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Walk This Way

By (September 1, 2017) No Comment

Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London
By Lauren Elkin
(New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016)

Lauren Elkin’s charming and smart book Flâneuse traces the stories of women on the move. In chapters that range across Europe and to New York and Tokyo, discussing an eclectic range of women writers, including George Sand, Jean Rhys, Agnès Varda, Virginia Woolf, Martha Gellhorn, Sophie Calle, Patti Smith and more, Elkin weaves feminist theory, history, literature, and personal experience together to create moving portraits testifying to the extent of women’s love for and possession of the city.

Flâneuse closes with a discussion of Ruth Orkin’s 1951 photograph of a young woman walking in Florence, taking long strides and pulling her scarf across her chest as a group of young men ogle her. While it may be tempting to read this photograph as evidence of street harassment, Elkin notes that for the young woman—Ninalee Craig—and for Orkin the photograph is “a symbol of a woman having an absolutely wonderful time.” The difference between how we see women on the streets and how women see themselves lies at the heart of this book. As Elkin explains, “The woman in the street is an unstable figure, to be sure, like the well-known drawing of the duck-rabbit that proves the ambiguities inherent in perception. Is she a carefree flâneuse, or the object of the male gaze, a rabbit or a duck?”

The flâneur, in its masculine form, was a staple of 19th and early 20th century art and literature: a bourgeois man who wandered the city, gazing at its sights, exploring all its neighborhoods even—perhaps especially—the seedier ones. The idea of the city as a place of exploration led to wonderful literary innovations by Baudelaire, Proust, Wilde, T. S. Eliot, and the sociologist Georg Simmel, among others. But all this wandering was long stipulated to be the province of men alone. After all, a woman who walks the streets was, well, a streetwalker—the euphemism for prostitution indicating the stigma against women wanderers.

So when scholars started writing feminist critiques of the flâneur, they waded through a lot of history of men objectifying women, saying no to women, worrying about the bad influence of women, confining women, and failing to see women at all. These studies, in books such as Deborah Parsons’ Streetwalking the Metropolis, offer a crucial backdrop for Elkin’s work. But, although Elkin is a scholar, Flâneuse is not a work of scholarship. It has more in common with the essayistic and journalistic work of Olivia Laing and Rebecca Solnit. There are notes and a long bibliography for those who want to read more deeply, but this book can be enjoyed as a gorgeous celebration of the fun of wandering around the streets of a beloved city, coming upon unexpected delights and seeing familiar sights from a new angle.

And, mercifully, Elkin just dismisses the academic problems that preoccupied her predecessors in this territory. Rather than wringing her hands over whether or not women can walk around in the city and be flâneueses, she notes, matter-of-factly, that women have always done so. After all, George Sand wandered the streets of Paris during the 1840’s and 50’s. Elkin is not flouting academe with this insistence; she acknowledges that her word is, in fact, not a word. Flâneuse is the correct feminine form of flâneur, but the word does not exist in many French dictionaries, or, when it does, it refers to a kind of lounge chair. Perhaps the lack of angst around her coinage arises because Elkin discovered flânerie during her study abroad days, wandering around Paris with Gilbert Jeune notebooks, “feeling intensely” but barely aware of how much she was copying generations of writers and wanderers before her. In any case, she faces her opposition head on:

To suggest that there 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…..If we tunnel back, we find there always was a flâneuse passing Baudelaire in the street.

And with that, she dismisses the objections, owns the term, and moves on to the more important business of offering a field guide to the flâneuse.

The book is full of interesting catalogues, starting with the title page, which has a different subtitle from the cover. Instead of listing the cities she discusses, she offers a range of near-synonyms for the flâneuse: wanderers, walkers, outliers, travelers. discusses the problem of definitions early on. The epigraph, too, is a list, from Deborah Levy’s Swallowing Geography: “She is the wanderer, bum, émigré, refugee, deportee, rambler, strolling player. Sometimes she would like to be a settle, but curiosity, grief, and disaffection forbid it.” And the book proceeds from city to city, exploring a theme and a writer, with a personal experience of Elkin’s knitting it together. New York (Elkin is from Long Island and went to Barnard College in New York City) and Paris (where she now lives) play the starring roles, getting multiple chapters each.

This imaginative and essayistic structure allows chapters to unfold organically. Artists who matter a lot to Elkin (Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, Agnès Varda) show up multiple times in different guises, but these moments feel like happy reunions, not repetitions. So, in the Venice chapter, Elkin writes about the particular qualities of getting lost in that watery city through stories of her own visit there, researching her novel, and the parallel story of the performance artist and writer Sophie Calle’s time in the city. Worrying about getting her work done, she writes:

I try to budget my time strictly: attend Italian class in the morning, walk around Venice in the afternoon, do my homework in the evening and read Virginia Woolf at night. In a tight schedule, there’s no room for surprises, and there’s no time to get lost. But Venice is not a city you approach with an itinerary: you are certain to get lost, and to be late almost before you’ve set out.

Virginia Woolf, whose beautiful essay “Street-Haunting” celebrates the pleasures of wandering London, is a ghost-like presence throughout the book, even though she gets little direct attention. Take, for example, this moment from the London chapter:

As we progress through the city, there comes a point when we are no longer just reacting: we are interacting, created anew by this ongoing encounter. Woolf reminds us that there is something physically absorbing that keys us into the throb of the city, transformed by the quality of the light, of the air, of the road. One day, I skinned my knuckle on Southwark Bridge trying to cross the street. Why were my arms flailing? I don’t know. But flail your arms in a city, and you will come in contact with it.

Moving from a description of walking in general, to Woolf, to Elkin herself. It is an earned personal detail made richer by the link to Woolf. One of the pleasures of this wonderful book: it’s full of rich details, many of them from her reading but others from her life in the various cities she describes.

Woolf may be an animating presence, but Elkin is best on less familiar artists. I wanted to hear more about the painter and diarist Marie Bashkirtseff (1858-1884), a Russian aristocrat who died from tuberculosis at age 25. She enjoyed wandering the Paris streets: “Though she trailed an entourage behind her, she did spend days walking the slums of Paris with her notebook in hand, sketching everything she saw, research which would produce numerous paintings, including 1884’s A Meeting.” In that charming painting of a group of boys on an unpaved street corner marveling over a small discovery, Elkin notices that Bashkirtseff “found a way to include herself in the streetscape. To the right of the group of boys, leading down another street, we can see in the background, a young girl from behind, braid down her back.”

She is particularly good on the French New Wave filmmaker Agnès Varda, offering an extended discussion of Varda’s film Cléo de 5 á 7, which follows a beautiful young singer during the hours in which she wanders the city, waiting for the doctor’s appointment that will give her potentially life-changing test results. (She fears she has cancer.) It’s not so much that the cinematic analysis amazes, but the enthusiasm she shows for Varda and the way in which she is sympathetic to Varda give the discussion the intimate and loving warmth of a tribute from a well-informed fan. Elkin, who is herself something of a homebody, despite the subject, understands Varda’s attachment to a single Paris neighborhood, and is funny in allowing herself to be charmed by all the paper ephemera that tumbles out of the Complete Varda DVD collection in spite of Elkin’s own professed horror of clutter. Noting the film’s interest in scraps of paper, in playing cards, and fortune telling, Elkin comes to appreciate what they mean for Varda and for her character, Cléo:

There may be some certainties—medical ones—but for the duration of the film, things are not certain, they haven’t gone in the wrong direction yet. Cléo is still drawing cards, so to speak. And once she reroutes her day, good things happen to her, promising things, that will allow her to take on the challenges of her illness.

And in this generous gesture, Elkin links these ephemera in the box set to litter on the street and the random encounters that only a flâneuse takes the time to notice and, more importantly, to be guided by.

Paris was the origin of Elkin’s flânerie and it appears in multiple guises: first, as a site of tragic (or really, melodramatic) young love, then, twice, as a site of protest and revolution, and finally, in the chapter that discusses Varda most fully, as home—the place where you can have a neighborhood of your own. The variety of perspectives on Paris speaks to Elkin’s love for the city and her strength as a writer. In her chapter on an unhappy and gradually souring love affair in her youth (where her literary companion is Jean Rhys), Elkin describes the first times she spent the night with a very imperfect boyfriend, drinking mint tea in a sixth-floor walk-up:

I could hear Björk in my head as I looked out over the rooftops into the courtyard, Björk imagining the sound of her body slamming against those rocks. The mouth of the window welled open so wide that the rooftops and cobblestones seemed more real, more crisp, than the unreality of what was happening inside the bedroom.

The next paragraph is a about suicide and Jean Rhys, whose romantic misadventures were far more dire than Elkin’s, and the mood here, with Elkin’s flat record of a rather dramatic (and self-dramatizing) feeling of early adulthood, captures the stakes of life in the early twenties. Unexpected and apt, “the mouth of the window” beckons and threatens.

Least successful is the Tokyo chapter, where Elkin was at her unhappiest. There, the spoiled privileged young woman who is always just about to take over comes far too close to the surface. Elkin does not understand Japan, knows no Japanese, does not engage with Japanese literature and culture, and finds the food “weird” in ways that struck this reader as incurious. “There was one root vegetable,” she writes, “some kind of radish, which tasted like the underarms of an old man’s tweed jacket.” Finally, just as her time in Tokyo is ending, she begins to see how one might like it:

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.

However, having had a nice taste of romantic melancholy in the early Paris chapter, this belated epiphany could not redeem the chapter for me.

To be a flâneur or a flâneuse is to be a person of privilege. Most of us do not have the time to wander cities except on vacation. We commute. We run errands. But the flâneuse, by definition, is not pressed by such quotidian concerns. Even so, as the book progresses, it becomes more political in salutary and timely ways. While all the writers here are white, Elkin has interesting things to say about how both Rhys and Gellhorn imagine people of other races. And Elkin discusses of cities (especially Paris) as sites of Revolution and protest, from George Sand to May 1968 to 1986 to the Gulf War Protests of 2003, and even Occupy Wall Street / Zuccotti Park from afar. In these moments, Elkin shows how, without being a radical, a flâneuse might become part of the crowd. But it is during a stop at an airport that Elkin offers the most prescient and chilling anecdote about the way we live now:

I showed him my last visa, my airplane ticket to New York, the email confirming my appointment to renew my visa at the consulate. (These are the papers the wanderer has to have on her at all times. Look, I am moving within legal limits. Look, I am doing nothing wrong.)

The right to wander—within cities and to new ones–is an important one. Whether we travel as immigrants and refugees or as tourists and flâneuses, our contact with people from other places enriches us, our minds and our art. In this lovely and amusing book, Elkin shows us how many women have been here and for how long and, in doing so, she makes a case for the importance of our continuing to take up space, to notice, and to wander, in whatever city we find ourselves in.

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Anne Fernald teaches modernist literature at Fordham University and is the editor of the Cambridge University Press edition of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.