By Giulia Cozzi
Have you ever wondered what a Flâneuse is? The male equivalent is the French word ‘Flâneur’, which can roughly be translated into ‘one who wanders aimlessly’. When I picked up the book Flâneuse – Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London by Lauren Elkin in a small bookshop in Notting Hill, I had already come across the term in my high school studies and I remember being intrigued by the concept. However, what struck me the most was the feminist stance taken by the author. Why Flâneuse? What’s the difference between the two? I had to find out. Plus, I am a huge fan of discovering the beauty of cities by foot; I think it is the best way to experience a place and its atmosphere. Therefore, I bought the book.
Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin is a book that is hard to put into a single box: a memoir, a historical narration, a travel journal, a ‘psychogeographic’ account. I would say that it is all of these genres in one single volume and it is this combination of styles that makes the book an interesting and engaging one to read. As already mentioned, Elkin explores the concept of the Flâneur by taking a feminist perspective; she wants to learn about the women who walked the cities in the 20th century: who they were, their stories, their experiences, their perceptions, their thoughts. In few words, she wanted to give them a voice. Interestingly, Elkin highlights that the Flâneuses she describes in her essays are not merely the female counterparts of the Flâneur, they are figures to explore independently and be inspired by on their own. This is an interesting point which makes the visibility of female walkers extremely important: the Flâneuse possesses an individual identity and a personal way of looking at the world which differs from the one of a Flâneur. Consequently, to draw a comprehensive picture of wanderers of the past (and arguably, of the present), it is not only necessary but also required to acknowledge and give life to the experiences of the Flâneuses walking the city.
Cover of the book ‘Flâneuse’ by Lauren Elkin
The book is divided into chapters, each addressing one city where Elkin lived for a period of her life, in addition to an introductory chapter, a ‘cosmopolitan’ chapter and an epilogue. Paris is the recurring city, reflecting the love of Elkin for the French capital and the place she considers to be her authentic home. The other cities are New York, London, Paris, Venice and Tokyo. The interesting element of the book is the intertwined narration of the personal life of the author with the lives of glorious women of the past who walked the same cities at their own terms. For example, in London Elkin talks us through the experience of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group, the writings of Woolf and her relationship with the city, while also entangling her own life story and experiences with London. Woolf exchanged the neighbourhood of Kensington for Bloomsbury, where she flourished as a writer and where she frequently wandered around London. After years restrained in the family house in the elegant Kensington borough, Woolf finally experienced the freedom of being able to walk by herself in the city, taking great inspiration for her work from the streets of the capital, especially from the women she observed.
Photograph of family and friends of Vanessa Bell in the walled garden of her home, Charleston farmhouse, in Firle, Sussex. Bloomsbury Group. Tate Galleries.
There are three key aspects of the book that stood out to me and that I have particularly enjoyed: the representation of strong women in all their complexity, the exploration of the concept of ‘home’ and the self-reflection element of the book.
The book clearly takes a feminist stance that is easily palpable in the first chapter, where Elkin critically defines the concept of the Flâneuse and acknowledges the need to give female wanderers a voice. Similarly, she portrays strong and independent women who walked the cities and had the courage to defeat societal conventions and live their own lives rather than someone else’s. Elkin gives depth to her stories, painting three-dimensional characters with their own power and courage, as well as grief, fear and insecurities. She is able to dig deeper into the practices and habits of these women, critically analysing the often-rebellious intentions hidden behind their actions. I have particularly enjoyed the story of Martha Gellhorn, a talented war correspondent and Hemingway’s wife. She was an insatiable traveller, a voracious curious, that despite her position as a wife and a mother, never gave up on her dreams and followed her instinct. She was not perfect and some of her life choices could spark fierce discussion, but she was true to herself and confident in her own capabilities, proudly embracing a journey that led her to self-actualization. And I believe her story should be known and she should be celebrated for her courage and coherence.
Martha Gellhorn on a hunting trip in Idaho, circa 1940. Photograph by Robert Capa. From Washington University Libraries.
A second aspect I particularly enjoyed, also an extremely contemporary topic, is the exploration of the concept of ‘home’. Elkin takes us through her life journey, which involved moving to different cities, countries and even continents. She had a desire to travel, to explore, to challenge the idea that home must be a fixed concept. As an Italian immigrant in London, I completely understand and respect Elkin’s views. She was born in the US, however since a young age she felt like a rectangle in a box of circles. She felt out of place and with a fervid desire to see the world. After a year spent in Paris, she fell in love with the city, making it her permanent home. However, it was not an easy process: she got her visa refused a few times, prompting her to fly back to the US and take drastic decisions about her future and question her identity. Fortunately, at the end she succeeded and now lives happily in the city her heart has chosen to. I want to emphasize that Elkin does not despise her natural home, on the contrary, she acknowledges the importance it had and it will always have on her life. However, after various experiences and years of thought, she has understood that it might not be the right place for her in this phase of her life. The world is big and it might be that getting out of your comfort zone will allow you discover a new place you wish to call home. And that’s okay, home can be where you wish it to be.
A final point I want to briefly comment upon is the amount of self-reflection in the book. Elkin is not afraid of showing her true self and the choices she made, some of them less felicitous than others, but all of them contributing a meaningful block to her vagabond life journey. Sometimes, it is hard to be honest with yourself about decisions you have taken or the opportunities you might have missed, let alone disclosing those to millions of other people in a book. Therefore, I think Elkin has been very brave in letting us, the readers, into her personal life. It really shows that she embraced the woman she has become, her strengths, her weakness, her successes and failures. And I love it. She is a source of inspiration for everyone. She teaches us that failure is fine, making mistakes is fine and even moving to another continent for love is fine. As long as you are honest and listen to yourself, practice self-reflection and are open to the world, everything will be fine.
In conclusion, the book is an interesting melting pot of citations from original literary works, Elkin’s personal experience and acute reflections on walking in cities from a female perspective. I enjoyed it from beginning to end and I would highly recommend it to provide a new, broader and more challenging perspective of what it means for women to walk in our cities yesterday and today. And now, who wants to have a walk in London with me?