MAY 8, 2017
AS ANY WOMAN might attest, sometimes it can be hard just to walk down the street. Growing up in semi-suburban Los Angeles, I usually had the sidewalk to myself; at worst, I could expect honking and obscenities from passing cars. But when I lived in Paris briefly after college, I remember being stunned by the level of harassment I encountered exploring the city. I would get invitations from strange men to go have drinks at 9:00 a.m.; sometimes I’d be followed for blocks along a boulevard, or more uncomfortably, down a dark passageway late at night. Once I was punched in the face when I told a man who pestered me at a bus stop to va te fair foutre, or to go fuck himself. I learned that the reason we’d been taught so many variations in French class for “leave me alone” was not theoretical: I managed to use them all.
Needless to say, I wasn’t singled out for the attention. All the French girls I met had had similar experiences, including run-ins with flashers and public masturbators, as well as getting pinched and groped on the train. When spring came, these girls were shocked that one of my American friends would choose to wear short shorts — they hesitated to wear skirts that came above the knee even in the dead of summer. Taking the metro with that same American one day, I noticed how her blouse exposed her shapely shoulders. As we exited the train, a boy passing by us flagrantly bent down to kiss her bare skin, then walked away.
If gender remains a major determinant of experience in today’s cities, it should be easy to imagine the hazards women faced in public in centuries past. But there is a surprising dearth of first-hand documentation. The flâneur, perhaps the most ubiquitous figure of modernity, is that strolling spectator who, as Baudelaire writes, is able to be at “the center of the world and still remain hidden.” However, no female contemporary of Baudelaire who walked unaccompanied in 19th-century Paris would have been granted such anonymity. Instead, bourgeois women found it difficult to differentiate themselves from prostitutes, especially by the middle of the century, after mass-produced clothing made the distinction less obvious. “The problem for women,” the art historian Janet Wolff writes, “was their automatic identification with this ‘streetwalker’ whenever they walked in the street.”
One may be skeptical about the prospect of total anonymity, or wonder if it’s really as crucial for urban cataloging as is often claimed. Even now, the idea of “blending into the crowd” is a privilege usually only afforded to white men. But why should a woman’s (indeed anybody’s) experience of being noticed or harassed be discounted, as if the occurrence reveals anything less essential about a city than a man’s unfettered observation? For much of the past, a woman walking alone may have been spectacle, but it also appears to have been dismissed as not especially significant.
The paradox is something Lauren Elkin confronts early on in her recent book, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London: “[I]f we’re so conspicuous,” she asks “why have we been written out of the history of cities? It’s up to us to paint ourselves back in the picture in ways we can live with.” In Flâneuse, Elkin attempts to do this via literary criticism, biography, and memoir. Alongside her story of moving to Paris from New York in her early 20s, she explores the work and flânerie of a range of other writers and artists including Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, George Sand, Martha Gellhorn, Agnès Varda, and Sophie Calle. As is clear from this selection, the focus is less on making a historical case for the existence of the flâneuse in the 19th century (the presence of women in department stores and at the cinema being the two most oft-cited examples) than expanding its definition over the last 150 years to include any woman who captures her life in a city, whether through writing or otherwise; a woman who “engages with the city in any way she can,” and who disrupts feminine notions of domesticity. “She gets to know the city by wandering its streets, investigating its dark corners,” Elkin writes,
peering behind facades, penetrating into secret courtyards. I found her using cities as performance spaces, or as hiding places; as places to seek fame and fortune or anonymity; as places to liberate herself from oppression or to help those who are oppressed; as places to declare her independence; as places to change the world or be changed by it.
The parameters seem fairly broad. Flâneuse tends to sweep across time and place on a surprising scale, given the immediate, eye-level experience one might expect more of in a book ostensibly about walking the city (though each chapter does take a set of personalized directions as its epigraph). For the most part, Elkin, who is a translator and novelist as well as a critic, structures her book around places where she has lived or spent time for academic or creative work (she recalls a trip to Venice, for instance, to research a novel) — or for love, as in her chapter about moving to Tokyo to live with a boyfriend, the ensuing unhappy relationship, and the difficulties of navigating a megalopolis. The hybrid approach, which flips between snippets of her own life and those of the women she writes about, is searching and meandering, full of cultural insight and a diverse range of references. Clearly, she is most inspired covering her adopted home of Paris and its history. She reveals she is always looking for ghosts on the boulevard and her yearning for the past and present to align, for something to happen “that would make their world dissolve into ours,” casts her as a sympathetic guide — one able to see what Luc Sante, in his own recent book on Paris, writes is “the tremendous expanse of time in compressed and vestigial form […] the composted layers of a thousand eras.”
True to this mode, one chapter begins with the image of an open trench as Elkin describes her habit of inspecting Paris roadwork whenever she has the chance. She hunts for the cobblestones that have historically been pried out of the street during protests and flung at police, but were paved over after the upheavals of May ’68. With the question of what remains of revolution, she considers the visible signs, such as bullet holes or memorials, against the relatively placid facades of Paris (the result, in part, of citywide preservation mandate know as facadism). Her larger aim, she writes, is the search for evidence of Parisians who “fought back against what was imposed on them,” and this leads her eventually to George Sand, someone she sees as having been radical in her own era, but obscured over time by cliché. Sand, of course, remarkably left her small children and unhappy marriage in central France to move to Paris to become a writer in 1831. Her famous cross-dressing, for which she would don a heavy gray suit and iron-heeled boots and walk the streets of Paris like, she wrote, “an atom lost in the crowd,” argues Elkin, was born of necessity, not idealism. She wanted independence and without delicate shoes and long skirts she was able to blend in, and move quickly from one end of the city to the other. Spurned early on by political consciousness (she would eventually serve as the minister of propaganda for the Second Republic), she grew up in a period of regular revolution, happening in intervals of about 20 years. Elkin compares her own proximity to September 11 and the Charlie Hebdo attacks of 2015 — events she saw at a remove, replayed and analyzed endlessly on television — with Sand’s direct witnessing of a bloody student insurrection against the monarchy in 1832, deciding that a longing to know the past is not the same as the desire to have lived it. Sand’s 19th century to Elkin seems terrifying.
Whereas she finds Virginia Woolf’s beloved neighborhood of Bloomsbury, to which she also devotes a chapter, more inviting. When Woolf moved there in 1904, Bloomsbury was a shabby district with a deep literary history and a large supply of “bedsits”: boarding houses with communal living and dining areas where single women could rent rooms. Unsurprisingly, the neighborhood had a strong connection to the suffrage movement, which, in time, became so important to Woolf. (She places her feminist character Mary Datchet in a Bloomsbury bedsit in her novel Night and Day). The politics of the place — its used bookstores, its distance from the drab Victorian cast of Woolf’s childhood — provided an atmosphere for what the writer called “experiments and reforms” in living, which led to the rich interiors and unconventional interpersonal relationships often associated with the Bloomsbury Group. But of equal prize were the freedoms Woolf found on the street, where, as she describes in her famous essay, “Street Haunting,” one could “shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers.” In cataloging her many rhapsodic appreciations of urban experience — her fascination with “the accumulation of unrecorded life whether from the women at the street corners with their arms akimbo […] [or] the violet sellers and match-sellers and old crones stationed under doorways,” as she writes in A Room of One’s Own — Elkin evinces how the role of flâneuse inspired Woolf’s literary style much as anything else.
Chapters like these, if circuitous and centered on familiar subjects, are nonetheless satisfying. Others flit around so much — Elkin’s account of her time in Tokyo, for example, includes frustrated entries on her relationship from her diary; discussion of Roland Barthes’s book on Japan, Empire of Signs; a recap of the plot of the film Lost in Translation (but very little about navigating the city itself) — that we might start to question what the book is really about. As a memoir, this account is not particularly forthcoming; most of the major events of Elkin’s life take place off stage (we learn rather casually only in the last chapter, for instance, that she has married and lost several pregnancies). The main arc is Elkin’s move to France and then the possibility that she will need to return home to New York when, after living abroad for almost decade, her visa runs out. It’s this experience that provides the book’s overriding question: that is, whether to settle down or to roam? To live the life of a mother and wife, to own property, to stay in the country in which one was born or to be free and without roots. As she writes in her chapter on the war journalist Martha Gellhorn:
She could not stop making homes; nor could she stop leaving them […] The term we use for marrying and having children is the opposite of wandering: we say we’re “settling down,” as if, meeting with a natural course of resistance, we eventually slow and become still. Is there a happy medium between being a vagabond and a wife, between solitude and “settling down”?
These are relevant inquiries, of course, but are they really primary for the flâneuse? Might her more pressing concern be that of, say, physical vulnerability? Or the tension between wanting to be left alone and the wish to be seen? (Elkin touches on this in her discussion of Sophie Calle’s Suite Vénitienne, the artwork for which Calle followed a man she hardly knew around Venice over multiple days, playing the scorned lover, private detective, and aimless tourist all in one.) Gellhorn’s experience as a journalist certainly corresponds to the flâneuse’s role as observer, but in this context, drawing a stark distinction between domestic life and the adventures of the outside world overlooks something important about living in a city: for many there’s a thin membrane, not a gulf, between one’s home and the street. Sizable portions of one’s personal history can be wrapped up in neighborhoods and sidewalks: “Key spots on my emotional map of Paris glow hot for a time and then the heat and light subside,” Elkin writes, beautifully, elsewhere in the book. Perhaps part of the freedom of identifying as a flâneuse, as opposed to an expatriate or vagabond, is the ease with which one can pass back and forth between seemingly separate, but actually interrelated, spheres.
Gentrification’s threat to the diversity of the world’s major metropolises is another subject that should be of concern to the flâneuse. Elkin’s book mostly overlooks the phenomenon (maybe not by coincidence, all her main subjects are white), in part because she seems attached to a romantic idea of the city as a place wholly different from the suburbs. Toward the end of the book, she admits that after years away from New York she’s unable to assimilate the fact that “New York” now includes Brooklyn, and one night, instead of facing the unknown on the L train with a group of drinking buddies, she decides to go back to Long Island instead. But sprawl and displacement are now facts of city life that make the flâneuse’s course more challenging and in some ways more interesting, too. This is happening even in jewel-box-sized Paris, which decided last year to expand its metro in hopes of unifying the far-flung banlieue to the area within the periphery. It might have been worthwhile to include further perspective on these types of interstitial places. Elkin’s offering is a welcome rejoinder to the stock image of the flâneur with his cane, top hat, and ease, thanks to her consideration of a variety of smart and fascinating women. Part of where the book falls short is in not showing the cities they inhabit with equal complexity.