ON LAUREN ELKIN’S FLANEUSE AND THE URBAN MAPS WE CARRY IN OUR HEADS

 

At some point in 2001, before the Tower fell, I flew into Los Angeles from Austin in order to interview Carol Muske-Dukes, the poet and novelist, for Publishers Weekly. Those were the last years, it now seems, of the ancien regime, in which magazines actually paid their peons real money to, as they had already begun to say, provide “content”. I got a room at a hotel that I can place on my mental map of Los Angeles at that time, thinking it is Sunset and Wiltshire,  although that map doesn’t exactly fit over the map of Los Angeles that was created in my head when I went to live there with my family  in Santa Monica in 2013. In that latter map, I can turn onto the Sunset exit from the Pacific Highway and head East and go up and down dale, passing by scarily tall skyscrapers that I associate, somehow, with UCLA students. I can also drive East on Wiltshire, past the city limits of Santa Monica, past the Veterans Hospital, and turn onto the Sepulveda – parallel to the 405, Los Angeles’s Berlin wall, cutting off West from East,  – and go up to the Getty Museum, the one with the Modern art in it, as opposed to the Getty Museum in Malibu with the reconstruction of the Greco-Roman theater on the grounds. These are routes that have a certain specificity in my head, driver’s routes. In 2013, we had a car.  But my 2001 visit was not blessed, or cursed, with a car: I didn’t rent one. I had not been driving regularly for some time, after my last car flopped to an exhausted close by the side of the road in Galisteo, New Mexico, one dreadful snowy night. In the vague map I am trying to retrace in my head, I settled into the hotel after taking a taxi from the airport, then walked the next day down Wiltshire (or Sunset) until I got to Hancock Park, following the directions I’d written down after consulting Google. At that time, I didn’t know, or had forgotten, that Hancock Park was where Joan Didion lived in the late sixties. I later learned the  politics of Hancock Park – from something I read? From someone at a party? In any case, the story was that it was an older rich neighborhood that did not allow in Jews once Hollywood appeared, immovable, in the Los Angeles area of the 20s. Hence, the names started drifting to Beverly Hills, better views too, leaving Hancock Park to wallow in its gentility. In the later sixties, it was wallowing into senescence:

In the years I am talking about I was living in a large house in a part of Hollywood that had once been expensive and was now described by one of my acquaintances as a “senseless-killing neighborhood.” This house on Franklin Avenue was rented, and paint peeled inside and out, and pipes broke and window sashes crumbled and the tennis court had not been rolled since 1933, but the rooms were many and high-ceilinged and, during the five years that I lived there, even the rather sinistral inertia of the neighborhood tended to suggest that I should live in the house indefinitely.

In fact I could not, because the owners were waiting only for a zoning change to tear the house down and build a high-rise apartment building, and for that matter it was precisely this anticipation of imminent but not exactly immediate destruction that lent the neighborhood its particular character. The house across the street had been built for one of the Talmadge sisters, had been the Japanese consulate in 1941, and was now, although boarded up, occupied by a number of unrelated adults who seemed to constitute some kind of therapy group. The house next door was owned by Synanon. I recall looking at a house around the corner with a rental sign on it: this house had once been the Canadian consulate, had 28 large rooms and two refrigerated fur closets, and could be rented, in the spirit of the neighborhood, only on a month-to-month basis, unfurnished.Since the inclination to rent an unfurnished 28-room house for a month or two is a distinctly special one, the neighborhood was peopled mainly by rock-and-roll bands, therapy groups, very old women wheeled down the street by practical nurses in soiled uniforms, and by my husband, my daughter and me.

 

In 2001, the storm of real estate money that had laid a beneficient hand on any lot big enough to put a chickenshack on had swept through this part of Los Angeles, and the priciness of houses (all mounted on earthquake property), drew gasps from the very angels in heaven. My walk through Hancock Park was pleasant. It was a good California spring day, not too hot, lots of tropical flowers. None of the homeowners seemed to be in their lawns or on the streets. Oddly, none of them ever are. You would expect a homeowner attached to a house that costs as much as a good-sized yacht to hang around it, but they come home and either do what they do inside, or burst out in gymware and go jogging distances. They never play, say, croquet on the front lawn, or read the paper on the porch. On the other hand, an army of lawn and garden workers made the scene. I stopped and bought a nice lunch, a burrito, at a lunch truck where the lawn workers were lined up. I walked past a house, which is still terrifically clear in my mind, that boasted a number of reproductions of Michaelangelo’s David on the lawn – an alabaster horde, life sized. And finally I found the Muske-Dukes residence.

After we’d exchanged greetings, Carol, glancing out at the street, asked me if I’d taken a cab.

No, I said, I walked.

This seemed to astonish her.

Los Angeles is famously made out of studios and highways. When Joan Didion wanted to show Los Angeles anomie eating at one of her characters in Play it as it Lays, she has the character drive all the highways, navigate them, calming herself with her riverboat captain skills in keeping her place in traffic, getting ahead of this or that arbitrarily chosen competitor. Back in the sixties, when Didion’s novel was published, these highways musta been something – ultramodern, very swinging sixties. Now they are undermaintained, rather mangy, ancient looking – except when you get to certain areas, like Pasadena. They are, for instance, no comparison to the wide, smooth, new and maintained highways in Atlanta Georgia, which are like the fat, happy grins on the face of Georgia politicians

Cars in cities, though, have never got a large press, never got a purchase on the collective dream. Advertisements for cars show them, typically, going up mountainous roads or passing by beaches – they aren’t shown trying to cross three lanes to make the 710 exit to Long Beach. The romance of the car is located outside of the city (save for rare exceptions – like Hitchcock’s Vertigo). The getaway car is the closest we get to an urban car dream. It was invented, appropriately enough, in Paris, by a band of bank robbers with connections to the anarchists. The getaway car was propaganda by the deed, like a random café bombing; but it quickly became a tool of organized crime and Hollywood gangsters, and survives as  a special effect, full of anxiety and threat and crosscutting and squealing turns, unleashing the joy of cutting through the traffic bound up with the fear of running over someone. The poetry of the getaway car is limited:  on the road is not on the avenue or on the one way street.  The romance of the cities is still attached, stubbornly, to the walker’s heels, to sidewalks and crossing the street against the traffic, chasing a rhyme or someone you are sure you know disappearing around a corner.

…..

Of all the great cities to walk in, Paris has the greatest mythological weight. It is in Paris that the term “flaneur” came into being. In Poe’s story, Murders in the Rue Morgue, Dupin and his friend invent the detective story while engaging in the flaneur’s reflective walk. It is in Paris that Baudelaire made the flaneur a key figure in the codex of modernity.

Paris has human geology – those walls that you can lay your hands on and feel the stone pulse of the century or eight centuries ago when human hands put them up. And it is all around, this pulse. It is in the bridge you walk over to get from the Ile de St. Louis to the Left bank. It is in the buttocks of the naked woman in frieze, her back towards us, at the corner of our street and Rue des Archives. It is even in the exterior walls of the building we live in, stone hide, a little rumpled and pitted.

Given my specs, my engineering as a urban denizen, I am by nature and situation attracted to books that take up the theme of walking – of threading urban streets, of noting shop windows and the oddities of crowded places that have slowly accreted over time into these somehow living phenomena, these superpersonal “persons” – New York City, Paris, London, Berlin, Rome. The genius of the place – I could eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  The whole list, from which I could evolve the list of the great books in my personal library. Including Ulysses, in which the magic force of the most comprehensively encyclopedic of all walking-in-the-city books created a permanent case for Dublin.

….

On May 29, 1928, Georges Montorgeuil wrote a column for one of the major Parisian dailies, Les Temps, entitled: “The centenary of the sidewalk and the death of flanerie.” Montorgeuil commemorated the laying down of the first public sidewalk (or so he claimed) in Paris, at Rue St. Honoré. It was the sidewalk that gave the pedestrian a space of its own, according to Montorgeuil. This, in turn, led to the species that walked not to get anywhere in particular, but to observe other people going to their rendez-vous, and to look at the shop windows, and to observe every interesting sign and symbol in the street: the flaneur.

Montorgeuil dated the death of this type to the takeover of the streets by automobiles, symbolized by the new jaywalking laws. To get from one side of the street to the other in order to examine something that caught your eye was now forbidden by police edict. And this buried the flaneur, who was already being jostled by the acceleration of urban life.

Montorgeuil was not alone in this conclusion. In the Paris newspapers of the twenties, the flaneur was a frequently buried figure, good for a column of obsequies. He both evoked nostalgia and worked as a sacrifice to the speedy tempo of today’s modern world – which is a cliché that never dies. Once an emblem of the modern, he was now pronounced obsolete, send flowers to the surrealists.

At the same time the Paris newspapers were burying the flaneur, a group of intellectuals in Berlin, including Walter Benjamin, Sigmund Kracauer, and Franz Hessel was busy building theories about him. Benjamin’s is the best known – in fact, the afterlife of the flaneur was decisively shaped by Benjamins use of him in a number of essays on Paris, the Capital of the 19th century, which were never published in one  book in his lifetime. For Benjamin, the great poet of flanerie was Baudelaire, who used this figure – extracting his myth from texts like Poe’s “The Man in the Crowd” – to project into the modern social space the alienation of the artist. The alienation had socio-economic roots, of course – the poet was no longer a figure who could rely on patronage, but had to throw himself into the new media market to earn his bread – but the larger sense of it was to cast a glance at the leveling required by modern society, where an imprisoning ethos of utility was systematically undermining older value systems bound up with the aesthetic and the sacred.

This is a tall order for a type that was essentially dreamed up in the Parisian newspapers of the eighteen thirties. As Benjamin was translated in the 70s and 80s, his works became part of the academic curriculum of the humanities, and the flaneur received a new life in the U.S., and provoked new controversies.   Must a flaneur be a man? Was his spectatorship simply a small part of the larger domain of the male gaze? There were new historicist tricks in the very questions. For instance, the too easy identification of the spectator to the invisible observer, which was certainly not how the spectator was constructed in the 19th century theater world, where the audience was as much on show as the opera or the play.  These issues were fiercely contested in the firefights of academic journals. Outside of academia, or overlapping it, a new form of semi-fiction that took up a subject much like the flaneur appeared in the later 80s – a disillusioned wanderer, a solitary in a crowd, derive-driven, whose destiny or destinations cut across other destinies, other wanderers, other refugees, other cornered souls. Of those crossings the story was written, and they were the story once every crossing was exhaustively registered.  W.G. Sebald’s compounds of autobiography, essay and fiction have had an enormous influence in showing writers a way out of the deadliness of the “lyric realism” of mainstream fiction: walk out of it. Walk away, run away, as the rock n roller chant goes. Although Sebald is by no means the first writer to try out these numbers, he does seem to have had an effect: he influences, if not other writers, at least our expectation of what certain other writers are doing. Among them I count Teju Cole, in Open City, or Iain Sinclair (whose Austerlitz & After: Tracking Sebald, I have not had a chance to read), or Enrique Vila-Matas There’s never an end to Paris.

….

Notice the absence, on this list, of women. This is a vexed absence, a sexist absence. It is one of those cavities in our historical consciousness that we know, instinctively, must be filled – a sort of historical black hole, which we detect by the gravity that it exerts on its environment. In 1837, the journalist Delphine de Girardin, in one of her Parisian letters, actually showed us the Paris street and the women in it. She chose for her description a rainy day in September:

Some rare pedestrians hazard out into the streets. Women, soaked with rain, show their green slips under their blue dresses. Poor courageous women! For women are much more courageous than men, and someday we will all admit it. Look at the street on a stormy day: Men pass in cabs, while women go walking through the water and the mud. Out of ten passerbys, eight are women.

As a sort of hommage to those passerbys, buried under the condescension of history, Lauren Elkin, a resident of Paris, a refugee from America’s suburbia, has written her account of female flânerie, Flaneuse: women walk the city in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London. The list of cities coincides with Elkin’s own itinerary over the last decade, for this is one of those books in which the experience of the author is a method by which to summon the ghost-thronged past – and to reckon with the media-thronged present. Honestly, most of her ghosts and contemporaries are not of the same class as the women Delphine de Girardin was observing. (Interestingly, the stigma of “streetwalker” has long attached to working class women in the street – it is a way of making a crime of walking while female. Patriarchy is full of such tricks). The closest Elkin comes to the declasse woman is Jean Rhys, on the bum in Jazz Age Paris. Her more upscale subjects include Virginia Woolf in London, Sophie Calle in Venice – Calle’s famous Venitien Suite,  an art performance that consisted of following an arbitrarily chosen man from Paris to Venice and following him around in the later locale with the slightly nutty intensity of a Hitchcock detective haunts Elkin’s own stay in Venice – and a wonderful evocation of Agnes Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7., a film set in the Nouvelle Vague Paris of  the early 1960s, when Paris was the cinephile capital of the world.  Varda’s comment on her own film serves as a coda to the themes in Elkin’s enterprise:

‘I think people are made of the places not only where they’ve been raised, but that they’ve loved; I think environments inhabit us,’ she said in a 1961 interview. ‘By understanding people you understand places better, by understanding places you understand people better.’ In Cléo de 5 à 7, she would explore the force a neighbourhood exerts on Cléo, but not in a static way – rather, the way something inside Cléo herself shifts as she moves through the neighbourhood, as the neighbourhood moves through her.

When the focus on the neighborhood fails, when the mandala created by shortcuts and long drifts does not circumscribe some host area, outline its aura, then the book falters. Elkin’s essay about Tokyo, a city she inhabited unwillingly with a boyfriend whom she eventually dropped, never seems to find the city’s number, or a vector into the city’s history. Significantly, no anterior flaneuse calls out to her in Japan. Similarly, her essay about Martha Gellhorn erases the distinction between a flaneuse and a professional traveler. Gellhorn was a wise reporter, a rare free spirit in the Cold War era. But unlike, say, Virginia Woolf, she contributed no new vibration to the city streets of her own eventual hometown, London.

Throughout the book, Elkin is struggling with the place of a highly educated woman in a world-system that has turned against the old refuges: in particular, the old humanities departments, now swarming with adjuncts while the last of the tenured retire, a precariate not to far removed from the laid off factory workers and all the others who actually made our world. Among the victims, as well, is the old press, mourning its collapse daily in twitter. In the end, she’s come through, if not in triumph, at least with a viable half-measure: in 2015, the French granted her citizenship, which means she can live in Paris indefinitely. Cheating, I go from the book to her web site and see that she spends “ most of my time tramping around Belleville,” which is not a bad place to land in mid-career, with ambitions that even the world-system can’t, for the moment, destroy.

Elkin’s is the kind of book that one finishes wanting to come up with one’s own canon of flaneuses. Although Elkin is from Long Island and has lived in New York, she oddly gives the cold shoulder to its  whole culture of flânerie. One longs for Djuna Barnes, or Elizabeth Hardwick.  As well, since this  review has gotten to the point where I tell the reader what kind of book I would have written – in other words, review as projection – I do wish she had taken up the woman at the very beginning of the flaneur legend, the unjustly forgotten Delphine de Girardin, from whom I quoted above.

Still, this is a very un-flaneurish carping, since the book, by its nature, glides between the cities of Elkin’s experience and the mythology she has forged in her soul, and that requires some trust in the taste of the flaneuse, her instinct for the city, its shop windows and graffiti, dogwalkers and streetwalkers, sidewalks and cafes, the drift of its street in the repetition of its seasons. Some books you take to the beach. For maximum reading pleasure, I’d suggest taking this book to a bench situated in the Square Léopold-Achille, 5 Rue du Parc Royal, 75003 Paris, and immersing yourself alternatively in the pages and in the excerpts of the lives of other of the park residents as they pass through.

 

About Roger 64 Articles
I am a translator, author and editor living in Paris. I finished a novel in March, and am busy trying to find an agent. In the meantime, I thought I'd like to start a magazine. Willett's is meant to be a venue for the review of books, personal reflections, and political bitching - and everything else.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*