by Lauren Elkin
The cultured gentleman around town. The street lurker. The man who looks upon city streets with an educated and wry gaze. The man set apart, watching, observing. The spectator. The flâneur. There are many such characters in history and in literature. And this is typically the purview of the male. This is more or less by default. Historically, the wild life of the streets has not been open to the lone woman. Her honor, her physical well-being, her reputation were at risk, even to be seen alone walking on the street. Now, typically, this is a state of affairs confined to women of "culture" and "breeding". The working woman, the cleaning woman, the servant has long occupied the streets, after all. But she has been invisible, hasn't she? Anyway, the flâneur has always been male. This isn't often questioned. There have been women who have broken the mold, though, and gone out onto the city streets, and into the world to stake their unique claim on the landscape, We haven't heard much about these women in this context. Indeed, now is certainly a good time to interrogate the notion of the flâneur, to examine the assumptions of women's access to the streets, and their contributions to urban life. Really, what have we been waiting for?
Lauren Elkin brings a cultured, literate and sharp gaze to the notion of the flâneur. She adopts it as her own, referring now to the feminine in the street, the flâneuse. The book is part memoir, part literary and geographical inquiry. Elkin springs from New York, settles in Paris, and along the way sees London, Venice and Tokyo. She critiques, at first, the suburban blandness from which she hails. She describes a New York vibrant and exciting, a place to launch oneself into. From there and into the Old World, she tells a story of travel and access to urban culture via the tales of women in literary history. From the dark experiences of Jean Rhys and Virginia Woolf, we also read of George Sand in revolutionary Paris, artist Sophie Calle in Venice, film-maker Agnes Varda in Paris, and journalist Martha Gellhorn almost anywhere. These women made their claim on what was until their time a exclusively male world. By and large, it still is. The dominant social context that women endure is driven by male delusions of power and dominance. Women's access to this world has improved, but is by no means equal, yet. The street and its symbols mean something different to women, and by ignoring their experience, we deny half of humanity a true contribution to our shared landscape.
Strong words, perhaps. Part of what Elkin exposes here is that, despite historical strictures, women have often made their equal claim to the urban landscape. The women who she so eloquently and empathically examines here are trail-blazers, each one a flâneuse in oppositon to the flâneurs. Elkin tells their stories alongside her own, her need to escape the Long Island suburbs, to stake her own claim to New York and Paris, to experience the outsider's gaze in Venice, to be trapped in a dystopian Tokyo. She exposes her own need to see the city, her own access to these places and how these places become a part of her self. In the 21st century, she is more free than many of her ancestors, but, overall, women have yet to enjoy the equality of access that is their right. Perhaps writers have looked at this problem before, but this reader hopes that Elkin's eloquent contribution finds its place in the literature of urban culture.
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See Also: [The Flâneur by Edmund White]
[Other books by Women Authors]
[Other Urban Studies and Architecture]