Lauren Elkin on her new book, Flâneuse

I speak to author and academic Lauren Elkin about women walking in the city, and the pioneering writers who influenced her
Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse (Penguin Books, 2016)
Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse (Penguin Books, 2016)

I wonder if you could say a little bit about your title. What exactly is a “Flâneuse”? And what motivated you to write the book?

A flâneuse is quite basically the female conjugation of a “flâneur,” or a kind of idly curious stroller in the city, a man-about-town. As Baudelaire wrote: “The crowd is his domain, just as the air is the bird’s, and water that of the fish. His passion and his profession is to merge with the crowd.”

The flâneur is this really resonant archetype in our culture; you come across it really frequently when magazines or other brands (most recently Hermès) want to lend a kind of worldly, nonchalant, urban intellectualism to their enterprise, or to whatever it is they’re selling. However – and this is going to answer your second question as well – this figure is usually male, or male-identified; only men have historically (and this is arguably still true today) had that kind of access to the city, where they could walk around observing and “merge with the crowd”; women have been, or are, generally too conspicuous in the city, we’re viewed either as a threat or as someone who needs protection; we’re told to smile, our appearances are commented on. Or, for women who don’t conform to some idea of youth or beauty, made to feel functionally invisible. In neither case do we have the kind of neutrality the flâneur needs to have. So the “flâneuse” is a figure who’s kind of impossible to conjugate.

Lauren Elkin
Lauren Elkin

Years ago when I wanted to write my senior thesis at Barnard on the figure of the flâneuse, I found the feminist critical discussion around the flâneuse had basically concluded that she didn’t exist, so I changed course and wrote about fallen women instead. Then a few years ago, after I finished my PhD, I realized that I still wanted to do this project on the flâneuse, and realized suddenly that I didn’t have to define her as a female version of a flâneur – that the very impossibility of conjugating her wasn’t a dead end, but a starting point. I hopped the critical wall, to stay with the urban metaphor. I’d done so much reading, and looking at art, and watching films, in which women used cities as places of self-discovery, often just by walking in them, that I realized the act of flâneuserie wasn’t simply a female version of a male act, but its own kind of subversive appropriation of urban space. That seemed like a potentially rich idea – I only had the space to think through it in the context of a few women, but I hope that the book opens up lines of inquiry for other writers, critics, artists, thinkers, urban planners, pedestrians – really anyone who’s so inclined.

Flâneuse addresses the troubled political history of women in public spaces. In what ways do you think women walking in public is a politicised act?

It’s never a neutral act, to navigate public space, not for anyone. I’d like to hope that Flâneuse troubles the act of walking in the city for those who would consider themselves flâneurs as well.

To walk in public is always going to be an encounter with alterity. How we navigate those encounters is the basis of an ethics, or a politics, not only of intervening in public space, but of the way we think our society should be structured, and how we accord value and respect. I’m thinking of Martha Gellhorn, for instance, who was in Spain with Hemingway and Robert Capa to report on the civil war, and Hemingway and Capa are out on the front lines, or meeting with generals or whatever mucky-muck was making a statement that day, and she didn’t have access to these higher-ups. So she went out walking in the streets to talk to everyday people about what they were living through, turning flânerie into a form of testimony. That act of reporting on daily life – life “from the ground up” as she would say – is a political statement, an act of valuing the everyday in the face of extraordinary events, and the man or woman or child in the street instead of the elected (or unelected) official.

You acknowledge a debt to pioneering women writers like Virginia Woolf and Jean Rhys. What is it about their work that speaks to you?

They’re these experimental female modernists who are in love with the city, and know desperation, life on the edge. I think that was very reassuring to me when I was at university, which is the first time I read either of them. Mrs Dalloway, in its depiction of the lives of strangers together in the city, helped me resolve a lot of existential angst. Good Morning Midnight helped me understand that life didn’t have to be happy all the time. Americans – and probably Brits as well – grow up and live in their world in which happiness is the great goal. Are you happy? Does it make you happy? We’re forever holding life up against our definitions of happiness and readjusting to bring ourselves more in line with it. Rhys – and living in France as well – helped me see that life could still be meaningful even if it was unhappy. And the city played a major role in that too.

Appropriately enough, Flâneuse wanders across categories. Sometimes it reads like a memoir, at others literary criticism, and at others it resembles cultural history. How did you come to write the book in this way?

588ab-andrecc81kertecc81sz_paris_untitled1928I originally intended to write the book as a kind of straight up work of collective biography, with each chapter dedicated to a different figure, which would have involved some literary and cultural criticism. But as I started writing the Rhys chapter, which is the one I wrote first, I came to realize that my own responses to reading Rhys were so rooted in the time and place that I first encountered her (living in Paris as a twenty year-old) that I couldn’t write about her without writing about myself at that age, reading her. And as that chapter came together, I started to think – with some help from my editor – that braiding together my own life with those of the women whose lives I was writing about was not only a more engaging way to write about them, but a more ethical one as well. To include myself in the frame, to acknowledge who was speaking and where I was coming from, seemed like a crucial gesture. I mean – how could you write about walking in a city in a disembodied, omniscient way? It isn’t possible – what is more embodied both physically and perspectivally than walking?

When we think of 19th century gentleman flâneurs, we generally think of European artists like Baudelaire or Satie strolling the boulevards of Paris. Flâneuse addresses an age of 21st century globalization and casts its net far wider: from the European metropolitans of London and Paris, to the urban landscapes of New York and Tokyo. Can you say a little more about the role global travel plays in Flâneuse?

It’s in keeping, I guess, with trying to explode the idea of the flâneur, asking what other kinds of engagement with the city it could involve. We have a habit of using Paris as the template for flânerie because that’s where it was codified, but just as I believe people other than these privileged middle class men can practice flânerie, so did I think it might be interesting to consider how flânerie might be challenged or take different forms in other kinds of cities.

“I think it might be interesting to consider how flânerie might be challenged or take different forms in other kinds of cities.”

The idea was to restrict the book to talking about cities in which I’ve personally lived and walked. I spent a few months in Hong Kong as well but couldn’t conjure up a chapter on that city that seemed to resonate with the others. But there’s nothing about cities where it really is more explicitly difficult for women to walk, or where the codes for how women should dress or behave are a lot more restrictive. There’s nothing on cities in India or Pakistan, or the Middle East, or Africa, for instance; but then I haven’t spent time in any of those places so it would have turned from a first-person document into a kind of researched ethnography, which would have put it at a remove beyond my own experience. That’s fine if it were going to be a straight-up work of scholarship, but that’s not what I was trying to do here. I wanted to invite other first-hand narratives from those places.

What’s next for you?

I’ve just finished a book about a year riding the buses in Paris which I hope we’ll place soon, and I’m finally going to finish my second novel. However I’ve just taken up a post as Lecturer at the University of Liverpool, where I’m co-directing the Centre for New and International Writing, so I’ll be pretty busy with that for the next bit, until I settle into a schedule! Liverpool’s a great city – I’ve already started walking in it and putting together some ideas…

Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London is available from Penguin Books and Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


About the Author

Lauren Elkin’s essays have appeared in many publications, including The New York Times Book Review, frieze, and the Times Literary Supplement, and she is a contributing editor at The White Review. A native New Yorker, she moved to Paris in 2004. Currently living on the Right Bank after years on the Left, she can generally be found ambling around Belleville.

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  3. Although I’m a woman . . . never before had I in any sustained or scholarly way considered how political and meaningful it is to be a woman walking in a city (a big city or otherwise, it occurs to me). Excellent interview and overview, Rhys; I will definitely seek out Lauren Elkin’s new book.

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  5. Excellent interview – looking forward to the book, as the flaneuse has been so overlooked!

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