Book Review: Walking through the City with Lauren Elkin in Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London
by Tiffany Soga
Lauren Elkin was walking through Paris when she stopped and in the middle of a street and thought to herself:
‘Was this spot on the earth beautiful always? Did the Romans notice the light?’
I had often found myself thinking the same words when I walked down to the MShed and along the harbourside in Bristol. The view that opens up at the mouth of Wapping Wharf, the cargo florist, the barbershop, and what I called the ‘booze corner’—would you like a side of cider with your wine? The water that greets you at the end of that walk, and, while walking across the bridge, the way the sun sits high above the river as a hot air balloon drifts slowly from left frame to right…
Was this spot along the harbourside always this beautiful? Did other souls stop mid-walk to watch the rain clouds roll in and out, and did they breathe in the beauty of this city the way I lived to do for every day I was able to call it home?
Elkin’s Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London reads as a love-letter to the city of Paris, and in reading it, I felt those questions answered in each portrait she painted of her beloved city. Both American expats having lived for a prolonged period abroad, Elkin and I shared a similar love for walking and, through the act, fell in love with foreign cities that became more of a home to us than our hometowns were or could ever be.
It was the cover that caught my eye. A dapper-looking gentleman, poised in a top hat with a walking stick clutched firmly under his right arm, an air of confidence that could only be emanated by a privileged white man, and splatted across his head in bright, loud teal, that single word which exudes elegance, class, movement, and woman: Flâneuse.
A quick overview of the literary figure of the flâneuse:
The flâneur was a literary figure born in 19th century France. A response to that aristocratic ennui (essentially privileged boredom), the flâneur wandered aimlessly through the streets, a passionate stroller with piles of money and not a single responsibility, and took delight in the beauty of everyday aesthetics. Charles Baudelair describes him as ‘the passionate spectator’ who takes ‘immense joy’ in walking and ‘becom[ing] one flesh with the crowd.’ When I first came across the figure of the flâneur, I was immediately drawn by the idea of a respected and emblematic literary figure who loved walking and absorbing the energy of those spaces being traversed as much as I do. ‘To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home’; having moved from Los Angeles to Boston to Bristol, I related with this figure deeply. I loved the flâneur, that is until I read him described as ‘a prince’ since only a man could be called a flâneur. Women walkers had no Romantic connotation to their name. The female flâneur was the flâneuse, and she was, by all accounts, a prostitute.
The act of strolling through a city was a man’s role, never challenged nor accepted as a woman’s. So when Elkin scoffed within the first chapter at the idea of flâneurie as a male-exclusive club, ‘as if a penis were a requisite walking appendage, like a cane’, she had my feminist heart.
This book speaks to two of my favourite things: examples of successful women with gumption, and cities. Her portraits of women are beautiful, weaving their personal narratives into how each woman’s respective city shaped her and in return, how her works have helped to redefine and immortalize it. Each chapter features a famous woman as she parades through the cityscape and reclaims these previously masculine spaces as hers.
Now, what I loved most about her book is that she is just as obsessive about the minutiae of remarkable female figures (all of them writers save one film director) as I am. In the London chapter, for instance, Elkin writes about Virginia Woolf and her move to Bloomsbury, how the city gave her a freedom to walk, to wander, and to release a creative flow that inspired some of her most notable characters in literature today—it is, after all, Mrs. Dalloway whose very first words in the novel are, ‘I love walking in London […] Really, it’s better than walking in the country’. Elkin’s storytelling is so sweet and vivid; she paints an funny image of Woolf walking her sister’s dog through London, which I personally imagine is a feisty little terrier; a young Woolf committing a little dognapping in her rebellious years… thank you Elkin, for allowing me to imagine just so.
"When Elkin scoffed within the first chapter at the idea of flâneurie as a male-exclusive club, ‘as if a penis were a requisite walking appendage, like a cane’, she had my feminist heart."
For seven chapters, I was enthralled, enraptured in Elkin’s writing and inspired by the stories of the real and exemplary women who moved through them. And then Tokyo. This marks a pivotal point in my reading of Elkin’s book, and not a very positive one. In my mind, the chapter shifts far from her original thesis. Unlike her previous chapters, Elkin does not center this one around the success of a notable woman conquering the streets of Tokyo. Instead, the entire chapter reads as a depressing, personal reflection of why Tokyo ‘is wrong.’ In the course of 32 pages, she uses the pronoun ‘I’ 307 times, a stark contrast from earlier chapters in which she focuses on historical flâneuses and what ‘we’ as a collective should do to capture that positive, thrilling, and empowering urban spirit, marking a clear deviation from her as from a historian, researcher, and storytelling narrator to an upset, angry, and disappointed girlfriend. The chapter does not fit, not if her thesis and objective is to write an exposé on the independent and present flâneuse who ‘voyages out […] determined, resourceful individual keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city, and the liberating possibilities of a good walk.’ In a podcast interview, Elkin mentions that her original manuscript featured a section about how she and her friends would walk down streets and be harassed by men either catcalling at them or explicitly groping them. The editors chose to cut these experiences out of the book, and I cannot understand nor support this decision to remove a collectively traumatizing female experience from a book about the female urban experience in order to keep a chapter that reads as a pathetic storytelling of her toxic relationship and the eventual breakup of her engagement in Tokyo.
Coming out of the Tokyo chapter, I was, quite frankly, annoyed of her as a writer... I felt as though she had hooked me in with seven beautifully constructed and intensely researched portraits of inspiring flâneuses only to shove in the middle of her book a chapter that screams, “me, me me’. I doubted whether or not I could trust her as a narrator because she spent an entire chapter writing about herself and speaking so negatively about a new urban space, projecting her personal insecurities onto an entire culture. And while the remainder of the book post-Tokyo-debacle is interesting—the following chapter speaks about women protesting and reclaiming the streets as their spaces, which is an empowering and amazing read— I find my impression of the latter half unmemorable.
Elkin does rounds off the book poetically. She opens with a chapter in her hometown in New York and how she grew up inspire by cities, only to end by describing her return to New York after years of living abroad. But again, I was thrown off by that out-from-left-field seventh chapter, which refocused my reading lens so that the rest of her book reads as an assertion of why she will only ever call Paris home.
My main issue is with the marketing. Flâneuse is presented as a book about women moving through the streets, described by The Guardian on the back cover as ‘a joyful genealogy of the female urban walker’. And yet, that seventh chapter proclaims the opposite— ‘I was too depressed’. I understand the positive reviews, and it is a beautifully written book. I am inspired by the vision of every single one of these women whom she writes about. However, I was confused about the direction the book abruptly turned into memoir, and it wasn't subtle. It was a depressing slap in the face projected onto the Tokyo landscape. She even states: "I knew I was coming up against my own cultural prejudices" in Tokyo. So maybe I too am coming up against my own cultural prejudices in dismissing her ill-fitting chapter- I grew up going to Tokyo three to four times a year, I don't speak a work of Japanese, and yet I found it one of the most walkable and beautiful cities. I did not see the same "hideousness of Tokyo" which she claimed personally assaulted her and "really hurt." At the very bottom of the back cover, in tiny print on the left corner, the book’s genre is marked, "Memoir/Social and Cultural History", but you'd have to be looking for it to find it, which made the odd tonal and subject shift underwhelming and disappointing.
Chapter Seven aside, I think that Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London is a beautiful and fun read. I closed the covers eager to see what topographies my feet could read. The book serves as a fine an introduction to the figure of the flâneur most importantly beings the discourse of woman as flâneuse, addressing one of my many issues with male-centric literature and corresponding theory. I only suggest, however, that if you do decide to buy the book, skip that Tokyo chapter. I promise you it will be a much more magical read.
Flâneuse is published by Chatto & Windus (£16.99).