Back in May, my aunt Sally wrote to me asking if I knew of a specific word that she had come across in her reading but which now escaped her. Here’s how she described her word mystery:
“A short while ago I read the book The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, in which she talks about women walking alone at night, including Greta Garbo. I’m certain that in the book, or in an article about it, there was a word used to describe these women. I know I read it, but I just can’t find it. Can you help? I’m sure it begins with F.”
Can you guess what that word is, before you read on?
Try as I might, I couldn’t help Sally to track the word down. But yesterday, thanks to an article by Lauren Elkin in The Guardian that my cousin Michael (Sally’s son) happened to read, the mystery has been solved.
As Eilis O’Hanlon explains in her review of Elkin’s new book in The Independent this morning: “Writers have always celebrated the benefits of a good walk, but there are different types of walkers. At one extreme, there is the purposeful walker with a definite destination, no dawdling allowed. At the other there is what the French call a flâneur. That is to say, ‘one who wanders aimlessly.'” [As it happens, the word flâneur appeared in another article today, in another review of another book — this time by the writer/photographer/artist Teju Cole. John Yau writes in his Hyperallergic piece: “As a novelist, Cole has been described as a postcolonial flâneur who is receptive to (is able to channel) the stories of the disenfranchised.”]
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word flâneur as “a man who saunters around observing society.” Notice it’s “a man” who does the sauntering, not just anyone. And this is what’s at the heart — and in the title — of the new book by Lauren Elkin, titled Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London, that is discussed in the two British newspapers. As the introduction to her piece in The Guardian reads:
The flâneur – the keen-eyed stroller who chronicles the minutiae of city life – has long been seen as a man’s role. From Virginia Woolf to Martha Gellhorn, it’s time we recognised the vital, transgressive work of the flâneuse.
Elkin goes on to explain: “[T]he flâneur, a figure of privilege and leisure, with the time and money to amble around the city at will. He is both stimulated and agitated by the buzz and hum of the city, the crowd; he is both part of and separate from the urban spectacle, both actor and observer. … He is also, always, a man. It’s strange: for as long as there have been cities, there have been women living in them, yet if we want to know what it’s like to walk thoughtfully in the city, there is only a long tradition of writing by men that tells us, stretching from Thomas De Quincey to André Breton to Will Self. But if we want to know how women experience the city? The flâneuse, if she can be said to exist, must be a streetwalker or a homeless woman, or some other unfortunate whose circumstances have forced her onto the street. Today, when most women you meet in the city have a tale or two of street harassment to tell, the notion of wandering the streets alone seems a fraught proposition. … This, perhaps, explains why there is so little attention paid to writing by women about walking in cities: most people assume it doesn’t exist, or is the exception that proves the rule.”
Both articles are fascinating, if only to show how the female version of an essentially male word can evoke such a different world of meaning, simply by changing the gender of the noun. And then there’s the history and world of the flâneuse herself, which both articles — and apparently Elkin’s book — bring to life.
Thank you, Sally — and Michael.