Below is the first chapter from Flâneuse, Lauren Elkin’s incisive hybrid book of memoir, cultural criticism, and social history about the female urban walker, the contemplative, observant, and untold counterpart to the masculine flâneur. Our thanks to Elkin and FSG for sharing it with the Longreads community.
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Where did I first come across that word, flâneur, so singular, so elegant and French with its arched â and its curling eur? I know it was when I was studying in Paris at university, back in the 1990s, but I don’t think I found it in a book. I didn’t do much required reading, that year. I can’t say for sure, which is to say I became a flâneur before I knew what one was, wandering the streets around my school, located as American universities in Paris must be, on the Left Bank.
From the French verb flâner, the flâneur, or ‘one who wanders aimlessly,’ was born in the first half of the nineteenth century, in the glass-and-steel covered passages of Paris. When Haussmann started slicing his bright boulevards through the dark uneven crusts of houses like knives through a city of cindered chèvre, the flâneur wandered those too, taking in the urban spectacle. A figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention, the flâneur understands the city as few of its inhabitants do, for he has memorised it with his feet. Every corner, alleyway and stairway, has the ability to plunge him into rêverie. What happened here? Who passed by here? What does this place mean? The flâneur, attuned to the chords that vibrate throughout his city, knows without knowing.
In my ignorance, I think I thought I invented flânerie. Coming from suburban America, where people drive from one place to another, walking for no particular reason was a bit of an eccentric thing to do. I could walk for hours in Paris and never ‘get’ anywhere, looking at the way the city was put together, glimpsing its unofficial history here and there, a bullet in the façade of an hôtel particulier, leftover stencilling way up on the side of a building for a flour company or a newspaper that no longer existed, which some inspired graffiti artist had used as an invitation to add his own work, a row of cobblestones revealed by roadworks, several layers below the crust of the current city, slowly rising ever upward. I was on the lookout for residue, for texture, for accidents and encounters and unexpected openings. My most meaningful experience with the city was not through its literature, its food, or its museums; not even through the soul-scarring affair I carried on in a garret near the Bourse; but through all that walking. Somewhere in the 6th arrondissement I realised I wanted to live in a city for the rest of my life, and specifically, in the city of Paris. It had something to do with the utter, total freedom unleashed from the act of putting one foot in front of the other.
I wore a groove into the Boulevard Montparnasse as I came and went between my flat on the Avenue de Saxe and school on the rue de Chevreuse. I learned non-textbook French from the names of the restaurants in between: Les Zazous (named for a kind of jazzy 1940s hepcat in a plaid blazer and a quiff), Restaurant Sud-Ouest & Cie, which taught me the French equivalent of ‘& co,’ and from a bakery called Pomme de pain I learned the word for ‘pinecone,’ pomme de pin, though I never learned why that was a pun worth making. I bought orange juice on the way to class every day at a pretzel shop called Duchesse Anne and wondered who she was and what was her relationship to pretzels. I pondered the distorted French conception of American geography that resulted in a TexMex restaurant called Indiana Café. I walked past all the great cafés lining the boulevard, La Rotonde, Le Sélect, Le Dôme, and La Coupole, watering holes to generations of American writers in Paris, whose ghosts hunched under café awnings, unimpressed with the way the twentieth century had turned out. I crossed over the rue Vavin, with its eponymous café, where all the cool lycéens went when they got out of school, assertive cigarette smokers with sleeves too long for their arms, shod in Converse sneakers, boys with dark curls and girls with no make-up. Read more…
Since publishing his first novel Devil in a Blue Dress in 1990, Walter Mosley has consistently written some of the most beloved crime fiction depicting the ongoing struggle at the heart of America: racism and race relations. Mosley is best known for his series featuring black Los Angeles detective Easy Rawlins, but he’s also written album notes, science fiction, short stories, screenplays, and won a PEN Lifetime Achievement Award. In the spring issue of The Paris Review, Thomas Gebremedhin spoke at length with Mosley about how he started writing, literary longevity, black male heroes, publishing, and the mystery genre.
Do you plot your novels in advance?
No, I just start writing. I don’t have any plan. I wait to find out where it goes. Sometimes I do an outline, but even then, that’s not really a plan, because I don’t really follow it. The novel is bigger than your head. A novel is a gigantic, rambling, incredible thing. All you can do is start. Roy Lichtenstein, who I knew quite well actually, would say the reason most painters fail at art—not at painting, but at art—is because they know what the picture is going to be before they approach the canvas. So the whole idea that there are things you should say or want to say or have to say—fuck that.
Charcoal Joe is your fourteenth Easy Rawlins book. You once said that the eleventh novel in the series, Blonde Faith, was going to be your last, yet you continued writing. Why do you keep returning to Easy? What is it about him?
When I finished Blonde Faith, I couldn’t see another book coming out of Easy. I couldn’t even imagine it. I realized, finally, that I’d reached the border of my father’s life and was entering into the world of my life. I decided if I wrote from that vantage point, from that point of view, I could write the novels exactly the same but with my experience forming it, rather than the experiences of my father and his generation.
Do you have an end in mind?
I don’t know if I have an end plan. It depends who lives longer, Easy or me.
We’re taught that all narrative conflicts boil down to one of three stories: man versus man, man versus himself, or man versus nature. So what about women? Megan Mayhew Bergman takes to the pages of The Paris Review, looking for depictions of women acting and exploring with agency—from fictional women like Judith in Artemisia Gentileschi’s famous painting, to modern explorers like Rahawa Haile—and finding not nearly enough, and not much range. Still, there are inspiring examples of women taking on nature, and the hopeful note that women will continue carving out large spaces in adventure art and literature.
In the midfifties, Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, sixty-seven years old and mother of eleven children, became the first woman to hike the Appalachian Trail. She carried her gear in a homemade knapsack and slept under a shower curtain. She wore Keds. Emma was a survivor of domestic abuse: she had been nearly beaten to death by her husband more than once; when she divorced him, he threatened to commit her to an insane asylum. In 1955, she turned to her kids and told them, I’m going on a walk. She completed the 2,168-mile trail three times, the last when she was seventy-five years old.
In the sixties, Audrey Sutherland, who was raising four children alone on Oahu, would leave for weeks at a time to take solo expeditions. She explored the northern coast of Molokai, swimming in jeans and pulling her camping gear behind her in an army bag. From 1980 to 2003, she explored over eight thousand miles of waterways in Alaska and British Columbia, traveling with an inflatable kayak.
I never acted on my mother’s suggestion that I find a nice creative job, like in advertising, but then the job came to me anyway. An art-director friend called and said she was making a TV commercial for Barneys New York and she needed some words. Would I do it?
I didn’t hesitate for a second. Why not? What is the difference between art and advertising?
Quality? Clearly not. The only difference I could come up with for sure was the logo. I was an adman from that day forward, and somehow it gave me the resources to do what I thought was art—with a logo.
I had always been interested in the neutral zone, the DMZ of art and commerce, and now I was working there. It was a place where I could push the limits, mainly because I was so unfamiliar with the limits. Like Iggy, I didn’t feel like a sellout, I felt empowered. If you’re going to be a bad boy, be bad: like Bob Dylan talking to the computer in the IBM ad. Don’t tell me he wasn’t savoring the transgression of the whole thing.
At The Paris Review, writer and creative director Glenn O’Brien narrates the comic struggle of making a living in the arts, particularly the way many creative types struggle with whether or not to go into advertising. He doesn’t.
Why did you stop taking drugs?
I was living in Tangier in 1957, and I had spent a month in a tiny room in the Casbah staring at the toe of my foot. The room had filled up with empty Eukodol cartons; I suddenly realized I was not doing anything. I was dying. I was just apt to be finished. So I flew to London and turned myself over to Dr. John Yerbury Dent for treatment. I’d heard of his success with the apomorphine treatment. Apomorphine is simply morphine boiled in hydrochloric acid; it’s nonaddictive. What the apomorphine did was to regulate my metabolism. It’s a metabolic regulator. It cured me physiologically. I’d already taken the cure once at Lexington, and although I was off drugs when I got out, there was a physiological residue. Apomorphine eliminated that. I’ve been trying to get people in this country interested in it, but without much luck. The vast majority—social workers, doctors—have the cop’s mentality toward addiction. A probation officer in California wrote me recently to inquire about the apomorphine treatment. I’ll answer him at length. I always answer letters like that.
—William S. Burroughs, interviewed by Conrad Knickerbocker in The Paris Review, “The Art of Fiction No. 36” (Fall 1965).
In the winter of 1981 Peter H. Stone interviewed Gabriel García Márquez for The Paris Review. The interview took place over three afternoons in the studio behind García Márquez’s home in Mexico. Although García Márquez’s English is “quite good,” he spoke mostly in Spanish:
You often use the theme of the solitude of power.
The more power you have, the harder it is to know who is lying to you and who is not. When you reach absolute power, there is no contact with reality, and that’s the worst kind of solitude there can be. A very powerful person, a dictator, is surrounded by interests and people whose final aim is to isolate him from reality; everything is in concert to isolate him.
What about the solitude of the writer? Is this different?
It has a lot to do with the solitude of power. The writer’s very attempt to portray reality often leads him to a distorted view of it. In trying to transpose reality he can end up losing contact with it, in an ivory tower, as they say. Journalism is a very good guard against that. That’s why I have always tried to keep on doing journalism, because it keeps me in contact with the real world, particularly political journalism and politics. The solitude that threatened me after One Hundred Years of Solitude wasn’t the solitude of the writer; it was the solitude of fame, which resembles the solitude of power much more. My friends defended me from that one, my friends who are always there.
From the time I first started writing, the trick for me has always been to construct a life in which writing could occur. I have never been blocked, never lost faith (or never lost it for longer than necessary, shall we say) never not had ideas and scraps sitting around in notebooks or on Post-its adhered to the desk edge, but I have always been slow and have never had a protracted run of free time. I have always had to hold down a paying job of some sort and now I’m the mother of a small child as well, and the ability to make a literary life while teaching and parenting (to say nothing of housework) is sometimes beyond me. I don’t feel completely outwitted by it but it is increasingly a struggle. If I had a staff of even one person, or could tolerate a small amphetamine habit, or entertain the possibility of weekly blood transfusions, or had been married to Vera Nabokov, or had a housespouse of even minimal abilities, a literary life would be easier to bring about. (In my mind I see all your male readers rolling their eyes. But your female ones—what is that? Are they nodding in agreement? Are their fists in the air?) It’s hardly news that it is difficult to keep the intellectual and artistic hum of your brain going when one is mired in housewifery. This is, I realize, an old complaint from women, but for working women everywhere it continues to have great currency.
-Lorrie Moore, in the Paris Review (2001).
Mother—crazy as she was—had an exquisite sensibility. She read nonstop. Loads of history, Russian and Chinese particularly, and art history. There was nothing else to do in that suckhole of a town. You go outside, you run around, people throw dirt balls at you, you get your ass beat. But reading is socially accepted disassociation. You flip a switch and you’re not there anymore. It’s better than heroin. More effective and cheaper and legal.
People who didn’t live pre-Internet can’t grasp how devoid of ideas life in my hometown was. The only bookstores sold Bibles the size of coffee tables and dashboard Virgin Marys that glowed in the dark. I stopped in the middle of the SAT to memorize a poem, because I thought, This is a great work of art and I’ll never see it again.
-Mary Karr, in The Paris Review (2009), on growing up in Southeast Texas.
In The Paris Review Daily, Colin Dickey searches for a house among foreclosed properties, and finds uncanny forces at work:
My wife and I walked, zombie-like, through home after home, throughout that stifling summer, into homes that had been closed against the light but bristled with claustrophobic air. We took to nicknaming these places: the Flea House, after whatever it was that bit our realtor; the Burn House, with its charred patches of wall and blackened carpets; Tony’s House, after the name on the novelty license plate still stuck to a bedroom door, a detail particularly creepy amid the otherwise empty gloom of the house, as though Danny Torrance would big-wheel down the hall at any moment.
For the most part, these homes were on regular streets, among other unexceptional homes. It was strange to find them in Los Angeles; the haunted house is usually built outside of some small town, a nightmare in the wilderness that beckons just beyond some tiny hamlet. In Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, as Eleanor Vance makes her way to Hillsdale, Illinois, she’s told not to ask about Hill House: “I am making these directions so detailed,” Dr. Montague writes to her in a letter, “because it is inadvisable to stop in Hillsdale to ask your way. The people there are rude to strangers and openly hostile to anyone inquiring about Hill House.”
It’s a common trope: the unaware traveler and the wary, even hostile townspeople. Why, in all these stories, do the poor townspeople hate the haunted mansion? Well, because they’re poor. They can’t afford to move away, to uproot their families, even after some rich eccentric has unleashed an unspeakable evil just beyond the town limits. “People leave this town,” a Hillsdale resident tells Eleanor, “they don’t come here.” The archetypal haunted house story is often really about class, about the rich who don’t understand the land or the people or the history and blunder into the landscape, attempting to buy their way into a community, blithely oblivious to the locals nearby. The town grows resentful because, by the force of economics, they are imprisoned by the rich and their folly—haunted by forces beyond their own control.
Photo: US National Archives, Flickr