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As soon as I saw this book I knew that reading it was a must, as a companion to Edmund White’s masterly Flâneur, and it absolutely did not disappoint.
Lauren Elkin has written a unique study of women interacting with cities, based partly on her own experience, along with other women whose absorption of their city surroundings has inspired their art.
From her student days in New York, Lauren Elkin has discovered and cultivated her taste for walking and observing on the city streets. She relates that to the phenomenon of Flânerie, notes how very firmly that has been regarded and described as a male preserve, and has determined to champion the female right to the activity (rediscovering the female form Flâneuse along the way, a word she thought she might have coined but found she did not). In a series of essays, set in a number of world cities – New York, London, Venice, Tokyo, but always looping back to the spiritual home of Flânerie, Paris – she links walking and observing to creativity, and celebrates a series great Flâneuses and their work. She repossesses flânerie for women, while exploring what is distinctive about their approach to walking the city. Men have been regarded as owning the city streets, but women have always been there, and in possession of their own thoughts about what they are taking in from them. And not just George Sand, dressed as a man.
I loved the author’s account of her own flâneuserie and the pleasure and therapy that she found in it, mainly because I too have discovered the delight of walking in London, my own familiar city, eyes and ears open, looking up and looking down. She beautifully expounds the process of taking the first risks in an unfamiliar city and the rewards of becoming comfortable in her right to be there. There is the frustration and confusion of getting lost, even in a supposedly familiar place (she experiences momentary disorientation in Bloomsbury; I rolled my eyes at that until I remembered how confusing I’d found it 40 years ago, and how enlightening it was when I finally found out where Malet Street began and petered out). She describes the inevitability of getting lost in Venice. She admits the extent to which Tokyo ultimately defeated her attempts to learn to love it.
Her Flâneuse-heroines include Jean Rhys and George Sand in Paris and Virginia Woolf – naturally – in London. Her chapter on Venice explores the work of conceptual artist Sophie Calle, whose flâneuserie can only be described as determined, as she creates a work of art out of tracking the journeys in the city of Henri B. That was utterly fascinating – I had never heard of this artist. Before my visit to Venice in the near future I must learn more about her and her work. Marie Bashkirtseff, a privileged and sheltered young girl in Paris in the late 19th century who died young, nevertheless left her own tiny testimony to her flânerie in her painting A Meeting, where a young girl is gliding away down the street and out of the frame, leaving behind the group of boys she has observed. In the essay on Bloomsbury, the flâneuserie of Virginia Woolf is to be found not only where it is most expected, in Mrs Dalloway, but also in The Years, and in Woolf’s seminal essay on the subject Street Haunting. This is all brilliant stuff.
Walking in cities can be purposive or (seemingly) casual, and Lauren Elkin, flâneuse-like, observes and isolates some of the sub-phenomena. She describes psychogeographers as a Goretex-clad, walking-booted male tribe, rather like the stereotypes of trainspotters or real-ale hunters. Somewhere else on the spectrum is Martha Gellhorn, pursuing her war-reporting to the evident disgust of Ernest Hemingway who wants her back home (delightful instance of boot on other foot).
Lauren Elkin writes with elegance, wit, candour and energy. This is such a joyful book. Just occasionally, she writes a sentence that stopped me in my tracks, and set off trains of enquiry and speculation. Here’s an example: ‘Whereas Gellhorn was often more daring than her husband: when she wanted to go to China, she had to drag Hemingway along. She wanted to see the Sino-Japanese conflict for herself.. He was happy in Cuba. He has good reasons, he protested, for not wanting to go to China; for example, his uncle had been a medical missionary there and was forced on one occasion to remove his own appendix on horseback.‘ Just that. What on earth? There are endnotes throughout, but none for this one. Ah well – I shall enjoy hunting for it. Speaking of apparatus, this book has a full and fascinating bibliography, copious (if not exhaustive) endnotes, but, alas, no index. Which means that because I carelessly removed a bookmark I cannot find my way back to another of the author’s eye-stopping sentences. I’m sure it will spring out and surprise me again in due course.
This book is more than a worthy companion to Edmund White’s – it is a gorgeous celebration in its own right of the independence of women’s minds, of their creativity, and of their ability to take their part in the city. As a memoir, and as a series of lively critical essays bursting with insight, I thoroughly recommend it.
Lauren Elkin: Flâneuse. Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London. London: Chatto & Windus, 2016. 317pp