Aslant to the Flâneur: A Conversation with Lauren Elkin

Early on in Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse the author offers up an imaginary definition ...
Bistro Le Chinon

Early on in Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse the author offers up an imaginary definition of her book’s title: “Flâneuse [flanne-euhze], noun, from the French. Feminine form of flâneur [flanne-euhr], an idler, a dawdling observer, usually found in cities.” The definition must be imaginary, because the term “flâneuse” doesn’t exist in dictionaries.

In this book that is cultural history and memoir, criticism and travelogue, Elkin traces her own flânerie alongside that of so many women who came before her: novelists Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, and George Sand; artist Sophie Calle; filmmaker Agnès Varda; journalist Martha Gellhorn. Elkin tells the stories of these women and their experiences in public space—always visible, and thus always politicized—and braids them with her own experiences loving, rebelling, obeying, losing, and, of course, walking in cities.

Elkin and I grew up down the street from one another in a suburb of New York City. We are a few years apart in age and didn’t know each other well when we were young, but have since connected; our parents are friends, we both have PhDs in English, and we share a particular love for Virginia Woolf. We also share deep reservations about the suburbs.

Jacquelyn Ardam (JA): Can you tell me how to pronounce “flâneuse” correctly?


Lauren Elkin (LE): [laughs] That’s right, “flâneuse.”


JA: Okay, good! I am very self-conscious about it, because my French is horrible. Can you start off by telling me a bit about the genesis of Flâneuse?


LE: It was long-germinating project! As I write in the introduction, I studied abroad in Paris and sort of accidentally discovered the art of wandering in cities without having anywhere in particular to go. It was only senior year of college that I found out that there was a word for this, and that the word was flânerie, and that the flâneur was this man who idles around the city, taking in the urban spectacle. So I turned flâneur into the feminine form, and was like: okay, cool, so I guess I’m a flâneuse.

As I was preparing to write my senior thesis at Barnard, I had been steadily accumulating books by and about women walking in cities, and the senior seminar that I took at Barnard was called “The Man of the Crowd, the Woman of the Street.” So I wanted to write about the woman of the street, and specifically about the figure of the flâneuse. But as I started researching, I found out that all of these feminist historians—people like Griselda Pollock, Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, and Janet Wolff—had explicitly argued that there could be no female flâneur, no flâneuse, because women would not have had the freedom to walk in the city at the time that the figure of the flâneur was really being codified. This was in 1999, 2000. And then Deborah Parsons’s Streetwalking the Metropolis came out, but as an undergraduate I still couldn’t get my thoughts together to take on what that meant—if there really was or wasn’t a flâneuse—so I left the idea alone and wrote about prostitutes or something for my senior thesis.


JA: Didn’t we all?


LE: [laughs] So I got through my prostitution phase, went to grad school, and after I finished my PhD, I asked myself what I wanted to write about, what felt really important to write about next, after having spent eight years writing about Virginia Woolf. And still: women in public space, the problem of the flâneuse. I wanted to get back to it, to think: surely, women still don’t have the freedom to walk in cities that men have now, or had even in the 19th century … that maybe we needed to think about the ways women had been engaging with cities for years. Maybe the flâneuse wasn’t just a female version of a male figure, but a figure in her own right. The basic ingredients of the book are: woman and city, what does this relationship look like? And who could a flâneuse be?


JA: You have an academic background (a PhD in English from the CUNY Graduate Center), and you currently teach at the University of Liverpool. I’m wondering if you ever thought about doing Flâneuse as an academic book, rather than as a trade book? Is there a secret academic version of this book somewhere?


LE: No, there is no secret academic Flâneuse. Because the subject matter is so unruly, I felt like it couldn’t be restrained to one particular form of inquiry; I thought it was important to write about the subject for as wide an audience as possible. I got really tired and bored of seeing the same guys in the weekend Guardian talking about walking in cities over and over. And so I thought: people are interested in reading and writing about walking, and it’s only being done by and about men. So there was clearly a place in the culture to talk about this, and to theorize what women’s relationships to the city might be. I had been writing fiction and literary criticism for a general audience all the way through graduate school, so I thought, I’m going to do this as a proper trade book, and what I can bring to it is my academic training and a certain amount of rigor.

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Still from Agnès Varda’s short film L’Opéra-Mouffe (1958). Photograph by Gareth / Flickr

JA: I am going to read a quote to you from your book, which is exactly my experience of childhood, probably because we grew up on the same street: “It would have been nice, when I was growing up, to be able to walk somewhere.” Later in the chapter, you talk about how you had dreams of living not in a house, but in an apartment, and I remember just the exact same fantasy, that it would be so glamorous—and this comes out of watching Friends and loving Rent—to live in an apartment. So when did you realize that not everyone grows up in the suburbs? That kids and teenagers live in cities?


LE: I definitely believed it was exceptional to live in the city, that most people wanted to raise their kids in the suburbs … I do remember driving into the city; we’d take the Triborough Bridge, and we’d be driving down the East Side Highway, and there were these buildings, right there when you’d get off the Triborough, where they used to advertise: if you want to rent an apartment in this building, call this number! And I would write down the number so I’d have a place to go when I grew up and had to move out of my parents’ house.


JA: You were so ready! Now let’s switch gears a bit and talk about your chapter “Protest,” which seems so deeply relevant now. One of the things that really interests me is the way you’ve written about the protest as both a personal act and a political act, and also as a form of entertainment. I’m wondering if you participated in the women’s march in Paris? Was there something different about this protest, or do you see it as part of a continuum with the protests you discuss in the book?


LE: I went to the women’s march in Paris, and had a great time! … My friend Joanna recently wrote a piece in the Guardian about the carnivalesque nature of the protest and the subversive power of fun, and it was completely that: incredibly witty signs and ribaldry and feminine solidarity … We started by Trocadéro on the Right Bank, and we crossed the bridge right by the Eiffel Tower, and walked down the boulevard in the Seventh [arrondissement]. And all of those neighborhoods are places of intense patriarchal control, very moneyed. They are places that have very specific codes about how women are meant to be, how women are supposed to perform a particular idea about soignée femininity, a sophisticated femaleness, and a casually possessive attitude towards women’s bodies that’s rooted in a tradition of patriarchy. To be marching there and shouting and reclaiming public space, and shouting, “keep your hands off my body,” in that place meant a lot.


JA: To turn back to the book: each of your chapters is more or less focused on a particular writer or artist, and also on a particular city (and Paris is a city you come back to again and again). And for me, what was really interesting about your book was that your Tokyo chapter, which is your most personal chapter, isn’t centered around an artist or writer in that way.


LE: I was really thinking about each chapter as a kind of standalone essay. Each chapter has a figure I was thinking about, a way that I engaged with them, and some kind of governing idea that held it together, like obedience, or protest, or revolution, or testimony. But the one chapter that didn’t fit into that schema was the Tokyo chapter … It was the one chapter about a city that I didn’t walk in, or had a hard time walking in, and it really challenged my idea of what a flâneuse could be. So I decided to just let it be about me struggling to walk and having to redefine my ideas of what a city should be, and how I engaged with it. It was important to me that the chapter not seem like me disembarking in Tokyo and going: ugh, this is gross, send me back to Paris, but that it be about me realizing that I was the problem, that my own attitude towards walking in cities needed challenging.


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JA: You’ve been doing a lot of interviews these days about Flâneuse; is there anything that you’ve been wanting to talk about that you haven’t been asked about yet?


LE: Something that has been coming more to the fore for me recently has to do with the term itself. When we started off, you double-checked with me that you were pronouncing flâneuse correctly, and that happens a lot! Recently I was in Glasgow, and someone called my attention to how embarrassing it was to have to ask about pronunciation. And he was asking if it was worth having this term, if it’s kind of problematic, if maybe we should just translate it into English as wanderer, or idler, or some kind of social equivalent. And he was asking basically: what’s the use of keeping this French word in English, that people feel embarrassed about saying? And that was really eye-opening to me, I guess because I’m essentially an academic, in that I accept that there are certain technical terms for things that we can learn and wield and challenge but not, like, supplant. There’s a way that you kind of abase yourself before knowledge to a certain extent, even if you’re a feminist radical lefty like me and the teachers who trained me; you still go through and learn the fundamentals of your field and your discipline, and then you can do whatever you want with them … So I’d never stopped to consider the affect of confronting a word like flâneur or flâneuse.

I do still think it’s important to use these terms, because I like texture, and difference, and the way that foreign borrowed words rub up against English words, and feeling slightly uncomfortable with my use of language. I think it’s a really good thing that we use phrases and ideas that bring us up short, and make us think: how am I using this word? What does it mean for me to use this word? The word flâneuse makes us think: how do women use the city differently than men? Or how do people, in general, who are not coming from that classical flâneur, upper-middle-class white male perspective, use the city? No matter your gender or your race, or your ability, or the way you present in the world. I like this idea that you can be aslant to the flâneur, that you can claim a usage of flâneuse that is defiant in its anormality.

So for me—and this is a somewhat grandiose argument—it’s kind of like the way that Cixous makes up the idea of écriture féminine, and then she says: you know who’s great at écriture féminine? James Joyce.


JA: I think that’s a perfect ending to the interview. Do you feel good ending there?


LE: [laughs] That isn’t too grand? My point is that I want anyone to be able to recognize themselves in the term flâneuse.


JA: I love it! I mean, why not compare yourself to Cixous and Joyce in the end? That’s perfect. Women aren’t nearly grand enough about themselves.


This interview was conducted via Skype and has been edited and condensed. icon

Featured image: Bistro Le Chinon, evening (2011). Photograph by La Citta Vita / Flickr