“Place names were the most powerful magic I knew,” Martha Gellhorn wrote in her memoir Travels with Myself and Another. The pioneering photographer and traveller is one of the abiding spirits of Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse, an intense meditation on what it means to be a woman and walk out in the world. Gellhorn – intrepid observer, wife of Ernest Hemingway, friend of Robert Capa – is an icon of independence. Elkin is a New Yorker who now lives in Paris, though she has also spent time in Tokyo, Venice and London: but in the 21st century this is not all that unusual. Elkin is under no illusions that her peripatetic life, spent studying in Europe or following a boyfriend to Japan, confers any sheen of glamour upon her. But Flâneuse isn’t after glamour: it’s a book that encourages its readers to lace up their shoes and go for a walk.
“Flâneuse,” you might well ask – “what’s that?” The male form, flâneur, means “an idler, a dawdler, usually found in cities”. As for its feminine form, Elkin admits that official recognition is hard to come by. “The Dictionnaire vivant de la langue française defines it, believe it or not, as a kind of lounge chair.” No matter. The word began to be heard towards the middle of the 19th century; usage peaked during the Roaring (or perhaps they might be called the Walking) Twenties. Yet, for Elkin, it was her move to Paris, one of the greatest cities to experience on foot, that marked her self-identification as a flâneuse. “Learning to see meant not being able to look away; to walk in the streets of Paris was to walk the thin line of fate that divided us from each other.”
The book blends memoir, social history and cultural criticism in an intriguing mix. Deborah Levy has called Elkin “the Susan Sontag of her generation”. Luc Sante and Rebecca Solnit spring to mind as influences, too; both appear in the text, and in a sense the book is an explicit answer to the question Solnit raises in her terrific book Wanderlust: a History of Walking (2000). Dickens strides through the city, Wordsworth through the Lakes, but Solnit reminds us that we must ask “why women were not out walking too”.
On the surface, the answer is simple. See the word “streetwalker” and only one thing comes to mind. So, to move as an independent woman through a city makes a statement, especially if that movement has no goal. What’s the difference between strolling and loitering? A fine one, indeed. Elkin lets the reader become a companion to many women who have thought seriously about the relationship between a woman and the path she chooses to tread: not just Gellhorn, but George Sand, Sophie Calle, Agnès Varda and Virginia Woolf.
Woolf’s essay “Street Haunting”, published in 1927, is a touchstone for Elkin, presenting the pavement as another way to define the self. “As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s own room,” Woolf wrote. For Woolf, Elkin says, writing is “stepping out of bounds”; walking the streets of London offers another way of gaining access to that freedom.
Freedom is what Elkin seeks as she stalks the byways of one great city after another. New York is where she begins, yet she is careful to note that she grew up not in that city but in the suburbs, on Long Island, where New York was viewed as a perilous place in the 1980s when the family dared to visit. “‘Don’t make eye contact,’ my mother would warn as we walked in Times Square.” But although New York becomes familiar, it does not become home: Paris is the city she circles repeatedly as she tries out the pavements of Europe and Asia. Tokyo is the most rebarbative, the most resistant to her efforts to understand a place on foot: she feels “marooned” there, she writes. Yet even in her beloved Paris she can find herself at an angle to the city, “displaced, dislocated”, despite the romance of its place names, the intrigue of its alleyways. Such is the fate of the flâneuse. One of this book’s delights is the consolation it offers to those of us who never feel quite at home.
While Elkin’s heart clearly remains that of a wanderer, she is now firmly settled in France. British readers – at least, 48 per cent of them – may find reading about Elkin’s desire for French citizenship a bitter-sweet experience. Her US passport imposes a border, through which she wishes to break; in Paris she meets people from all over the world and has the powerful sense that to be a citizen of France involves being part of something much larger. Yet even in France the European project is under threat, as all around are those who defend “a white, Christian Europe, even if this is largely their own fiction”.
The flâneuse strolls for her own purpose; the transgressive nature of the act recedes into history. Those who set out to flee oppression come with a purpose that threatens those who would reinforce the borders between us: but putting one foot in front of the other can be the beginning of building a new world.