Still from Grant Gee's documentary Patience (After Sebald)
IN HIS 1863 ESSAY “The Painter of Modern Life,” Charles Baudelaire introduces his audience to Monsieur Constantin Guys, the “perfect stroller (flâneur).” This cosmopolitan gentleman is driven by curiosity, joy, and a desire for new experiences. A “passionate spectator,” he strolls about urban spaces, observing the crowd. Even though the flâneur is alone, he is at ease. His wandering gives him inspiration. He is “away from home” yet feels “everywhere at home.” He is at once an artist, a man of the world, and a “spiritual citizen of the universe.” Baudelaire’s perfect flâneur is gifted with the ability to both understand and penetrate the world: “Few men are gifted with the capacity of seeing; there are fewer still who possess the power of expression.” Not only does the flâneur capture our world, his art transforms it. “The external world is reborn upon his paper,” Baudelaire writes, “natural and more than natural, beautiful and more than beautiful, strange and endowed with an impulsive life like the soul of its creator.”
Two recent debut novels, Teju Cole’s Open City and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, question such optimism in the transformative potential of the flâneur’s wandering gaze. The 21st century flâneurs at the center of these novels are dislocated and wayward. Adam Gordon, the narrator of Lerner’s novel, is white, born and raised in Topeka, Kansas, living in Madrid on a prestigious arts fellowship. Julius, Cole’s protagonist — a half-Nigerian, half-German immigrant living in New York City — is also completing a fellowship, in psychiatry. Both are well traveled and erudite, steeped in their knowledge of the Western arts and humanities. And both, like Constantin Guys, wander about their respective cities, going nowhere in particular. They become increasingly thoughtful, yet also remain alone inside their thoughts. They are liberal, yet doubt the efficacy of political action; they are erudite, yet question the use of erudition. Knowledge, they realize, is neither a refuge nor a means to liberation. Both are fundamentally alienated from the society in which they have chosen to live. Both narrate their lives in similar form — the plot of each novel is as desultory as the narrators themselves, and unapologetically interior.
This obsession with interior life prevents the narrators from making a connection with others. Julius cannot feel kinship with Africans who try to connect with him on the grounds of racial solidarity. Exiting a museum and encountering a rainstorm, he hops in a cab and fails to greet his driver. The driver, an African, takes offense: “Hey, I’m African just like you, why you do this?” Julius apologizes, but thinks to himself, “I wasn’t sorry at all. I was in no mood for people who tried to lay claims on me.” Nor can he feel at home in America. Refusing to listen to American radio because of its endless commercials — “Beethoven followed by ski jackets, Wagner after artisanal cheese” — he instead tunes into stations from Canada, Germany, or the Netherlands.
Like Julius, Adam is an outsider. He is driven by a self-conscious fear that he is a fraud. Unable to express h...read more