and neighbourhoods, and ultimately connecting them together to build a mental picture or map. It’s her way of feeling more at home in a new territory, grounding herself in its physical spaces, urban geography and, importantly, the attendant social culture.

Having grown up in the Long Island suburbs – an environment she found somewhat stifling and restrictive – Elkin moved to New York as a student, revelling in the freedom and diversity this metropolis represented. Over the past twenty years, she has spent time in Paris – the city she now considers her home – Venice and Tokyo, the latter proving particularly challenging to the habitual flâneuse.

I had been trying to find the city on street level, but that’s not where it was. To flâneuse in Tokyo I had to walk up staircases, take elevators, climb ladders, to find what I was looking for upstairs, or on rooftops. You can’t just walk through the city waiting for beauty to appear. This isn’t Paris. (p. 180)

The move to Tokyo is dictated by external influences when a change of role for Elkin’s boyfriend, a successful banker, prompts a transfer to Japan. Sadly, it’s a step too far for Elkin, ultimately exposing the fault lines in the couple’s relationship, culminating in a permanent split and Elkin’s return to Paris.

By writing Flâneuse, Elkin has given us an elegant meditation on women traversing the urban landscape on foot, exploring the geography, boundaries and cultural ‘feel’ of various cities through the wanderings of the flâneuse. As she remarks towards the beginning of the book, once you start looking, it’s possible to spot the flâneuse pretty much anywhere, typically in a state of ‘in-betweenness’, coming or going from one place to another.

She [the flâneuse] gets to know the city by wandering its streets, investigating its dark corners, peering behind facades, penetrating into secret courtyards. I found her using cities as performance spaces, or as hiding places; as places to seek fame and fortune or anonymity; as places to liberate herself from oppression or to help those who are oppressed; as places to declare her independence; as places to change the world or be changed by it. (p. 22)

Elkin is a marvellous companion – articulate and informative without being didactic, likely to inspire readers to embark on a bit of flâneusing of their own. This is such a thoughtful, erudite, fascinating book, written in a style that I found thoroughly engaging – probably my favourite non-fiction read so far this year.

31 thoughts on “Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin

  1. gertloveday

    This was one of my Great Reads for 2020 It shows the down side of reading a great many books at the same time because I can remember very little about it. I remember loving the beginning where she writes about Virginia Woolf and losing respect for her when she couldn’t cope with the food in Japan. In your account I am struck by the insight into the lives of women like Jean Rhys. I must have rushed past that.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, Japan was problematic for Elkin for various reasons, some of which came through in her response to Tokyo as a city. I had a lot of sympathy for her, I must admit, mostly because her own plans were sidelined in favour of the advancement of her partner’s career. I almost cheered when she finally decided to return to Paris as the move to Tokyo really wasn’t working out…

      Reply
  2. MarinaSofia

    I’ve had my eye on this one for a while, especially since I am an inveterate flaneuse myself, particularly when I am visiting a new city. I actually walked everywhere in Tokyo as a student, because it felt so wonderfully safe – and always managed to find a surprising little peaceful corner among all the busyness.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’d really enjoy it, I think! Jean Rhys, George Sand, Agnes Varda, Sophie Calle, Martha Gellhorn…it’s a fascinating selection of women, covering various examples of the flâneuse. I particularly loved the sections on Jean Rhys and Agnes Varda as I’m familiar with some of their work – particularly the novels and films that Elkin explores here.

      Reply
  3. penwithlit

    Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    Sounds brilliant and an interesting exploration in psychogeography. This sounds like a book that I must read. Perception of cities has come up in my reading too. Chicago in “Humbolt’s Gift” and Toibin’s Dublin in his poetry collection.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a fascinating topic, isn’t it? There’s also a Valeria Luiselli’s non-fiction book ‘Sidewalks’, a collection of essays on cities, locations and spaces. Quite a few of the pieces cover aspects of Mexico City, but she roams further afield too!

      Reply
  4. A Life in Books

    I liked the sound of this one when I saw it in the publishing schedules. So many activities long thought to be male have been practised by women and it’s always good to see that record set straight, particularly in such an interesting way.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I really liked her way of framing the book at the beginning, setting out a case for a female-centric definition of flâneusing as opposed to shoe-horning women into the masculine world of the flâneur. It recognises that men and women may get different things from traversing a city on foot (or they may approach the activity somewhat differently from one another).

      Reply
  5. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Really interesting review, Jacqui. I enjoyed this one as well, although with some reservations as I felt she avoided addressing some of the realities of flaneusing, as well as employing what you might call white privilege in place; I did wish she’d addressed more of the issues that walking women faced. It was a really interesting concept but didn’t entirely work for me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I did wonder whether she had encountered any harassment (or had felt unsafe) at any point…but you’re right, the potential dangers aren’t mentioned in the book (as far as I recall). I’ll head over to yours in a while to take a look at your review…

      Reply
  7. heavenali

    Well this sounds fascinating, what a fantastic idea for a book, and such a marvellous collection of women. Seeing Karen’s comment resonates, as I was reading your review I was thinking about the problems some women walkers might experience, the dangers even that they might face.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I loved Elkin’s insights on these women, some of whom were walkers themselves while others (such as Varda and Rhys) depicted flâneuses in their work. A fascinating book to dip into with all the different sections.

      Reply
  8. Julé Cunningham

    This is a book I read when it first came out here and thoroughly enjoyed it being a fan of both walking a place and books about women walkers. I can’t really get to know a place without walking it or least various parts of it. I really like the way you’ve brought out how Elkin wrote about the history of walking women, of course so rarely acknowledged by male writers on the topic.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, me too. Whenever I go into London, I try to walk as much as possible, partly to avoid using the tube and partly to see the city itself. I’m also a people watcher as well as a walker, so flâneusing (for want of a better word) gives me a chance to do both at one. I glad you enjoyed this book too!

      Reply
  9. mallikabooks15

    This sounds fascinating and I love that she chose to change the understanding of what it means to be a flaneur rather than try to fit things in to the word in the context of men.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, exactly. I really like that aspect too, and she sets this out at the beginning of the book to put her explorations of these women walkers into context. It’s a really interesting book, and a good one to dip into given the chapters on different flâneuses.

      Reply
  10. madamebibilophile

    This sounds delightful! Lovely to see some focus on Jean Rhys, her characters always seem so desperate as the walk the streets looking for comfort. The quote about ‘there always was a flâneuse passing Baudelaire in the street’ is just great!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I really liked that quote, too. Even though it’s quite tongue-in-cheek in style, you can see that there’s a valid point behind it. The chapter of Jean Rhys was really interesting, particularly given the connection with Paris!

      Reply
  11. 1streading

    This sounds like it covers many fascinating artists – and art forms. (Though I struggle with the rather pretentious title – walking everywhere suggest to me a surfeit of leisure time!)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! I quite like the idea of being a flâneuse – a lady of leisure, wandering through the city with no particular agenda or fixed destination, even if it’s just one day a month. :-)

      Reply
  12. Liz Dexter

    This sounds brilliant and I’m glad I remembered correctly that Kaggsy had read it, too! I like a bit of psychogeography but got put off by the maleness, literally pissing on walls, of Iain Sinclair’s latest, so this would be a good contrast!

    Reply
      1. Liz Dexter

        I enjoyed London Orbital and one other, his John Clare one was a slog and this one is manky – I read it with my best friend as one of our readalongs, so we enjoyed disliking it together!

        Reply

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