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.