Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London by Lauren Elkin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2016) is an uneven read that delights and also disappoints.
The problem is, there are two books trying to exist here, but neither has been given enough time or attention. History-Flânuese tackles the concept of a flâneur: a wanderer, city-walker, bohemian, and man of leisure. (In French, this word was created in the masculine form, thus the concept has exclusively described men who live a dharma-bum lifestyle. Flânuese is the female form and Elkin is trying to make Flânuese happen.) Memoir-Flânuese retells a few uninspiring stories of romantic relationships gone awry set in various cities of the world.
The first part is necessary and fascinating. That second part, infuriating.
The joy of the History-Flânuese is a lively stroll through 19th Century Paris, through landmarks and architecture and questions about the rights of women, through classic literature and French Revolution history.
A professor living in Paris, Elkin has a gift for teaching literature; after reading her chronicles of writers in her adopted city, I wanted to drift from husband to husband alongside Jean Rhys and cross-dress with George Sand.
The problem with the Memoir-Flânuese is that it is suffocated by Elkin’s biases and insipid preferences. It’s like if Charlotte from “Sex and the City” wrote a tell-all about Paris. We don’t want that! We want Samantha’s book.
There’s a serious scope problem as well. Elkin visited Florence once for a month, but this book aims to capture all of subculture, public life, and the state of women walking there? Inadvisable, to say the least.
This book beckoned to be put down during the chapter about Tokyo. The confession: Elkin was in a lukewarm relationship with a man and really loved Paris. Lukewarm boyfriend was transferred to Tokyo for business, so against her will, Elkin relocated. She never shared any insight into why she sacrificed a work and living situation she favored for a romantic relationship she didn’t, but I can only imagine these revelations would be milquetoast. To wit: She didn’t want to move to Tokyo, because Tokyo, to her, is a place you visit with your husband and kids, not a place you live. (Oh, please.)
Surprising no one, she hated Tokyo. She details hanging out in a Starbucks for a few months then returning to Paris without the boyfriend she didn’t seem to like a whole lot in the first place. It’s an unsatisfying chapter that grinds the pace of the book to a halt. It would have been best to exclude Tokyo from the book altogether, rather than offer such a limited perspective.
Indeed, adding any other city to this project was misguided. Elkin adores Paris and writes about Paris well. She paints every other city with a dull and ungenerous brush.
Elkin has other blind spots. Street harassment is mentioned in only in passing, despite an entire chapter devoted to New York City. Wither the HollaBackNYC? (Elkin is one of those people who grew up in Long Island suburbia but claims the title New Yorker when it is most expedient. Don’t get me started.) Queer folk in public spaces are notoriously absent. People of color get no ink at all, save one or two mentions that historically, France occupied Algeria. With no interactions between the French and Muslim or Brown folks before or since, right? Whoops.
It seems a glaring omission to neglect any modern gender non-normative person in a book about existing in public. This book in particular draws heavily from the life of writer George Sand, who experimented with androgyny and cross-dressing in 19th Century Paris. What gives?
Though to be frank, an interview or further investigation of modern gender presentation issues would have likely been a disaster. Elkin’s assessment of George Sand manages to make this fascinating figure mundane, asserting she prefers to imagine Sand donned masculine clothes out of convenience—to make walking the street physically comfortable (women’s clothing of her era was restricting) and to attract less unwanted attention—than out of any philosophy.
Here Elkin mixes the gravest sin for the historian—adding personal feelings to a retelling of biography—with the most bland, bougie interpretation imaginable. From here, she declines any engagement of issues of existing in public for anyone who isn’t a straight white cis-woman.
Yet go figure, I am a straight white cis-woman and I still finished “Flânuese” feeling deeply unsatisfied.
Laura Eppinger graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA in 2008 with a degree in Journalism, and she’s been writing creatively ever since. She the blog editor here at Newfound Journal.