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When Women Walk the City

In a new book, the writer Lauren Elkin excavates the female flâneur in Paris, Tokyo, New York, Venice, and London.

In New York City, a 'Fearless Girl' statue now stands in front of Wall Street's charging bull statue. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

I choose to walk my city whenever possible, usually alone, despite the fact that I, a woman, should be afraid to—or so I’ve heard from years of well meaning questions. Are you sure you’re comfortable going so far? Don’t you want a friend to go with you? Why not take an Uber?

It’s not that I’m ignorant to the bad things that can befall women in public, nor that I’m particularly “brave” to set foot to concrete. Women (especially trans women, and women of color) run risks anywhere we go. But neither “foolish” nor “fearless” tell very much about what happens when female feet hit the sidewalk. There is much more to say, and more for women to gain.

That terrain is the subject of Flâneuse, Lauren Elkin’s fine new hybrid work of memoir, literary criticism, and cultural history of women who walk. In these pages, the native Long Islander ditches her ancestral car keys for a life abroad and on foot, in search of a feminine definition of the flâneur, Charles Baudelaire’s famed and always male urban wanderer. In the streets of Paris, Tokyo, London, Venice, and Manhattan, Elkin roams through broken relationships, unexpected career turns, spiritual impasses, and intellectual harvests. The streets resist and affirm her choices and beliefs; they structure her imperfect wandering. In herself and the paths of famous female walkers, Elkin uncovers her flâneuse.

Being a flâneuse, Elkin finds, is to carve out public space for contradiction and ambivalence. No growth is straightforward or simple. As a young student, Elkin tangles up her love for the city of Paris with an affair with a man who can’t fully accept her; a sense of intense “belonging” in the French capital proves somewhat untrustworthy. Later, as an almost-French citizen, Elkin finds the country’s famous public protests are as much about a nostalgia for what France might have been as they are about bringing change—a tension she sees reflected in the impossibility of knowing her own future.

In a particularly vivid chapter, Elkin follows another doomed relationship to Tokyo, where cultural, linguistic, and physical barriers are hard to penetrate. Her Ph.D work is upended, her happiness shortchanged, and her autonomy undone. From the apartment-hotel that becomes a trap, she writes, “I can’t get a read on Tokyo. I can’t find its topography with my feet.” She resents her fiancé and herself for following his footsteps—but on another wandering in Venice, Elkin finds there can be beauty in submission, too. Describing a character in a Venice-based work by the filmmaker Sophie Calle, Elkin writes, “She’s relying on another person, but she’s still making the calls. He’s just sparing her the feeling of being ‘lost’ in the labyrinth; as long as she’s got her eye on him, she’s exactly where she needs to be.”

Elkin, a scholar of literature, weaves incisive analysis of the work of several women artists and writers into Flâneuse, bundling their thoughts and ties to famous cities with her own. In particular, the 19th-century French novelist George Sand, the British 20th-century literary giant Virginia Woolf, and the living film artist Agnès Varda loom large as important Women Who Walked for reasons that echo and clash with Elkin’s own. They walked with purpose and without it, to think and write, to map the city, to protest society, to support civil rights, to find belonging, to lose themselves, to reject and invite another person’s gaze. Bauderlaire’s flâneur may be an exclusively male figure, Elkin writes, an aimless stroller who blends and takes solace with the crowd. But women have always walked, and on their own terms—even when society refuses to see them.

Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, $27 at Indiebound.

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