A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
This is an elegant little book, first published over ten years ago in a series from Bloomsbury called The Writer And The City “… an occasional series in which some of the finest writers of our time reveal the secrets of the city they know best.” As I love Paris, but never could aspire to put the considerable work in to become any sort of a flâneur myself, I was delighted when a friend passed this book on to me. I knew I would be in good hands.
It seems I’ve caught the zeitgeist – no sooner had I taken this book on holiday, but flânerie kept popping up – most recently in Laurie Taylor’s entertaining Radio 4 programme Thinking Allowed. Far from being a lightweight dilettante, the flâneur is someone who absorbs the experience of the city in a peculiarly intense way, and, if we are lucky, shares the results with us. I wonder – is it possible to be a flâneur anywhere other than in France? Or more specifically in Paris? Yet one more untranslatable French word. Edmund White is a multi-layered Flâneur, having learnt the art while living in the city for many years and discovering his own secret city. He is not a native Parisian, but he makes certain locations and layers of history his own. In this little book he unfolds the map of his own personal Paris – which may not be yours or mine, but which is an inspiration to go out and find one’s own.
This concept of Flânerie is most deceptive. It has all the appearance of being a leisured, detached activity, undertaken by someone with all the time in the world. The flâneur strolls the streets of his city, apparently without aim or visible expense of energy, while in fact absorbing their history, communing with the past and uncovering secrets. It is actually jolly decent of the flâneur to share them with the rest of us. Underpinning flânerie is acute perception, wide knowledge and deep erudition. It is very much a literary pursuit, and has fed the writing of so many, from Baudelaire (whose life as a prototype but ultimately failed flâneur is part of this book, along with the multi-layered history of the Ile-St-Louis mansion that was his home), through Colette, whose unique personality and literary life, as a ‘ghost’ and as an author in her own right, are brilliantly chronicled here, to White himself.
White-the-Flâneur’s Paris embraces his own predilections and his status as an American in Paris. His personal map of the city is on the endpapers, so it is a guidebook of sorts (the best sort really, with stories instead of facts and pictures). As a gay writer, his Paris goes to places that the straight tourist would not discover without help. And his preferred company, past and present, is that of the eccentric, the creative and the marginalised. He celebrates the effect of the French concept of Égalité, in that Paris is the city that belongs to all who come to live there, where people of all origins and modes of life make their home, and sectional interests are subsumed to equality. It is the city where people of colour can be taken to the heart (the musical base from which Sidney Bechet and Josephine Baker made their brilliant careers); the city where sexuality is entirely and completely a personal matter. Where this becomes a problem not a solution arises with the deep reluctance of the French to respond to the specific needs of marginalised groups, which led (for instance) to a far too muted response to the AIDS crisis in France, its negative effects chronicled by White here.
In a city of world class art he uncovers two overlooked museums: the Musée Nissim de Camondo, and the Musée Gustave Moreau. The first is the legacy to Paris of an extinct French banking family, fabulously rich in the 19th century, eminences grises in the worlds of art and literature, whose last patriarch left house and art collection to the nation in memory of his son (this family’s history paralleled so closely that of Edmund de Waal’s Ephrussi family that I wondered if they were connected – then remembered that they did not have to be – their history is yet another strand of the history of European Jewry in the 20th century). The Moreau is the memorial to the artist Gustave Moreau, so prolific, so completely out of vogue, who kept most of his work, and devised his own museum to house it. White celebrates its creepiness, and its almost complete emptiness of people (which is borne out in my mind by the fact that I think the scarcely frequented Musée Gustave Moreau was the sinister scene where the baddie goes draguer for his innocent victims, in the first series of the amazingly good French TV policier Spiral (Engrenages)).
White is wonderfully amusing in the way he recruits his reader into an imaginary world where he and we share the same tastes and cultural formation. My favourite of these teases he slips in on page 132, by which time we have all been agreeing with him in a very self-satisfied way for some chapters. In his passage on the Hôtel de Lauzun, home at a certain point in its long history to Baudelaire, White describes the pleasures experienced by the notorious Club des Hachichins, who consumed their drug of choice in the sybaritic form of a green jelly: All the signs of being totally, deliriously, even dangerously stoned, so well known to my reader, were already familiar to the arty denizens of the Hôtel de Lauzun. They fell about laughing, then an unspeakable fear seized them, to be followed by a melting love of all humanity or by total immersion in a picture book. Sadly, he has picked the wrong reader in me, though I am very tempted now….
Tiny (large pocket sized), lapidary and elegant, this book is a wonderful addition to my small collection of alternative guide books – those that tell me what else is hiding just below the skin of the well known city. However, I think I shall be giving the Musée Gustave Moreau a miss.
Edmund White: The Flâneur. A Stroll Through The Paradoxes Of Paris. London, New York: Bloomsbury, 2008. 211pp
First published: 2001.