Lauren Elkin has created a mostly literary, but also covering the work of female filmmakers and artists, introduction to the female version of the very French figure of the flâneur. Elkin discusses the work of Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, George Sand and Sophie Calle, amongst others, discussing their street wanderings and how this influenced and inspired their creative output. More interestingly, however, is the way in which Elkin weaves herself into this tale of women taking to the streets; as the Guardian puts it “the central character is Elkin herself.” She does this by interspersing the narratives of famous literary and artistic women in cities – London, Paris, Venice, New York, Tokyo – with her own experiences of these cities, and in a wonderfully personal way, recalling love affairs and heartbreaks, job losses and miscarriages, as well as her everyday life as a writer and educator.
The book opens personally, with Elkin pondering on her introduction to the figure of the flâneur as an international student in Paris, and hinting at adventures and mischief with her admittance at having done little of the required work:
“When did I first come across that word, flâneur, so singular, so elegant and French with its arched â and its curling eur? I know it was when I was studying in Paris, back in the 1990s, but I don’t think I found it in a book. I didn’t do much required reading, that semester.” (p. 3)
She writes humour into the narrative too, joking that the lack of female literary wanderers makes it seem “as if a penis were a requisite walking appendage, like a cane” (p. 19). Elkin’s writing manages not only to be historically factual, as well as interesting and funny though; Flâneuse is also absolutely beautifully written:
“Let me walk. Let me go at my own pace. Let me feel life as it moves through me and around me. Give me drama. Give me unexpected curvilinear corners. Give me unsettling churches and beautiful storefronts and parks I can lie down in. The city turns you on, gets you going, moving, thinking, wanting, engaging. The city is life itself.” (p. 37)
A recurring theme on this blog is that of women’s artistic output being assumed to be autobiographical and Elkin touches on this in her work on Jean Rhys. She notes that Rhys didn’t want a biography written about her life and that “those who went ahead and wrote her life anyway resorted to calling on Rhys’s fiction as if it provided an eyewitness account of her life, recreating Rhys as one of her characters” (p. 44).
Flâneuse does, however, provide an eyewitness account of Lauren Elkin’s life and it is all the richer for it, somehow making a book on mostly late nineteenth and early twentieth century literature into an inspiring must-read.