Lauren Elkins Challenges the View That Flâneurie Is a Pleasure Reserved for Men

In Flâneuse Elkins combines her own experiences as a walker with those of many notable women, including Virginia Woolf, Agnés Varda, and Martha Gellhorn.

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

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Length: 336 pages
Author: Lauren Elkin
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-04

For a certain type of person, there's no better way to experience a city than by walking through it, without obvious purpose beyond the enjoyment you take in walking and observing. Members of this tribe were given a label in the 19th century -- the flâneur, from the French verb flâner, meaning to wander aimlessly. Originally a slang term, the word flâneur came into use around 1840, and peaked in popularity in the early 20th century. The term is still known today, but is more often used in a historical sense to refer to the notable real or fictional flâneurs of the past, from Edgar Allan Poe's “Man of the Crowd" and Charles Baudelaire's Painter of Modern Life to Franz Hessel, who published a series of reports based on his observations of street life in Weimar Republic Berlin.

Anyone can walk through a city, but the flâneur is a specific type of walker. He walks for the pleasure of the experience and observes more than takes part in the life around him. He has a certain aristocratic status, and thus has the leisure to spend his time walking rather than working. He is also a most certainly a he, the masculine pronoun used not in the universal sense of “all human beings" but to designate that only half of humanity (“males") is included in the description. In the conventional view, a female flâneur (or flâneuse, to inflect the noun in the French manner) simply cannot exist, because women do not stroll about a city for their own enjoyment. In this (positively Victorian) view, proper middle- and upper-class women are at home taking care of their families, while lower class women may walk to work but do not have the leisure to stroll purposely. One slang term for prostitute -- the streetwalker -- demonstrates just how much the streets were considered the property of men, as if a woman seen walking in public could safely be assumed to be there for the purpose of selling her body.

Those were the bad old days, right? Maybe not so much, as women still experience harassment simply for walking down a city street. But as a counterbalance to such repressive forces, some women today are claiming the right to walk, observe, and write about such experiences, offering their perceptions and opinions as equally valid to those of the men who have previously dominated the literature of flâneurie. One strong voice among these women is Laura Elkin, whose book Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London combines exploration of her own experiences as a walker in many cities with reflections on other women who were notable walkers and observers.

Elkin, by her own account, grew up on suburban Long Island, where the usual form of transportation was the automobile, walking for its own sake was considered eccentric, and cities, in general, were considered dirty and dangerous. She discovered the pleasures of flâneurie while studying in Paris, and one day while on a walk realized that “I wanted to live in a city for the rest of my life, and specifically, in the city of Paris. It had something to do with the utter, total freedom unleashed from the act of putting one foot in front of the other." As many walkers can testify, once you've felt that freedom, you won't give it up willingly. You will also search out others of the tribe -- people who love to walk for its own sake and who are willing to share their experiences and observations. Because the voices of female walkers have not always been heard, or honored, one of the most useful aspects of Flâneuse is Elkin's well-researched accounts of the experiences of some notable women walkers, including George Sand, Martha Gellhorn, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, Agnès Varda, and Sophie Calle.

Elkin constructed Flâneuse to mimic the practice flâneurie, so reading it feels like taking a pleasant but meandering stroll rather than purposefully walking from one fixed location to another. Elkin's chapter on Bloomsbury, for instance, mixes her own experiences as a walker in contemporary London with those of Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, and other members of the Bloomsbury Circle, as well as bits and pieces from Woolf's novels and other writings. The material Elkin incorporates is often fascinating -- for example Woolf, in a 1927 essay, describes her practice of “street haunting", which is pretty much flâneurie by another name -- but this style of writing can be exasperating if you prefer books that progress in an orderly and straightforward manner.

The varied materials incorporated in Flâneuse are not always as well integrated as they might be. Sometimes it seems like Elkin is delivering a series of core dumps, combining a series of potted biographies with her own, fairly mundane walking experiences. However, if you can overlook her occasional stylistic lapse, Flâneuse is crammed with information and loaded with insight and may go a long way toward correcting the view that flâneurie is an art only practiced by men.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.