Walking My City: A Review of Lauren Elkin’s “Flâneuse”

Flâneuse [flanne-euhze], noun, from the French. Feminine form of flâneur [flanne-euhr], an idler, a dawdling observer, usually found in cities.

That is an imaginary definition.

– Lauren Elkin

Lauren Elkin’s latest release, Flâneuse, is quite possibly the best reading experience I have had all year. Part memoir, part cultural history, part commentary, Flâneuse recounts the experiences of women and their relationships with the cities they lived and worked in.

Being a dual English Lit and Cultural Studies major at University, the idea of the flâneur is not new to me – most of the books I read for class are written by the great flâneurs of literature. But it was Elkin’s take on flânerie that really appealed to me when I found this book tucked in the back corner of my favourite bookshop. Putting women at the forefront of her work, Elkin gives space to some of the greatest and yet most underrated women artists in our history.

As a female writer, I was particularly struck by this book’s focus on the way in which female flânerie was linked so closely with the creative self, and how walking the city, becoming part of its social landscape is described as an artistic venture. Beginning with her own writing and her creative experiences in Paris and New York, Elkin describes some of the greatest cities on Earth and their inexplicable ties to human experience, art and creative cultural expression. In many ways, Flâneuse can be read as a love letter to Elkin’s most familiar city, Paris. Having lived there for a considerable time now, Elkin maps her own cultural and creative journey onto the city and its history, describing the city’s magnificent past and the women who used Paris as their own space for art and revolution.

But Flâneuse moves beyond Paris, stretching its arms out to New York, London, Venice and Tokyo, and even to your own cities. Elkin is sure never to get in the way of your own experiences, instead challenging you to pay attention to the way you interact with your city, and how you move through it. Whilst reading this book, I found myself paying particular attention to the ways in which I interact with my city, its culture and its creative landscape, the ways in which my femaleness is framed in the social spaces I inhabit. Flâneuse is as much a challenge to think about embodiment and inhabiting spaces as it is a record of cultural creativity and fluid cityscapes.  

Elkin’s prose is some of the best writing I have come across, particularly in Non-Fiction. Her way of layering cultural history, commentary and autobiography is unique and I was mesmerised by her talent for honest storytelling as I was reading. Through her writing, Elkin is an everywoman, but one with a special flair for sharing her thoughts in a respectful but confident way. There are moments in her writing that remind me of the same sort of tone as Caitlin Moran, but Elkin has a more polished voice, one that has been sanded around the edges by time, where Caitlin Moran boldly refuses to be shaped by anyone. Having never come across Elkin before this novel, I was astounded to find myself comparing her to my other female role models and favourite feminist writers, but looking back on my reading experience, I don’t doubt that gut instinct to put her up there on that list. Elkin is a genius, and I am incredibly grateful for her writing, and the personal and cultural history behind this book.

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Flâneuse is now available from Penguin Random House or in all good bookstores. As always, INWORDSANDINK encourages its readers to buy from and support their local independent bookstores.

© Hayley New 2016

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