“My most meaningful experience with the city was not through its literature, its food or its museums… but through all that walking.”
Part cultural meander, part memoir, Flâneuse brims with intellectual curiosity and empathy. Rather than setting a definitive history of the flâneuse, Lauren Elkin invites readers to explore the relationship between city, women and creativity, through lived experience, art and a life of learning.
Elkin’s bio reads: “Originally from New York (the suburbs, then the city), I moved to Paris in 2004; along the way I’ve spent varying periods of time in London, Venice, Tokyo, and Hong Kong.” Flâneuse traces her steps through these cities (except Hong Kong) and how each has changed her.
Noting most French dictionaries recognise only the male flâneur [a man who strolls the streets observing society], Elkin defines the flâneuse as “a determined resourceful woman keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city, and the liberating possibilities of a good walk.” In doing so, she establishes the feminist lens for the book: “We would love to be invisible the way a man is… But if we’re so conspicuous, why have we been written out of the history of cities?”
“The flâneuse is not merely a female flâneur, but a figure to be reckoned with, and inspired by, all on her own.”
She presents a series of portraits—from nineteenth-century novelist George Sand to artist Sophie Calle, from war correspondent Martha Gellhorn to filmmaker Agnès Varda—illustrating the flâneuse is not merely a female flâneur, but a figure to be reckoned with, and inspired by, all on her own.
Her writing on Venice and Tokyo, especially the latter, are less anchored in place than those set in New York and Paris. Neither felt like home to Elkin, so she chooses to focus on the psychological. In Tokyo, not by choice but for her then-boyfriend, it is little wonder she felt lost and frustrated. Were there Japanese flâneuse? I suspect Elkin felt unqualified to answer, given the language and cultural barriers she recounts. It is nevertheless a curious and disappointing omission.
“Traces of the past city are, somehow, traces of the selves we might once have been. Here and there we find them, and we fetishise them.”
Elkin neither fetishises nor romanticises cities. She tempers the sense of possibility they inspire—“The city turns you on, gets you going, moving, thinking, wanting, engaging. The city is life itself.”—with the uglier aspects: poverty, homelessness and violence in form of revolutions, protests and war. Watching the Occupy movement disband reminds her of the student uprisings of May 1968, which in turn flows into a discussion of borders and immigration. Cities cannot exist without people.
“I found her [the flâneuse] using cities as performance spaces, or as hiding places; as places to seek fame and fortune or anonymity; as places to liberate herself from oppression or to help those who are oppressed; as places to declare her independence; as places to change the world or be changed by it.”
“We are made of all the places we’ve loved, or of all the places where we’ve changed.”
At its heart, Flâneuse is a meditation on how “we are made of all the places we’ve loved, or of all the places where we’ve changed.” Our memories (and the ghosts of flâneuses past) overlay these places, forming an “emotional map” unique to each of us. Indeed, Elkin quotes Varda: “By understanding people you understand places better, by understanding places you understand people better.”
Elkin closes with an extensive bibliography and collection of notes, reflecting her background as an academic and enabling the reader to explore further, should they wish to. Flâneuse challenges the way we see cities, those we know and those we do not, and in doing so, our place in the world. It reminds us to look beyond surface. Like returning home from a holiday, it makes the familiar new.
Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin, 2015, 336 pp.