Flâneuse: It’s a word you can’t exactly define and a book you can’t quite categorize. According to The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a “flâneur” is “an idle man-about-town,” while the poet Charles Baudelaire perhaps more accurately described the term as “a person who walks the city in order to experience it.” Lauren Elkin feminizes the term and the experience in Flâneuse, a blend of memoir, travelogue, history and cultural criticism that takes us from 19th century Paris to 20th century London to modern Tokyo. Elkin traces her own path, but also those of author Jean Rhys, filmmaker Agnès Varda and other women who took their inspiration from city streets.
Not long ago, it was questionable—if not downright dangerous—for a woman to walk around a city unaccompanied, so, more than anything, Flâneuse celebrates freedome to roam and the art it allowed women to create. The chapters on Paris follow the life of George Sand (the pseudonym of Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin) and share the city’s extensive history of street unrest, before moving forward in time to follow the heroine of Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 as she wanders the streets in real time, waiting for a doctor’s test results. Elkin’s own fascination with Paris is palpable—“I want to read the city like a book. War embedded in the surfaces of building facades. Bullet marks. Plaques telling us who died where”—and the City of Lights is the one that seems most alive in the book.
The chapters on Tokyo fall flat, being mostly about Elkin’s fights with her boyfriend and Scarlett Johansson’s vapid, hotel-bound Lost in Translation character, neither of which are particularly compelling. The Venice chapter centers on artist Sophie Calle, especially her work that focuses on following—and then obsessing over—men she sees on the street. The trips to these two cities lessen the impact of the book, turning an independent woman’s freedom to roam into just another girl killing time until a man returns. Flâneuse sometimes doesn’t follow through on its promise, but it still provides plenty of inspiration to take to the streets.