A common trope in literature is the image of the flâneur – the wealthy, white male who walks unobserved through the city, observing. The flâneur is seen but unseen, and free to do as he pleases. The streets are his hallways, the city is his home. But what happens if it is a woman who wanders? Lauren Elkin’s (Floating Cities) memoir-meets-“cultural meander” Flâneuse [flanne-euhze]: Women Walk the City seeks to answer this question. The book is a musing on women who walk and why they do so; it begins in New York and guides the reader through London, Paris, Tokyo, and Venice.
When I was newly eighteen, lonely, and homesick I found myself stuck in Santiago airport. Thanks to a rogue Chilean volcano all flights to New Zealand were grounded. I had no place to stay, no visa, and limited Spanish. The authorities didn’t know what to do with me – in response to my brimming tears they stamped my passport and handed me a list of cheap hotels.
And so began my week stranded in Santiago.
Flâneuse: Women Walk the City reminded me of that week – the week I spent wandering around Santiago – stuck between spaces and places, with nowhere to go and nothing to do.
I have never been as free as I was in that city.
I ended up staying in a strange circular room that was entirely seafoam green. It overlooked a wide avenue lined with marble white buildings and trees skeletoned for the Winter. Each day I rose early with the sun and donned my coat (protection against the cold and the unknown) and ventured into the city. At first, I stayed within the boundaries of the tourist map – watching old men play chess in the central square, sipping black coffee in Starbucks, and spending hours idle in bookstores. But by the second day I knew that kilometer square off by heart. So I wandered further and deeper into the labyrinth of the city. I allowed myself to get lost. I didn’t need a map because I had no destination. Only upon returning to my green room at dusk would I look at one in an old guidebook and realize how far I’d gone.
I walked and I watched.
I first encountered the word flâneur a year later during a lecture on Modern Poetry. Speaking on William Carlos Williams’ January Morning, the lecturer was walking the length of the lecture hall – pacing back and forth – an echo of the flâneur Williams was speaking of. It was as if she too longed to wander the city, but the institutional walls were restraining her.
Flâneuse: Women Walk the City is a social commentary on institutions restraining women from walking the city. Whether it be the institution of marriage: “ARE YOU A WAR CORRESPONDENT OR WIFE IN MY BED?” read a telegram from Ernest Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises) to Martha Gellhorn (The Face of War) in 1944; the institution of gender: “in the nineteenth century we do find that bourgeois women out in public ran all sorts of risks to their virtue and their reputations”; or the institution of education – one I witnessed in that lecture hall.
But the book is not only an analysis of society shutting the streets to women, at its core Flâneuse: Women Walk the City is a meditation on how women walk the streets anyway – and the inspiration that is found there. Virginia Woolf (Orlando, A Room of One’s Own) called it “street-haunting” and used the streets of Bloomsbury as research. Peppered throughout the book Lauren Elkin interrupts the moments of literary biography with her own stories. New Yorker by birth, but Parisian by choice, Elkin explores her own role in these cities; in New York she “felt at home in the crowds, amid the hum and the neon”, but she grows out of this home – towards Paris, where the light is different, in which the buildings “absorb and drink the light”.
Elkin “saw Paris as an escape from a place where [she] had wanted to fit in, but didn’t”. Isn’t that what adulthood is all about – searching for (and hopefully finding) the place where we fit, where we belong? She seeks a place to call home in New York and Tokyo, has brief dalliances in London and Venice, and settles finally in Paris. And all of these cities are explored and observed on foot. Like myself in Santiago, Elkin found herself (through chance or conviction) walking streets in cities across the world and by doing so, learned about the self and society.
So tie your shoelaces in a double knot and step out onto the street – for the city is transformed through the eyes of the flâneuse.