Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London by Lauren Elkin

Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London BY Lauren Elkin. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 336 pages. $27.
The cover of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London

“You don’t need to crunch around in Gore-Tex to be subversive, if you’re a woman,” writes Lauren Elkin, author of the wide-ranging and inspiring new book about walking in the city, Flâneuse. “Just walk out your front door.”

Elkin holds a PhD from CUNY and the Université de Paris VII, and has written essays for the New York Times Book Review, the London Review of Books, and the Times Literary Supplement. In Flâneuse, she recalls the initial thrill of exploring New York City in her early twenties, and the sense of astonishment she feels in other cities, in particular Paris, where she has lived on and off since 2004. Gradually, she intersperses vivid personal stories of her time in various global cities—from Paris to London, Venice to Tokyo—with lively and often humorous studies of women writers and artists, including Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, and Sophie Calle. The result is a realization that urban walking is more than simply fun or interesting: Ultimately, it’s one of the most essential things we can do, allowing us to engage with the city and history as active participants rather than as passive observers.

All great journeys begin somewhere, and Elkin’s tale of urban wandering opens in the suburbs of Long Island, where she spent a frustrated childhood. Elkin’s first hint that life offers more than strip malls and donuts occurred on her rare forays into Manhattan, when her parents would, she remembers, make sure all the doors were locked once they’d made it through the Midtown tunnel. “With no way of seeing how other people lived,” she writes, “I had no access to the real world except through the television.” She goes to college in upstate New York, where she studies theater. But New York City beckons, and she decides to take a Greyhound bus to visit a friend who is going to college in Manhattan. While her friend attends class, she wanders downtown alone and is soon overwhelmed by the crush of each and every new block. In the Union Square Barnes & Noble, she finds refuge, exhausted but electrified.

Never again would a chain bookstore suffice—not after Elkin moves to France, where, she writes, she found a place “where something could happen, or had happened, or both.” This weight of history deepens the growing feeling she has that a walk through a city can unfold with the same power as any book. “Every turn I made was a reminder that the day was mine and I didn’t have to be anywhere I didn’t want to be.” This feeling of control is enhanced by a sense that new (and likely good) things are yet to happen; intoxicated not only by the city’s dense history but also its rich feeling of possibility, our ever-industrious narrator begins to hammer out a new view on how we all should move through the world. We’re not talking about an efficient walking tour with a map or specific goal; this is the wandering and gawking idealized by writers like Walter Benjamin and Baudelaire, who, with the word flâneur, conjured up an image of a man (always a man) who had the time and inclination to walk the city streets.

“I became a flâneur before I knew what one was,” Elkin writes. The problem is that she can’t really fully become a flâneur. If men could wander and “disappear” into a crowd, Elkin shows how women are always the focus of attention, interrupted and harassed, in danger and pursued.

But those threats don’t stop her; in fact, the difficulty seems to give Elkin additional perspective on the counter-intuitive joys, and heroism, of female wandering. To unpack the specific burdens of being a female flâneur (or flâneuse) you might expect a trained academic to find her surest footing in literature and history, and indeed Elkin shines when she presents us with the potent image of Emma Bovary, dangerously moving through the city in a covered carriage. A lengthy chapter goes deep on Jean Rhys, the tortured novelist, who finds a mix of freedom and redemption in the city, even if her characters often seemed trapped by their reliance on powerful men. But perhaps Elkin’s greatest strength lies in her treatment of the novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf. “We are no longer ‘quite ourselves’” while in the street, Woolf writes about women who walk, because we have left behind “the objects that make us who we are: things we have chosen and arranged, which ‘express’ and ‘enforce’ our identities.” Walking on the street, Woolf writes, allows women to “leave that setting, that ‘shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves.’” 87

Again and again, Elkin searches for freedom, though she doesn’t always find it. In Tokyo, she goes on walks to escape a dull boyfriend and tries to understand why Japan can seem so impenetrable and unwelcoming. And while London comes to have hints of home, she finds that around each corner there’s enough difficulty and strangeness to complicate any sense of safety or familiarity.

Elkin is adept at evoking the ruminations and free associating that can accompany solitary wandering through familiar and unfamiliar cityscapes. But walking through cities is also about encountering other people, and the author is very good at looking beyond herself and analyzing broader cultural forces that affect how we move through a metropole. The final hundred pages have a particular urgency. She’s in Paris for the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings. Rocked by the massacre of twelve people, crowds of Parisians have taken to the streets. Elkin writes that, in Paris, marching is “an instinctive response to feeling wronged. . . . We have so few occasions for doing the same thing at the same time, and when we do it we feel we belong to something bigger than us.”

“We need the mass movements,” she concludes. “We need people to get together and march, or even just stand in one place, not only for those in power to see what the people want, but for people who are decidedly not empowered to see you out there, and to shift, just a little bit, the pebbles of thought in their minds.”

No matter who you are, Elkin has written a book that will inspire one to take to the streets—not just for the solitary pleasures of the flâneuse, but also to join forces and pursue collective goals. “That’s all it takes,” Elkin writes, seeming to have anticipated the many marches that took place in DC, New York, and other cities around the world in late January. “Revolutions are made by individuals.”

Nathan Deuel is the author of Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East.