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Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London - Book Review

Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London - Book Review
Photo by Clayton Fidelis / Unsplash

Excerpts from a paper that I wrote in 2017 | Humboldt University of Berlin

Described by Deborah Levy as “the Susan Sontag of her generation”, Lauren Elkin explores in “Flâneuse” her walking experiences in different cities around the world, while also critically analysing the implications of walking as a woman since the emergence of Baudelaire's flâneur. From Elkin’s perspective, the flâneuse represents:

(…) not merely a female flâneur, but a figure to be reckoned with, and inspired by, all on her own. She voyages out, and goes where she’s not supposed to; she forces us to confront the ways in which words like home and belonging are used against women. She is a determined, resourceful individual keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city, and the liberating possibilities of a good walk. (Elkin, 22)

Elkin’s interest in flânerie was sparked when she attended university in Paris in her early twenties. As an American living abroad in an European city, she embarked on her walking journeys with the sole purpose of looking out for “residue, for texture, for accidents and encounters and unexpected openings” (Elkin, 7). Having lived in “suburban America, where people drive from one place to another”, Elkin explores in the second chapter of her book “Long Island: New York” the differences between living in the American suburbs and New York, while also touching upon the concept of “non-places” as Marc Augé defines them in his book “Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity”. According to Augé, one characteristic of the postmodern city, or of “supermodernity”, is the abundances of spaces and institutions formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure)” (Augé, 94), which are the opposite of “places of identity” and of relations. Elkin explores Augé’s idea in relation to the American suburbs. For Elkin, the buildings that exist in the suburbs are life-draining non-spaces, since their sole purpose is to house small businesses. However, these buildings unfortunately represent “the defining spaces of the late twentieth – and by all appearances, the twenty-first – century in America” (Elkin, 32).

Elkin further explores the concept of space in the postmodern American city by looking closely at the suburbs. She quotes Marshall Berman essay on urban ruin “Restless Cities”: “we die, but we hope our city’s forms and structures will live on” to underline the lack of history or future of the suburbs, since “very little there is built to last” (Elkin, 33). Moreover, Elkin underlines the lack of urban mobility in American cities without the access to a car, and the impossibility of flânerie through the suburbs. Elkin combines her critical perspective on the history of the suburbs with notes taken from her journal “exit 53 Sunken Meadow north, exist SM3E, right at the Friendly’s, left by Northgate / you really need a car” (Elkin, 25). The autobiographical approach in “Flâneuse” can be seen as well in her detailed description of Long Island, the suburbs her parents lived in:

A drive east or west takes you past flat roofed garages divided from a flat sky by telephone wires strung pole to pole; lone brick buildings surrounded by asphalt where SUVs and family sedans nose in and back out, faux chalet roofs, faux Tudor facades; the blue-topped IHOP; the red-topped Friendly’s; cinder-block buildings whose sans serif fonts signs advertise FURNITURE, HAND-WASH, BILLIARD, RITE AID. (Elkin,31)

In her descriptions of the American life in the suburbs, Elkin underlines the postmodern characteristic of the American public places, more precisely, their fake architecture: “faux chalet roofs, faux Tudor facades”. Jean Baudrillard used in his work “Simulacra and Simulation” the concepts of the simulacra – the copy without an original – and simulation. These terms are a key aspect of postmodernity and of the postmodern city, to the extent that they address the concept of mass reproduction, material excess, and imitations that characterise the postmodern culture.

In the same chapter “Long Island / New York” Elkin explores her urban experience in New York city and how it defined her further views on female flânerie. She will also gain a more critical perspective on the suburbs and on the “American vehicle-based culture”:

At Barnard I learned to think critically, and I turned this new power on the suburbs. I became suspicious of an entirely vehicle-based culture; a culture that does not walk is bad for women. (…) The layout of the suburbs reinforces her boundaries: the neat grid, the nearby shopping centre, the endless loops of parkways, where the American adventure of the open road is tamed by the American dream. (Elkin, 37)

The postmodern trait of her flânerie lies in her global approach of her writing, focusing on cities all around the world where she lived and walked. London, Paris, New York, Venice, Tokyo are the cities Elkin analyses through her female gaze, through her own personal strolls. Moreover, Elkin writes from the perspective a “metaflâneuse”, a flâneuse that explores the metropolis through the steps of other writers – flâneuses, while also displaying her own subjective female mapping of the contemporary city. For example, in the chapter intentionally entitled “Paris: Cafés where they”, Elkin explores her own relationship with Paris in relation to her walking experiments and the literary works and life of Jean Rhys whom she discovered in one of the books from Shakespeare and Company on the Left Bank of Paris. Elkin follows Rhys in her literary strolls, sometimes even identifying with her experiences on the streets of Paris:

I went walking with Rhys in the streets of Montparnasse. I walked up and down the boulevard, between home and school; I dined at its restaurants, sat in La Coupole (…) Sometimes I went to Le Sélect (…) On rare occasions I switched to La Rotonde, just for a change. Cafes where Rhys’s women would drop in for an aperitif, a second aperitif, a third aperitif, until some nice men would stand them some dinner. (Elkin, 60)

Elkin blends the historical and literary approach in her flânerie through the city of Paris with intimate memories: “Rhys was a Left Bank girl, like I used to be. We only crossed the river for business or love. I spent many night with him in his small room in the 2nd arrondissement, near the Bourse” (Elkin, 62). The image of the modern flâneuse of Paris, represented here by Rhys, becomes intertwined with Ekin’s personal notes on Paris which offers the reader a “wholesome” female gaze over the modern and as well contemporary city.

If in the chapter on Paris, Elkin’s literary companion is Jean Rhys, in London she follows into the steps of Virginia Woolf: “I wanted to see London as Woolf had seen it, and set to tracking down her various addresses” (72). Elkin strolls in Tavistock Square where Woolf lived from 1924 to 1939, walks past by a bronze bust of Woolf she did not like, accompanies Woolf as well in Bloomsbury Square where she lived the longest, pinpointing places where Woolf has the “great involuntary rush” after she was struck with the plot of “To the Lighthouse” (72). Elkin follows Woolf’s steps throughout London, depicting her literary journey, until Woolf’s final walk “into the River Ouse with rocks in her pocket” (Elkin, 73).

Image: Marcus Nuccio

As Elkin combines the past with the present in her flânerie and writing, she connects Woolf’s stroll in Tavistock Square with the narration of the Tavistock Square bombings in 2005. She reflects on the security of the metropolis such as London, New York, and Paris which suffered terrorist attacks during her time living there and abroad: “Today, there are eight armed guards standing outside my building in Paris, protecting the Jewish school next door, after the attacks on Charlie Head and the Hyper Cacher. And it becomes part of what life is” (Elkin, 74). As she closely examines London in her walks, Elkin is aware of the changes of the city that became “a twenty-first-century city, one Woolf probably wouldn’t recognise” (Elkin, 75).

Each chapter in “Flâneuse” opens with a fragment taken from Elkin’s journal with directions, names of streets and places, offering a walking itinerary that serves as a prologue to each city she explores in the chapter. From Paris to Tokyo, Elkin embarks in her strolls highly aware of the history, culture, architecture of the city, while at the same time constructing the image of the female flâneur. Returned to Paris, she will reflect on George Sand’s life and literary works and while moving to Venice she follows French artist Sophie Calle on her experimental strolls, learning to become lost in the city: “Ignore the signs. Put down the map. You’re going to hit dead ends. But don’t worry: you won’t end up in the water” (Elkin, 137).

In the chapter “Tokyo : Inside”, Elkin embarks on her flânerie experiments only to be disappointed with Tokyo since the city does not encourage flânerie: “(…) Tokyo is not a walkable city; it is too big, even neighbourhoods are too big to amble in” (Elkin, 151). Elkin’s disappointment in Tokyo leads to her search for a “fake French café called Aux Bacchanales” (Elkin, 152), in order to pretend that she was still strolling in Paris. The impossibility to connect with the city through flânerie awakens a feeling of alienation and loneliness, which prompts her return back to Paris. In the book, Paris is the city where Elkin feels at home and in which she grows into the flâneuse she wants to be.

Her urban awareness, and critical approach to flânerie conclude in the final chapter entitled “New York: Return” in a very detailed description of New York:

(…) since I moved away, I’ve been learning to love the industrial palette of the mix of suburbs and the city it passes through. The back ends of superstores. (…) Spokes of the bridges my grandfathers built. Majestic steel skyline. Art deco sharp. Southern anchors gone. Next stop Penn Station. This is me. This is me out there. (Elkin, 283)
In the “Epilogue : Flâneuserie”, Elkin concludes her memoir of walking with a reflection on the concept of space, especially in relation to women. She describes the public space as a space that needs constantly to be “remade, and unmade, constructed, and wondered at” (Elkin, 286). Elkin is highly aware to the still “invisible boundaries, intangible custom gates that demarcate who goes where” (Elkin, 286) and she insists on reminding the readers that “from Teheran to New York, from Melbourne to Mumbai, a woman still can’t walk in the city the way a man can.” As Woolf does in her 1927 essay “Street Haunting”, Elkin encourages the flâneuse’s “attentiveness to the shifts in the affective landscape”, because only in that way the invisible boundaries of a city can be challenged.

To conclude, Elkin’s book “Flâneuse” is one of the most recent representations of contemporary female flânerie writing. Elkin successfully portrays the image of the modern flâneuses she depicts in her stories from Jean Rhys to Sophie Calle, while also showing the face of the postmodern flâneuse through her personal notes, stories, and views on flânerie. She revives the image of the flâneuse, by offering a wholesome complex image of her transformation, by giving her(self) space to walk and challenge the City.