Flâneuse: Women Walk the City...
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27)
Lauren Elkin’s new book is “pedestrian in the best possible sense: It makes you want to walk,” said Jane Kamensky in The Wall Street Journal. Elkin, a Paris-based American writer, makes a habit of wandering whatever city she finds herself in, savoring the comings and goings of strangers. She would be, in other words, a flâneur—if the gendered French term used to describe an urban explorer of artistic bent didn’t argue against the very idea of a woman engaging in the avocation. Elkins wants readers to know that despite the social restrictions that long discouraged women from walking cities alone, a parade of female role models, from novelist George Sand to Dorothy Parker, precedes her. In Flâneuse, the light she shines on the history of women out in public “brings breadth and depth to a cocktail party crowded with genius.”
“Elkins’ book is itself a flânerie,” a stroll during which the reader often comes across an unexpected person, said Diane Johnson in The New York Times. We encounter Sand walking 1840s Paris in men’s clothing. Virginia Woolf saunters through London’s Bloomsbury on the pretense of buying a pencil. Elsewhere, journalist Martha Gellhorn watches war upend the street life of Madrid, and artist Sophie Calle, camera in hand, stalks a man in 1980s Venice to create an art book.
Flâneuse “jumps around, sometimes disorientingly,” said Heller McAlpin in the Los Angeles Times. Research-heavy passages sit side by side with “doleful” accounts of Elkins’ past love affairs. But as we follow the author to Paris, New York, Venice, and Tokyo, she builds toward an idea of the flâneuse that stands apart from the flâneur, said Tara Isabella Burton in The Village Voice. Male wanderers like Baudelaire and Hemingway enjoyed an invisibility on the street not available to women, and they also considered observing an exercise in power— a way of possessing all they observed, including the beauty of women passersby. Elkin feels no such sense of possessing, but instead a sense of belonging. “She may in fact best the flâneur in her enjoyment of what was once solely his pursuit.” ■