Medieval England had knights. The American Old West had cowboys. Paris in the nineteenth century had a heroic lone male who was a bit subtler — the flâneur.
The ultimate inhabitant of newly developed urban spaces, the flâneur — or people-watcher — was an aimless stroll- er whose penchant for anonymous observation gave him power over his unwitting subjects. As cities became infinitely more walkable (the popularity of broad boulevards, the proliferation of gas lamps), streets became stages, and flâneurs were their shadowy audiences, regarding the players with voyeuristic remove. Baudelaire called the flâneur the “prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.”
But what about the princess? As any woman who’s ever walked a city knows, there is no “incognito” in which we may rejoice. Walking or standing still, sitting in outdoor cafés or strolling through parks, we are on display, part of the urban landscape even as we observe it. We cannot be disinterested onlookers like the classic flâneur, even if we want to. The role of the flâneuse, it would seem, is impossible to cast.
But in her new book, Flâneuse, Lauren Elkin does just that. In an ambitious, powerful meditation on women in the urban space, she traverses biographical sketches of literary would-be flâneuses like Jean Rhys and Mavis Gallant and personal accounts of her own city rambles, all the while exploring the tensions of being a woman walking in public — the liminal position of the female gazer under the male gaze.
Much of her book is memoir. Elkin, an essayist and academic who lives in flânerie’s birthplace of Paris, has been a wanderer and an observer in New York (her hometown), Venice, London, Tokyo, and Rome. This allows her to turn her gaze at once outward and inward, connecting her own life with the places she roams. Cities, in Elkin’s rich, intelligent prose, become not static places that lend themselves to unidirectional efforts of observation, but whole dynamic languages — interconnected networks of constantly changing symbols.
As a travel writer whose job it is to walk through places I don’t belong and tell stories about the experience, I’ve also investigated Elkin’s thoughtful tensions. Writing an article about Paris, or Tbilisi, or Tehran, is necessarily to write an article about being a woman in Paris or Tbilisi or Tehran. As not just a foreigner but specifically a foreign woman, I have almost no chance of being incognito. The people who inform my understanding of a city are those who approach or interact with me — drunk old men, say, amused to see a young girl in a tavern up in the Slovene-speaking Carso of Italy. Just as it is impossible for me to be a true flâneur, it’s impossible for me to be, or pretend to be, a disembodied eye in the style of those great travel writers of an era past — Bruce Chatwin, or Patrick Leigh Fermor. Like Elkin’s, my flânerie (“flâneusie”?) is less voyeurism, more dialogue. Less incognito, more engagement.
And that, ultimately, is Elkin’s point. While, on one level, Flâneuse is an account of female bravery, of a kind of woman who, to quote Elkin, “goes where she isn’t supposed to,” the work is at its strongest — and its most thought-provoking — when it subverts the whole masculine notion of what being in space is supposed to be: Critiquing Hemingway’s voyeuristic approach to people-watching (and particularly, watching pretty, mysterious young girls), Elkin writes that “it’s hard for me today not to bristle at Hemingway’s association of seeing with power — women, Paris, everything he surveys ‘belongs to him’ and his pencil. What I felt…was not a sense of possession, but one of belonging.”
This vision of belonging — of places that are defined by our physical and emotional experiences in them, that in turn change as we ourselves are changed by them — is more organic than the disembodied voyeurism of the typical male flâneur, who turns every human being he sees into material for a narrative he tells about himself and considers unimpeachably true. A flâneuse, though, knows just how slippery truth is. She knows it shifts depending on her own background, her race and age and gender identity and clothing signifiers and every other element of her experience. She knows there are as many kinds of flâneuse as there are cities for us to walk. And in engaging with those cities instead of voyeuristically observing them, she may in fact best the flâneur in her enjoyment of what was once solely his pursuit. Elkin’s book is more than just a secret history of all the women who have illicitly occupied space. It’s also a revelation of just how rich, and full of meaning, that space can be — if you know how to be in it.
Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London
Farrar, Straus and Giroux