Lauren la flâneuse

In the NYT Book Review on 3/5/1 7, under the heading “Walk on By” — subtitle (in print) “A tribute to the pleasures of aimless urban exploration, female style”, (on-line) “A Celebration of Women’s Pleasure in Wandering a City” — a review by Diane Johnson of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London by Lauren Elkin (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016).


The cover art captures well Elkin’s reconfiguring the identity of the flâneur, for nearly 200 years the exclusive property of men, as a female identity, the flâneuse. Still urban and modern and primarily European in outlook, but now available to women (of independent spirit).

The male archetype that is re-dressed in #1, Paul Gavarni’s Le Flâneur (1842):


On the older type, from Wikipedia:

Flâneur … means “stroller”, “lounger”, “saunterer”, or “loafer”. Flânerie is the act of strolling, with all of its accompanying associations. A near-synonym is boulevardier.

The flâneur was, first of all, a literary type from 18th century France, essential to any picture of the streets of Paris. The word carried a set of rich associations: the man of leisure, the idler, the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street. It was Walter Benjamin, drawing on the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, who made this figure the object of scholarly interest in the 20th century, as an emblematic archetype of urban, modern experience. Following Benjamin, the flâneur has become an important symbol for scholars, artists and writers.

And then fron Johnson’s review:

As a student in Paris, Lauren Elkin loved to wander aimlessly in the streets, but she needed to adapt the existing word for a person doing that, flâneur — an idle stroller, killing time — to fit her own case: feminine. But the feminine form, flâneuse, implied sitting decorously on benches rather than anything more vigorous. One point Elkin makes in her absorbing new book is that although men had always enjoyed the practice of loafing through city streets with no particular object, just enjoying the scene [and, most important, assessing it and commenting on it], women had long been prevented, culturally and practically, from going out alone. Respectable women couldn’t make their way along the streets without being harassed, perhaps even assaulted or arrested. Young American travelers with Eurail passes will have discovered that this is still true in too many places. Try parts of Italy or Istanbul.

“The great writers of the city,” Elkin observes, “the great psychogeographers, the ones you read about in The Observer on weekends: They are all men, and at any given moment you’ll find them writing about each other’s work . . . . As if a penis were a requisite walking appendage, like a cane.” It was in the great cities — Paris, London, New York, Tokyo and Venice are her models — that women gradually asserted the privilege of walking around and, helped by the advent of department stores and tearooms, could begin to enjoy the pleasures of being flâneuses. Middle-class women, that is. Washerwomen and vegetable sellers had always had the freedom to go out to market their wares, and the same held true for prostitutes. They had a kind of invisibility, as if they were honorary men.

Nonetheless, once Elkin began to look for a sorority of flâneuses, she found them, among contemporaries and in history. She talks in detail about some distinguished sisters: Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, the formidable George Sand. And because this is a memoir as well as a history, we follow Elkin herself as she explores several cities, beginning with New York, then moving on to Paris, London, Venice and Tokyo, a restless spirit in love with flânerie [some writers opt for flâneuserie], finally coming to light in the city that gave her pastime its name.

Johnson concludes:

To be as good a flâneuse as Elkin also requires strong legs, sturdy feet, erudition and, above all, imagination, a way of being in touch with the ghosts who linger in recently visited spots. It will be up to booksellers to figure out how to categorize her pastiche of travel writing, memoir, history and literary nonfiction. A reader, flaneusing along the bookshelves, will find in it some of the pleasures of each.

(Until my joints turned against me, I loved to walk, anywhere, everywhere, even in places that weren’t particularly congenial to the enterprise (Los Angeles immediately comes to mind), but I especially enjoyed my aimless hours of thoughtful strolling in New York, San Francisco, Edinburgh, London, Brighton, and Vienna. And in many smaller places. Occasionally I’d encounter other solitary walkers in the city like me — but always, I think men. Couples, on the other hand, both mixed-sex and same-sex, were not uncommon; Jacques and I liked to walk together this way.)

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