The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 4 February 2003

The Flâneur

A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris

by Edmund White

The flâneur is a person given to strolling the streets, usually of a major cultural capital, taking in the sights and excitements of the urban scene, but more as an observer than as a participant. Two notable American flâneurs are Herb Caen and Tom Wolfe. At Burning Man, they might be considered specatators. Here, Edmund White recalls his days as a flâneur on the streets of Paris in the 80s and 90s. He follows in the footsteps of other literary artists of the streets, and looks at Paris from his unique point of view.

In this small collection of extended essays, White discusses the life of Paris through its minorities, blacks, Jews, homosexuals, artists and monarchists. There is a lot of history in this tale, some of it fascinating and enlightening. There is less of the vibrant life of the streets that a true flâneur would encounter, but this book is enlivened by moments of urban scenery within the cultural landscape. We learn of the pretenders to France's royal throne, recent royalty like Louis XX. There are hidden urban jewels and obscure dusty old museums. There is mysterious night life all the way back to the turn of the 20th century. And there is France's weak initial response to the AIDS epidemic, based partly in its sense of cultural and individual identity. The writing is lively and intensely literary. It is occasionally uneven and abrupt, though, with occasional jumps through time. White's personal experiences are not the key to the book, as much as his personal connection to the history. It is an enjoyable read, and can provide jumping-off points for further reading, or even a rough tour of Paris.

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Also by Edmund White: [Marcel Proust] [City Boy]

See Also: [Flâneuse, by Lauren Elkin]