‘Flâneuse’ is a Delightfully Aimless Look at Aimlessness

4 Stars

Cities have always been fertile ground for artists and inquiring minds, and no phenomenon has captured this notion more than that of the flâneur. The flâneur is typically described as a man who wanders urban streets and byways, often looking for inspiration. These men seek to thoroughly know a city, and discreetly observe its comings and goings. But is flânerie, this art of idling, even possible for women? Can a woman walk through city streets, unobserved but always observing? Is there such a thing as a flâneuse? The male gaze, restrictions on female movements in public, and street harassment have long cast doubt on this possibility.

However, these are the questions Lauren Elkin seeks to answer in her book “Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London.” Part memoir, part cultural criticism, Elkin’s book wanders with her as she explores the cities she has come to know. Elkin came to understand the practice and the concept of flânerie during her rovings as a student in Paris. She describes these walks with intimacy, throwing place names at her reader almost too quickly to follow. These mentions are almost always accompanied by a tidbit of history that give the reader a fleeting feeling of familiarity. In this way, Elkin succeed in recreating the experience of flânerie with her book—any of her chapters, especially those in Paris and New York,is a good substitute for a brief stroll through the cities described.

While narrating her own wanderings, Elkin describes those of other women who deserve to be called flâneuse. These include Virginia Woolf, Agnès Varda, Sophie Calle, and Jean Rhys women who not only practiced flânerie, but depicted the flâneuse in their novels, films, and art. Elkin’s historical predecessors are more than simply evidence of the existence of the flâneuse for her—they are artists with whom she has connected, by way of their work. They have guided Elkin in her journeys through the world, and the places that they called home.

With these women at her back, Elkin easily answers the question of whether the flâneuse exists. She concedes that women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries faced more risks in flânerie than did their male counterparts. However, she insists that “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.” Elkin sets out to discover the distinctly feminine forms of flânerie.

For the most part, Elkin succeeds; however, just as in any walk, not every moment feels worthwhile. She lingers on Paris—it is clearly her favorite—just slightly too long, mentioning churches and cafés that are meaningless to those not in the know. Tokyo, by comparison, gets short shrift. She writes extensively about her dislike for the city, although she admits that much of that feeling is due to her romantic problems at the time. She professes to not understanding the city; despite her attempts at flânerie, she cannot get a foothold. Unlike in every other chapter, Elkin doesn’t refer to any inspirational woman in the Tokyo section. The only views of the city that she does mention are Western ones, primarily literary theorist Roland Barthes and Sofia Coppola’s film “Lost in Translation.” Surprisingly, she is unable to find a local flâneuse—if she had, perhaps she might have enjoyed her time their more.

Though the issue with her time in Tokyo is small, it points to a larger critique of Elkin’s book. Much of the content of the book is truly accessible only to those who know New York and Paris, and have read all the relevant books by the writers who live there. Of course, this is true of most memoirs and depictions of places, but insofar as she wants “Flâneuse” to be a work of cultural criticism as well, it is decidedly narrow. As a memoir, it never quite gives the reader a complete picture of Elkin’s life, but merely presents images glimpsed in passing.

Still, what Elkin accomplishes with “Flâneuse” is commendable. Her rambling writing style, prone to tangents, is perfect for the book. By so often straying off the beaten track, she gives the book depth and the reader many worthwhile avenues of thought. Throughout the walking tour of her life, she reflects on suburbia, caryatids, religion, and gentrification to cast glancing looks at society and illuminate alleys that have been little explored. Just like on a day trip through a city, she gives her readers many glowing sparks of thought and inspiration. With “Flâneuse,” Elkin has written a work worth getting lost in.


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