Lauren Elkin: the woman who walked around cities
Darran Anderson interviews the author of Flâneuse about the tradition of female urban writing and the rival charms of Paris, Tokyo and Venice
Lauren Elkin: I like to joke that living in Paris is like living in the twentieth century. In New York or London I feel constantly aggressed by the twenty-first century
Lauren Elkin is the author of Flâneuse: Women Who Walk the Cities (Chatto & Windus). Covering her experiences in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London, the book has been acclaimed as one of the best of the year by the Guardian and the New Statesman among others. It is also a study of the resurgent but often-sidelined tradition of female urban writing. Elkin has also co-authored The End of Oulipo? An Attempt to Exhaust a Movement (Zer0 Books). Originally from New York, she lives in Paris and lectures at the University of Liverpool, where she is also co-director of the Centre for New and International Writing. I talked to her about “the creative potential of the city, and the liberating possibilities of a good walk”,
Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own, “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman”. Was there a sense of writing Flâneuse in defiance of anonymity?
Yes. Or rather of being in constant dialogue with anonymity. One of the biggest obstacles to researching the book was the dearth of primary material in which women wrote about their walking in the city. Which is not to say it doesn’t exist (I’ve only been able to write about a little bit of what I came across) but I wanted to find diaries and letters written by women about their walks in the city, and ended up having to concentrate on a few artists and writers who were not anonymous, which I not only take to mean women who produced work they didn’t sign but women whose names we don’t know and therefore find only by hazard. I’m sure there’s an archive out there but it wasn’t the project of the book to excavate it. Everyone ends up writing about this subject through their own specialisation – it will be up to historians to try to locate the voices of everyday women.
One thing that I did want to do in the book was make women’s names visible. There’s a footnote that tries to share the names of all the artist-writer flâneuses I came across. We have to keep saying the names of women, to hold back the male flood (as Woolf also wrote). I hate for that to sound too binary – whether in terms of my conception of gender or relations between men and women – but the fact is, as I write in the introduction, that we have a habit of overlooking women in public space, or of paying them too much attention. We’re either invisible, or ogled/stalked/harassed. Naming might be a gesture towards according women (or anyone who wants it) a neutral place in the city.
Anonymity is a form of neutrality, as long as it’s a choice.
At the same time, was there a resistance to being hemmed in, instead wishing to roam and find new ground?
Yes, definitely. In terms of how I wrote about the flâneuse I didn’t want to be confined by our understanding of what the flâneur is, defining a flâneuse as a secondary figure, a female somehow managing to engage in a male occupation. Rather I wanted to break out of that narrow, Second Sex-like conception of what a woman on foot in the city could be. Maybe she’s not a woman in a man’s job; maybe the figure of the flâneuse is its own thing altogether. Maybe in a hundred years they’ll be asking “can there be a flâneur? Isn’t he just a male flâneuse?”
Formally I felt like I was trying to break out of the genre of non-fiction, to be able to suggest alternative readings or routes for the flâneuse without having to “argue” anything. At the same time I wanted to avoid the genre of memoir-writing, which can suffer from solipsism; one way that manifests itself is inadequate research and documentation. Memoirs often do make an important contribution to our thinking on a given subject, but by insisting on their texts as primary sources their authors can lose sight of the fact that they are not the first to contemplate these ideas. It becomes a clamouring of voices for attention rather than a concerted effort to understand.
That’s something that I value a lot about scholarship: in researching an article, an academic is never pretending she’s alone in a room discoursing on a subject; academics are always aware of the fact that they’re walking down a crowded street. It’s not pedantic to cite your sources: it’s a way of moving within a community, and setting signposts for people who might want to come along after you.
Yet I’m tempted to tamper with all these forms of discourse – mainstream non-fiction, academic writing, and memoir – and wanted to see what kinds of writing might emerge at the intersection of these different ways of thinking about ourselves, our cities, and our relationship to the past.
You were drawn to many cities but Paris is very much central. Given the overlap between existing places and the literature set there, do you think the city can be “read”?
Just walking through a city is like reading – we’re receiving and processing an onslaught of information, we’re writing our own stories as we make our way through the city. This might mean paying attention to the way we experience space, the way we perceive it to be organised; or it might mean remaining alert to the traces of history, or just discerning the little differences between shopfronts, the feel of the way the neighbourhoods change as you walk across town, the rubbish on the ground, or the men cleaning the metro floor tiles with toothbrushes like they do in Tokyo…
It’s all so revealing about the kinds of people who live there, the way they organise and maintain space, and fill it with meaning, or the spaces they’ve decided not to care about… For instance I can tell you the minute the arrondissement has changed, I don’t know how – you could blindfold me and take me to any street in Paris, take the blindfold off, and without looking at a street sign I could tell you where we were, just like you could open any one of a number of books in your library and know if you were reading Virginia Woolf or William Hazlitt, Deborah Levy or Jeanette Winterson. You just know. Woolf once wrote that she could read a book about every street in London. But no two stories of the city are the same, not even on the same street.
We tend to think of the city in spatial and visual terms but the temporal aspect has a huge bearing. You get a real sense of this in your book – the feeling of time travel (or its impossibility at times), the sense of inevitable change and at other times fixity, of interacting with ghosts (I keep thinking of Woolf’s term “street haunting”). How important is the role of time in cities for you?
It’s very important to me, it’s probably one of the major affective realms we inhabit in the city. I like to joke that living in Paris is like living in the twentieth century, which suits me fine; I liked that in my old apartment I just had two electric plates to cook on, a kettle, and a toaster oven, it felt like living in a Rohmer film or something, like it encouraged me to spend the night reading on the sofa instead of zoning out while I streamed some American television on my fibre-optic wifi.
Just walking down the street it doesn’t look like that much has changed since the last century. It sounds nostalgic and it probably it, but it’s more of an aesthetic comfort than a conservative one. In New York or London I feel constantly aggressed by the twenty-first century, everything is changing all the time, I can’t keep up, everyone is younger and younger, there are so many cell phones and Ubers and everyone’s en route to a hipster bar to meet a Tinder date. There’s no room for ghosts on the sidewalk. I guess I’m the ghost of New York past, there. But in Paris this kind of timeless feeling allows me to feel sort of timeless as well – like this is the space I occupy, this is its timbre, this is the background to my work but also the matter of it. I wrote in the book that in the city we walk side by side with the living and the dead. But I think for me that’s most true in Paris, and that’s why I feel happy and calm there.
You write of the importance of walking rather than driving to inhabit a place meaningfully, something prevented by living in the suburbs and initially by your location in Tokyo. Why do you think walking does that?
It’s very simple actually: you can’t really look around when you’re driving. If you’re behind the wheel, then you really can’t – you have to watch where you’re going. If you’re being driven you’re slightly more free to do so but generally you’re going too fast to see much, and even if you are crawling through traffic, you can’t really open the door and jump out to explore something. When you’re on foot, free of any vehicle (car or bike or whatever), you can reroute yourself however you like. Walking allows for total independence over your choices and destinations.
The old boy’s club of psychogeography highlights the problems as well as merits of the practise. There seems to be a prevailing blindspot in noticing that many people cannot freely roam as confident of their safety as they might be. I’m thinking of Marie Bashkirtseff’s wish, “I long for the freedom to go out alone”. Does the city become then a series of territories of varying approachability when you don’t fit a certain mould?
I think that’s true for anyone: but people who belong to the “certain mould” you’re referring to – which I think is probably middle-class white men – consider they can go “anywhere” whereas more marginalised, non-“mould”ed groups – like women or minorities – can’t. And yet I’m sure there are places where a white male psychogeographer could not go dérive-ing without there being a slight, almost imperceptible change in the air, in the atmospheric charge.
By reclaiming the term flâneuse and breaking open the idea of flânerie into flâneuserie to refer to subversive, deviant interventions in space, I also wanted to spur these men to think about their own relationships to space, as not being the “universal” but the result of a confluence of social energies. And I’m not even talking about the street harassment women (and sometimes men as well) face, which is a very real problem, but which is something we’ve already been talking about; I’m interested in a more subtle problem of how gender qualifies our experience of public space even when we’re not being harassed. Part of that, of course, was to get men like Will Self and his followers to think about their privilege in being able to walk to Heathrow if they like; if a woman walked to Heathrow she’d probably be stopped numerous times by concerned drivers wondering if she was ok – or they’d give her a wide berth supposing there must be something wrong with her if she’s on foot.
I long for the freedom to go out alone, not as Marie Bashkirtseff, a nineteenth-century Russian aristocrat, did, but as a twenty-first century woman who’d like to walk neutrally, certainly without being harassed, but also without being looked at excessively or judged or disturbed or condescended to.
There seems a subversive political dimension to the flâneuse but not in a didactic way, rather it’s a break from the routines of work, commerce, domesticity, even constricting identities. Do you see it as a kind of independent, sovereign activity?
Definitely. I think of Kim Novak’s line in Vertigo: “Only one is a wanderer. Two together are always going somewhere.” I don’t think you can flâneuse à deux. You can definitely go out for a wander with a partner but the act of wandering itself can only be undertaken alone, because the impulses have to answer solely to your own volition. Where that becomes subversive, and not simply, I don’t know, egocentric, is, as you say, when it’s a break from routine, from expectation, or a violation of some prescription.
Reading your chapter on Venice, there’s a liberating tendency to immerse in a city by getting lost, being swept along, being open to surprise and chance. How important is this to you?
What I was going for in the Venice chapter was to see if we could think of passivity as a form of flâneuserie – once I’d set the concept up as something subversive it seemed like it was necessarily an active pursuit. But then I thought about Sophie Calle’s Suite Vénitienne – she’s in Venice, having followed a man there from Paris, and then she follows him around the city, and I wondered: perhaps this kind of passivity is itself a kind of radical flâneuserie.
It’s similar, as I point out in that chapter, to what Edgar Allan Poe’s narrator does in The Man in the Crowd, or André Breton in Nadja, but we have far fewer narratives of women following men around, and when we do they’re usually passive and obedient, or stalkerish and creepy. So there’s something radically feminist about Calle performing this role of the obedient woman – a bit like Chris Kraus in I Love Dick, published 20 years later. Basically from the outside it looks like this pathetic woman in love with this guy who doesn’t want her, writing him crazy letters, but she’s not pathetic, she’s honest, and it’s also part of this elaborate art project about obsession but also about female self-discovery and self-expression. Being open to surprise and chance, in a flâneuse-ing narrative like Suite Vénitienne, or an epistolary one like I Love Dick, is about women starting to own their right to remain open to these things, not to submit our thoughts and desires to questions of propriety.
Alongside the sense of the city being a kind of archaeology, your book shows us that we are adding layers to it ourselves as we speak. Do you think there’s a tension between the writer-wanderer as spectator and participant? Is it important to think about cities and inhabit them actively rather than passively? And is it difficult being a writer, which is a pretty solitary activity, without becoming alienated or at least detached?
Like so much about being in public space, this idea of detachment and our experience of being solitary depends on the degree to which it’s a choice. If we can’t connect with the people around us, that detachment is probably going to veer towards alienation and loneliness. If we feel more or less content to be where we are, it can be the best spot from which to observe. Both are rich veins for the writer-wanderer; I’ve occupied both positions, in various times and places. The longer I live in Paris, the more I assimilate, the more I lose my critical distance. That’s something I have to work to maintain; I don’t want to get too comfortable there; when you’re too comfortable what do you have to write about? That’s probably why I don’t really write about America. It’s where I’m from; I can’t get enough distance from it to really observe it. I’m going to be either too sentimental or too alienated.
I’m struck by the differences in the cities you write about. It’s often said of certain movies that “the city is itself a character” but that’s always the case, isn’t it? I’m thinking of the difference between Paris and Tokyo, where to explore you went upwards rather than wandering at street level.
Writing about Tokyo helped me realise the degree to which flâneuse-ing isn’t something you automatically know how to do in every city you visit even if you’ve done it elsewhere. It’s a practice, something you do rather than are innately. And in Tokyo I ran up against the very worst of my bourgeois aesthetic preferences. Why is it so ugly and why do I have to climb up and down so many concrete stairs! I remember complaining when I lived there. My standard of urban beauty was based on Paris and most cities were going to fall short of that. I had to retrain my eye to appreciate other, more modernist, or even brutalist, aesthetics.
And yet once you get over the ugly concrete staircase you’re into a totally new world. It’s not like Paris where you can drift from one part of town to the next, feeling the subtle changes in neighbourhood. There’s a cliche about Japanese beauty being subtle – and that’s true on a small scale. But Tokyo itself is big and loud and sometimes cartoonish and definitely unapologetic about its ways and delights.
It all clicked for me one night when we went to this bar near Shinjuku station that was this kind of small dank space that reminded me of Greenwich Village in the 90s – kind of over and smelling of stale beer – and someone pointed to a ladder, and when you climbed up it you were on the roof, and it was heated, and you could sit on barrels and drink beer and look out over the neighbourhood. It seems so obvious, I know; it was a question of chance. All it took was one person nodding at a ladder and I was like – oh, I have to climb things in this city, that’s what the concrete stairways were telling me.
Once I got it, I was so into it, and I can’t wait to go back.
Darran Anderson is the author of Imaginary Cities (Influx Press, London, July 2015 / University of Chicago Press, April 2017) and Tidewrack (forthcoming with Vintage in the UK, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the US) darrananderson.com