I picked up Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London by Lauren Elkin shortly after it was published last year, because I assumed that Elkin’s book was yet another in the subgenre I like to call “European Romance”—a subgenre that, for better or for worse, I find unwaveringly irresistible: the story of a young woman who moves to Paris (or, really, anywhere in France) to begin life anew. Despite the initial foibles that come from reorienting one’s existence in a foreign land, there her life is transformed by finding a new passion (whether it’s for cooking, walking, renovating a crumbling farmhouse, or, most often, for a man), and, aided by a cast of charming locals, she begins to live what Oprah would call her “best life,” but with the style and elegance of la vie européenne. At the end, she stays in France, often with her new lover and/or husband, and usually with a baby on the way. I’ve read more than twenty of these books, and while they’re all repetitive and formulaic, I’ll be damned if I don’t love them, and will read them entirely the instant they meet my hot little hands.
But Elkin’s book is nothing of the sort. This is hardly the story of a woman floundering in America who decides to run off into the Parisian sunset. Elkin went to Europe with a sense of purpose: first, as an undergrad to study abroad, then as a graduate student to receive her MPhil in French literature from the Sorbonne, then as an adult to live. And while Elkin relays some stories of romantic interludes, the relationships she details are all disasters: men who take her away, and not toward, her “best life,” which, she believes, exists squarely in Paris. A relationship isn’t the solution to Elkin’s problems the way it is in so many of this genre; neither is a new patisserie, or a gorgeous pair of shoes, or an even more gorgeous, if condemned, farmhouse. The purpose of Flâneuse is more complicated than that.
Elkin’s true love is cities, and, more specifically, walking through them. A native of New York from the Long Island suburbs, Elkin came into Manhattan to study at Barnard, and then went to Paris to study abroad, and then had stints in Tokyo, Venice, and London. In each city she walked—to explore, to get what she needed, and to get to and from work, but most of all she walked to get a feel for the city from the pedestrian’s perspective. What she desired most was to gain that slow specific view that comes only from being on the street, that takes in the height of the buildings and the whir of traffic, but also the small moments that are only visible from the ground—the graffiti hidden behind some stairs, the overlooked monument in the overgrown park, the mother and child holding hands as they sit on a bench, feeding the birds.
But Flâneuse has an explicitly political purpose as well, one that jibes nicely with our culture’s recent rediscovery of feminist critique. “Flâneuse” is the feminized version of the French word flâneur, which refers to “one who wanders aimlessly,” and which came about in the first half of the nineteenth century, when Paris’s medieval narrow streets and alleys were being demolished and redesigned by Georges-Eugène Haussmann with the express purpose of creating the vibrant, walkable, wide-boulevarded city that many of us know today. A flâneur was defined as a “figure of male privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention,” who plunges himself into the city’s street life with the implicit understanding of his dual freedoms: a man walking the street can either command respect, or he can wander anonymously, with few bothering him as he walks (3). A bourgeois male, with the implicit means and privileges of moneyed masculinity, a flâneur could come and go, transforming his ambles into art. A woman, Elkin notes, lacks this ability, by the sheer and natural force that she is a “she.”
A single woman wandering alone with no specific destination or purpose in mind—a flâneuse—is, and long has been, an object of speculation: she is immediately coded as either a prostitute or a beggar. Her body is gazed at wherever she goes; Elkin includes the startling photo of a young woman walking through Florence in 1951, leered at by no fewer than eight men. One blocks her path, another shouts at her with a contorted face, his hands unmistakably grabbing his crotch. It is an experience most urban women know well: street harassment, the practice of being a woman in public, means that you are inevitably made subject to the male gaze, and subject to the probing, hyper-sexualized attacks that men feel comfortable enough to bestow upon any passing woman they deem attractive enough to warrant their attentions.
But Elkin also turns this idea around. “Space is not neutral,” she writes. “Space is a feminist issue” (286). Simply being in public—or, more appropriately, simply being—is a feminist act, because it allows for the opportunity to gaze back, to reclaim space and reclaim structure and (finally) claim the ontological nature of existing on a level equal to a man’s. And so she makes the purpose of her book to detail both the cities she has walked in, as well as the women who walked there before her.
The book primarily is set in Paris, the city that Elkin loves the most. In the four chapters set in France, Elkin writes about other female artists who made the city their home, many of them transplants like herself, and all of them artists as well. Jean Rhys, the writer first known as Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, was born in the West Indies to a Welsh father and a Scottish-Creole mother, but came to Paris in 1919, at the age of 29, where she wrote stories of tragic women involved with equally tragic men. George Sand, born Amantine Lucile Arurore Dupin, came to Paris in 1831, leaving behind her husband and two children in Northern France to live a life of culture, novel-writing, and a remarkable number of high-profile affairs. Agnès Varda, the Belgian director, screenwriter and actress, came to Paris for university and never left, and her work in the French New Wave, especially with features like Cléo de 5 à 7, gave a pointedly feminist perspective to an otherwise heavily masculine movement in film.
All of these women were, like Elkin herself, given to wandering around Paris, exploring the city entirely by foot, and finding new things about themselves as they discovered new things about the French capital. Within each chapter, Elkin sprinkles in anecdotes about herself—the failed relationships with a couple of men, how strange her suburban family finds her desire to live abroad. In this sense, the book is part memoir, part cultural history, all of it centered around the idea of urban involvement and emancipation, and the benefits of the lifestyle of flâneuserie, with its emphasis on freedom, speculation, and creation.
There is one city where her desire to walk is heavily curtailed, however: Tokyo, one of the most densely-populated human capitals in the world. Elkin follows a relationship to Tokyo, living abroad from the life she had already made abroad, and finds herself miserable there. Tokyo is too big to cover on foot, and the city is strangulated by major highways, too unfriendly and dangerous for pedestrians to traverse by foot. She wanders through her long-term business hotel, wanders through shopping malls, wanders through her Japanese classes, too angry and disappointed both in her failing relationship and Tokyo’s inaccessibility to connect with the lifestyle there at all. She felt “marooned in Tokyo,” traveling back to Paris without her boyfriend, traveling back to New York to visit family, who now thought her exploits were even more strange (152). She eats at a French restaurant but hates the food, tries to find an English bookshop but can’t locate the store, feels compelled to quarantine herself inside. For a woman who prided herself on her urbane lifestyle, Tokyo was a city too much. She leaves both the city and the relationship, and returns to Paris far happier and more free.
There are other interludes—a section about London and Virginia Woolf, a chapter on Venice and Sophie Calle—but these are distractions from Elkin’s larger mission, which is to detail and celebrate the flâneuse’s long-held, if long-unacknowledged, relationship with Paris, the city that created flânerie, and work to expand it to include the rest of the world. As with much of feminist literature, there is the need to write women back into this history, to replace them where they’ve consistently been written out. And Elkin does this, in her literary way. She writes of women who have traveled the globe—Martha Gellhorn; my beloved Joan Didion—but who continue to thirst for to know more, to see more. “I’ll never see enough as long as I live,” Gellhorn wrote to her then-husband Ernest Hemingway in 1943, the year before he sent her a deeply asshole-ish telegram at the Italian front, begging her to return home (“Are you a war correspondent or wife in my bed?”) (266, 250).
For Elkin, these are woman to be celebrated, not scolded, and the remonstrations from their husbands seem silly and jealous to a fault. But, from her own stories, as well as from the biographies of the women she details, it’s clear that there has long been, and long will be, hesitancy and anger directed toward women taking their public place in the world. It is a brave act to put oneself out there into the world and walk, unarmed and alone, through its streets, and Elkin wants to expand the female sex’s mission to take up space, to find a woman’s place in the world, and to allow her the ability to walk within it, through it, and, one day, beyond it.
But this may require as much a change of mindset for the flâneuse as it does for the rest of the world. Elkin closes with a surprising story: the woman in the 1951 photograph in Florence was named Ninalee Craig, but she went by the nickname “Jinx Allen.” She was single and traveling through Europe alone, exploring and meeting friends along the way—the epitome of the flâneuse. And in 2011, when she was interviewed on NBC’s Today Show for the sixtieth anniversary of her famous photograph, Craig said that the image was being vastly misunderstood. As much as modern audiences want to code the picture with patriarchy, chauvinism, and rampant misogyny, “it’s not a symbol of harassment,” Craig said. “It’s the symbol of a woman having an absolutely wonderful time!”
One final thought: I really hate the picture on the book’s cover. It’s the image of a typical flâneur with his top hat, coat, and cane. But laid over this sketch is a fucking ridiculous pink flowy skirt, transforming a bearded flâneur into a poorly cross-dressed flâneuse. For a book as philosophical and intellectual as Elkin’s, this image feels shitty and cheap, a real underselling of the message inside. A clear illustration of how we should literally never judge a book by its cover but, if possible, read Flâneuse with the dust jacket removed.
- Emily Dufton
- Emily Dufton