“My city isn’t mine any more. And yet it always will be, more than any other. We get to know our cities on foot, and when we leave, the topography shifts. We’re no longer as sure-footed. But maybe that’s a good thing. It’s just a question of looking, and of not hoping to see something else when we do.” – Flâneuse
I came across Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse while walking. I moved to London last month and was exploring. It was a balmy Indian summer’s afternoon and I turned into a bookshop that seemed interesting. It was Burley Fisher Books on the Kingsland Road and here I found Flâneuse among their excellent selection.
Flâneuse is a book about women who walk in cities. It is literary criticism and cultural history by way of memoir. Elkin, an author and academic, writes about Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, Sophie Calle, Agnes Varda and others, explaining how walking in urban environments enhanced the art that these women created.
Flâneuse is an imaginary word. Elkin uses it to signify the feminine form of “flâneur”: “an idler, a dawdling observer, usually found in cities.” Walking alone in the city was an act of rebellion for a woman. Elkin explores what this means for female writers and artists, then and now, as well as for herself. In doing so she exposes the nuances and contradictions inherent in the life of a woman, and reflects upon the conflicting desires to wander and stay put.
I feel very strongly about this book. As I have discussed on previous occasions, sometimes you stumble upon a work of literature that stimulates your mind in a profound way because of the time and place in which you read it. This was the case for me with Flâneuse. Elkin is eloquent and entertaining. The autobiographical strands interwoven in the work allow for the narrative to be both endearing and intellectually stimulating. As an avid comber of urban landscapes, I was inspired and reassured to find a kindred spirit in Elkin and the women she writes of.
True to the book’s central theme and the way I came across it, I have paired it with cinnamon bun bread and butter pudding from Violet Cakes in East London. I had heard of Claire Ptak’s bakery, and walked passed it completely by chance last Sunday. Bread and butter pudding is a favourite and making it with cinnamon buns is, in my eyes, inspired. Here’s to many more wanderings.