You can’t get the news from poetry — thank heaven; yet as William Carlos Williams famously wrote, our souls are starving “for lack of what is found there.” But writers and artists know that you can get poetry from the streets, along with nourishment for psyche and spirit.
Arts critic Lauren Elkin’s sparkling and original “Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London,” explores how women writers and artists have traversed the city streets in hopes of gleaning sustenance and the occasional spark of transcendence. Her literary peregrinations defy boundaries, fusing cultural history, criticism, psycho-geography and memoir. Both playful and bracingly intelligent, Elkin’s elegant prose unfurls a portrait of the writer as an urban woman.
“Flâneuse” traces Elkin’s intellectual and artistic development, from her early 20s to mid-30s as she strikes out from New York to forge a new life in Paris. Along the way she rambles through her adopted city and several others, suffers the glories and griefs of love, writes a novel, becomes a professor and tries to win French citizenship. But “Flâneuse” is no angsty expat tale, but rather a project to reframe conventional, masculine notions of flânerie. “The flâneuse is not merely a female flâneur,” she writes, “but a figure to be reckoned with, and inspired by, all on her own. She voyages out, and goes where she’s not supposed to.” She is “keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city.”
Elkin revels in this energy, mapping her experience in several cities onto the process and works of women writers and artists, including Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, Martha Gellhorn, filmmaker Agnès Varda, artist Sophie Calle, and George Sand, in whose footsteps we trod at explosive moments when art and life intersect with periods of great social and political unrest in the city of Paris.
Some 150 years later, Elkin begins to take part in the protest marches that surge through the streets several times a year as students, teachers, and workers in turn resist the edicts of authority — and again when thousands of Parisians gather in mourning, defiance, resilience after the deadly terrorist attacks on the city that bookended 2015.
If you can’t quite get the news from literature, you may have current events in mind while reading the history of protest and civil unrest in Paris that winds through the book. “Flâneuse” also happens to reflect the polarities our global age: flânerie is rooted, local, nostalgic, but Elkin’s globe-trotting exemplifies the way we live now, mixing cultures, blurring borders and negotiating the widening gaps between identity and place. With perhaps an eerie prescience, “Flâneuse” examines the interrelationships of city, self and world.
Marian Ryan’s work has appeared in Granta Online, Slate, Salon, Literary Hub and other publications.
Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London
By: Lauren Elkin.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 317 pages, $27.