In Her Footsteps: A Review of Lauren Elkin's "Flâneuse, Women Walk the City"
Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London by Lauren Elkin is a hybrid publication, no matter from which perspective you consider it. The title, derived from the 19th-century French masculine noun flâneur (to aimlessly wander or idly dawdle in cities), is part memoir, part historical biography, part intimate musings and part documentation of footfall that examines the cross-generational and cultural experience of womanhood and being female. It is lauded as a celebration of women, and rightly so: it traces the footsteps of Elkin’s experience in the titular cities as well as looking back to figures who inhabited those cities, such as artist Sophie Calle, writer Virginia Woolf or filmmaker Agnès Varda (among many others) as they forged their way through the complex negotiations of public versus private space and identity in what has arguably been a world seen through the eyes of men. That said, while it is a feminist celebration that critiques and dissects the repossession of space for women, it can also read as a somewhat self-indulgent journey through prose and personal experience that encapsulates the essence of being ‘new to being new’ with a tone oscillating between calmly reflective and slightly aggravated. This is where a gentle dilemma, if by unpopular admission, arises. It seems at times to simply reiterate (or, reaffirm) notions that may be outdated given that Elkin's chosen locations are First World and Western, instead of from the developing world, where this would have been a much more poignant and contemporary revelation.
Not to undermine Elkin’s words – she is poetic, thoughtful, intelligent and to the point. She poses the reader several questions, such as, “Are we individuals or are we part of the crowd? Do we want to stand out or blend in?” This mood is firmly established in the first few pages which depict a vintage photograph of a woman standing on a street in Paris, lighting a cigarette which asserts, “I don’t need your help, I am just fine.” Her use of language is visually evocative, spirited and thorough: “Let me walk. Let me go at my own pace. Let me feel life as it moves through me and around me. Give me drama. Give me unexpected curvilinear corners. Give me unsettling churches and beautiful storefronts and parks I can lie down in. The city turns you on, gets you going, moving, thinking, wanting, engaging. The city is life itself.” But it is these very qualities that make it a touch overcooked and the chapters a hair too lengthy, and then, when you pop up for air, it may dawn on you that it speaks to and of a specific set of privileged, educated and largely Westernized women.
But to return to the positive, Elkin walks readers through a veritable wealth of knowledge. Words, concepts and biographies are studied etymologically, sociologically, symbolically, historically and even from a literary view (Baudelaire pops up). There is a plethora of angles in which to view her charming, if wordy, description of just about every tangential detail on the relationship between meandering, social independence and identity. Her observations are not falsehoods, whether writing in her London chapter, “All of us originate in the dark wilds of the female body, are born into the light, where we must remain if our arguments are to be taken seriously […] women, who struggle to find their way in a world that for centuries denied them full citizenship, and today denies them the right to be different from men” or “Walking, paradoxically, allows for the possibility of stillness. Walking is mapping with your feet. […] I walk because it confers – or restores – a feeling of placeness,” – but they are not seismic epiphanies, either. However, Elkin tempers her personal observations with snippets of philosophical wisdom that return the reader to that pleasure of learning something new, such as when she quotes geographer Yi-Fu Tuan who says space becomes a place when through movement we invest it with meaning, when we see it as something to be perceived, apprehended, experienced.
The book, due to her intimate anecdotal voice, is accessible and relatable. She talks about the process of discovering through the taken for granted act of simple walking and the seduction of meandering with your eyes (metaphorically and literally) wide open. It is a helpful reminder and prod to get out there, but it also has a lingering aftertaste of obviousness to those who are immersed in the reality of contemporary globalism, that being, cross-cultural nomads and the sociological phenomenon of Third Culture Kids who have it ingrained that to understand a culture and their place within it, they have to assimilate. Walking, as Elkin points out, is the best way to build a personal, firsthand relationship with a city, and she further redefines the concept from a female perspective. As the psycho-geographical foundation comes to a steady close, Elkin quotes Georges Perec: “I have constantly to mark it, to designate it. It’s never mine, never given to me, I have to conquer it.” It is novel and true, and her enthusiasm can prove motivational as it examines why women wander and what this leads to, but first, meander through the 336 pages of Flâneuse.