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Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London

By Max Dunbar.

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Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London (Chatto, 2016)

It’s a cool summer’s day. Late morning or early evening. Cafés and bars looking out onto a wide boulevard. It could be Europe, or America: late 1880s, or the twenty first century. A man, handsome and unconventional, saunters onto the scene, takes his usual table and his usual drink, and opens a book – perhaps he cuts the pages open, like you had to in the old days. He has nothing particular to do and no particular place to go… and that is his power.

The flâneur has been a liberal-creative archetype almost as long as there have been cities – what Lauren Elkin describes as ‘a 19th-century phenomenon – the flâneur, a figure of privilege and leisure, with the time and money to amble around the city at will.’ Origins of the phenomenon were romantic and delirious: however, British contemporary literature can make anything dull and these days flâneuring consists of Iain Sinclair or Will Self, picking endlessly around a London orbital – or some young man of the Brutalist movement, blinking in rapture at tower blocks. Elkin writes: ‘for as long as there have been cities, there have been women living in them, yet if we want to know what it’s like to walk thoughtfully in the city, there is only a long tradition of writing by men that tells us’. She quotes Baudelaire’s ‘To a Passerby’ where the poet seems startled by a woman walking alone: ‘Tall, slender, in heavy mourning, majestic in her grandeur/A woman walked past me (…) Swift and graceful, with legs like a statue’s/Twitching like a madman, I drank in/Her eyes’ and sees in his lines this worldly artist jarred by female autonomy.

Elkin’s correction is an entertaining and thoughtful volume, combining the city walks of Virginia Woolf, George Sand and other noted woman wanderers with her own recollections of walking the polis of Paris, New York, Venice and Tokyo. She traces Paris protest from 1848 to 1968 by way of the Commune, and the results are fascinating, as is the chapter on Martha Gellhorn, the formidable reporter who disguised herself as a nurse and stowed away to the D-Day landings, in order to circumvent the US ban on embedded female journalists. Her husband Ernest Hemingway sent her a telegram: ‘ARE YOU A WAR CORRESPONDENT OR WIFE IN MY BED?’ I doubt the answer would have pleased him.

Reporting on D-Day is quite a reach from the sauntering archetype and a flaw with Elkin’s study is that she stretches her imaginary definition too far and yet somehow not far enough. Why write about Gellhorn, for instance, but not brilliant hard drinking war correspondent Marie Colvin, killed in Homs by shellfire in 2012? Even on a more domestic level, Elkin acknowledges that the reason women don’t walk cities alone is because they can be targeted: ‘when most women you meet in the city have a tale or two of street harassment to tell, the notion of wandering the streets alone seems a fraught proposition.’ A chapter on the Reclaim the Night movement, Everyday Sexism, Hollaback would have been interesting, and aren’t we missing a historical digression on the ‘flapper’? Elkin would also probably enjoy Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals, a modern classic of female friendship and flâneusing in the UK’s northern capital. The power of friendship between women is that it enables them to reclaim the city. Even Harry Flashman (a flâneur of sorts) passing through New York in 1859, reports that ‘New York was a woman’s town, and let no one tell you different… they were just freer and bolder and more forward and independent than any women I’d seen elsewhere… given time, I’d have been haunting that omnibus yet.’

I can cavil on, but Flâneuse is a lovely and economical book, and if Elkin doesn’t exploit its possibilities fully, she gives a fine sense of the contemporary city. It is heroic to try and walk around places like Tokyo or Manhattan which seems designed to entomb the pedestrian in metric tonnes of cement and flyover. She touches upon the attacks on New York and London, the murders of Charlie Hebdo journalists and the Hypercacher supermarket, and she acknowledges this new dimension – people out there ready to kill you simply for having the freedom to walk around a city. ‘Beware roots. Beware purity. Beware fixity,’ Elkin writes. ‘Beware the creeping feeling that you belong. Embrace flow, impurity, fusion.’ And she has the required perspective: the city will be there long after we are not. ‘Most of us, alive or dead, won’t leave our names anywhere. Our apartments, our streets, the places we’ve loved, we leave invisible traces there, perceptible only to the most sensitive of our descendants, who may feel the slightest atmospheric shift as they walk over some subway grate or threshold, without knowing why or who has crossed there before them.’ We don’t inhabit places, Elkin says. It’s the other way round.

Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He lives in West Yorkshire and blogs at maxdunbar.wordpress.com and tweets at @MaxDunbar1.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 15th, 2016.