When there are so many women afraid to walk, run, or jog by themselves, Lauren Elkin takes back the streets with Flâneuse. Part history of walking, places, and people, and part memoir, the book tells the tale of the flâneuse, the female version of a flâneur. What is a flâneur, you might ask? According to Elkin:
“From the French verb flâner, the flâneur, or ‘one who wanders aimlessly’, was born in the first half of the nineteenth century, in the glass-and-steel-covered passages of Paris… A figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention the flâneur understands the city as few of its inhabitants do, for he has memorized it with his feet.”
Elkin realized that there is no history of the flâneuse. There’s a breadcrumb trail of the few and the bright, and she follows it. She gets lost trying to find the same streets that Virginia Woolf walked in London. Elkin tells the tale of author Jean Rhys, who she discovered in her twenties. Her books were scandalous because they showed that women can be depressed and want sex. Elkin gets lost in her PhD thesis and in Venice as she follows a female artist that follows a man. The artist, Sophie Calle, followed a man around Venice and photographed him, creating a story of what his life might be like. Elkin tells the tale of Martha Gellhorn, an excellent journalist who also happened to the first wife of Ernest Hemingway. He tried to put her in the housewife role because he didn’t like the competition.
But Flâneuse is more than a history lesson, it’s also about the connection that Elkin feels to the flâneuse figures. She can walk for hours and get nowhere and be content. When moving to Paris, she would spend an entire day walking the same neighborhood. She loves to sit in cafes and people watch, create new trails, and feel connected to the pavement. Elkin travels to Tokyo and feels trapped by how much she depends on her boyfriend due to not being able to adapt to the culture and language. When people tie her down, her need to wander grows stronger. Growing up in the suburbs, she saw how the city affected her parents. They would get tense and overprotective. But Elkin feels at home in a crowd and feeds off the energy of the community of the city. Not to mention that, for her, the layout of suburbia is looping and reinforces boundaries. It feels like a cage.
Maybe most culturally relevant is Elkin’s essay “Children of the Revolution,” about the relation between pavement and protests. On the surface, Paris seems beautiful and peaceful. Pastel colored buildings surround Elkin as she lives there. But lurking in dark corners and isolated spots is a more violent history of the city of love. She searches all around:
“I look for the cobblestones further down, nestled under swathes of pavement laid after the upheaval of 1968. Traditionally, when there’s been an uprising, Parisians have dislodged the cobblestones and thrown them at the authorities — the republican army, the riot police, whoever — so in certain neighborhoods a protective layer of asphalt was smoothed over the stones.”
She takes us along the Seine, where in 1961, Nazis drowned a hundred Algerians. That same graffiti begins appearing around bridges yelling, “Here we drown Algerians.” Elkin walks past a plaque once a week that memorializes the death of a passerby in 1986, who was a causality during a protest. He wasn’t even part of it. The loveliness of Paris comes at the cost of collaborating with Nazis and the lives of their causalities. By the end of the essay, she wonders how kids can sit on parts of revolutionary history and not even know. How will this history survive then?
Elkin is able to mix fact with emotion. She brings readers in close, only to push them away. She’s vulnerable and soft, but hits the reader and the pavement hard as she follows her own trails. She teaches history and entertains as she talks about absurd or obscure facts, or points out how many monuments don’t include women. She is able to translate the past and philosophy into bite-sized pieces for every reader. She creates a map in the reader’s eye of the places she’s been and where she is going. She grabs the reader’s hand and they walk together.
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