“Tantalises rather than entirely satisfies” – Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin

fle1Elkin’s Flâneuse is an extended reclamation and redirection of Charles Baudelaire’s concept of the ‘flâneur’: while the original term – loosely dating back to mid-nineteenth century Paris and latterly popularised by Walter Benjamin – referred to a city stroller, a scholarly idler, a literary spectator and recorder of the urban experience, Elkin argues that it excluded women; that women were the objects of the flâneur’s gaze and that the discourse around flânerie has dismissed and ignored those women who want(ed) to, or, indeed, did/do in fact, walk the city. One of the book’s most incendiary moments is tucked away in the footnote to the introductory chapter: here, Will Self, one of today’s most prominent (and, dare we say it, self-mythologising) flâneurs, explains at length how nature and/or nurture has ‘inculcated’ men with ‘superior visual-spatial skills to women’, and so he concludes, sadly, that he’s destined to ‘wander alone’, or ‘at best’, with a male companion – though he does indulge in ‘the fantasy of a psychogeographic muse’ to enhance his own experience. Enraged yet? Excellent! You’ll be glad to hear that Elkin’s book goes a way towards redressing the balance: her chapters interweave her own experiences as a flâneuse with accounts of flâneuses of the past (Jean Rhys, George Sand, Virginia Woolf, Agnès Varda, Sophie Calle and Martha Gellhorn) in a book that takes us meandering all over the world, from NYC to Paris, London, Venice, Tokyo and – thanks to Gellhorn – many more.

We missed Flâneuse on its initial release last year, and the hype was such that we grabbed it on the second round – so what did we think? It stamps all over Self’s patriarchal hyperbole, that’s for sure; it de-mythologises the ‘reified canon of masculine writer-walkers’ (‘as if a penis were a pre-requisite walking appendage, like a cane’) and acts as a proper call to arms for any woman with a perambulatory bent. And Elkin’s account is easy to engage with: she evokes the joy of discovery that comes with exploring a new city (or delving ever-deeper into one already known), and alongside that, the uncertainty and stress of emigrant life with its red tape and provisionality (she moved to Paris from New York in her mid-twenties and is now a French citizen), and she mixes social and literary history and urban geography with the peaks and troughs of her personal and professional lives and her meditations on the flâneur and the flâneuse. The book mimics the ‘idling’ form of the flâneuse’s path through the side-streets of her cities: it’s meandering, anecdotal, occasionally incensed, always enthusiastic. It alternates chapters detailing with Elkin’s own walks with chapters offering short biographies of her literary and artistic predecessors (thus setting up an alternative canon to that of Self and Baudelaire), and so, as well as seeing the cities themselves, we learn how these women related to their streets and how that fed into their various artistic practices. Woolf’s and Calle’s were particularly illuminating: Woolf’s experiences in Bloomsbury highlight the expanding horizons for women at the time and Calle’s interrogate the subject/object dichotomy as she follows an ex-lover around Venice. Elkin’s use of Calle’s investigatory persona in Suite Vénitienne is especially apt in a study of flâneusing as a mode of knowing both one’s surrounding and oneself.

On the other hand, there’s a whiff of the dabbling amateur here. That’s not to accuse Elkin of a lack of professional rigour as a scholar (or, indeed, as a flâneuse); it’s mostly that the quick glimpses and partial views and collage-effects that seem to be necessitated by flâneusing (one passes by, one sneaks a peak, one turns the next corner), and that are (skillfully) replicated by Elkin in the book’s structure (a bit of London, a snatch of Venice, a very fractional glance at Tokyo), result in a book that tantalises rather than entirely satisfies. We get a potted history of the individual flâneuses; we get snippets of the long histories of the cities and their politics and plans and populations; we get summaries of the writings of other flâneurs and flâneuses (meta-flaneusing?). You can take this either way: it’s either an excellent teaser introducing us to other works we’ll like (if you liked this, you’ll like that) or it’s not half as detailed as we’d like. We erred towards the latter reading: the relationship between the city and the suburb felt under-theorised; the lit-crit wasn’t particular critical, and the discussion of protest and revolution in one of the Parisian chapters seemed, likewise, somewhat slight –‘anarchist’, for instance, is used almost synonymously with ‘troublemaker’. In the same section, Elkin remarks that – following Mavis Gallant – the only ‘ethical way for a writer to respond’ to political turmoil is ‘from an ironical distance’; later, also apparently approvingly, and with no acknowledgement of any contradiction, she cites Martha Gellhorn’s impatience with ‘all that objectivity shit’. This perhaps accentuates the ambiguities of the ex-pat experience: are you, or are you not, a part of that which surrounds you? But it does, too, highlight one of the more glaring problems here: what we’re seeing is predominantly a middle-class world-view, in which protest is something from which one can remain ‘ironically detached’, in which the streets are literary reference points, in which one can, in fact, flâneur. In a book that tracks the streets and references the Occupy movement and its 99%, homelessness is largely unremarked upon and the migrants we meet are more or less solvent. Perhaps, of course, that’s to miss the point: not every book can fulfill every political remit, and Elkin’s does, again, address a significant gender imbalance in the literary canon; perhaps we’re, unfairly, after an entirely different text.

Any Cop?: If you like biography, memoir and travel writing, and want to dabble in literary/art criticism, you’ll love it. And anyone who’s got a stake in how the world is gendered should check it out. As Elkin puts it: ‘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’.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

 

 

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