An American freelance essayist and translator living in Paris debuts with an appealing blend of memoir, scholarship, and cultural criticism.
White Review contributing editor Elkin presents a feminine alteration of the French word flâneur (“one who wanders aimlessly”) and uses both her own experiences and those of some noted writers and other artists to illustrate her principal thesis: that women have long needed to be as free to roam about, geographically and artistically, as men have been. “The portraits I paint here attest that the flâneuse is not merely a female flâneur,” writes the author, “but a figure to be reckoned with, and inspired by, all on her own….She is a determined, resourceful individual keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city, and the liberating possibilities of a good walk.” Elkin’s own story runs through the text like a luminous thread. She tells us the woman-in-the-street stories of Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, George Sand, Sophie Calle, Agnès Varda, and Martha Gellhorn, but all sorts of other cultural figures appear, including Barthes, Rilke, Baudelaire, Hemingway, Derrida, Dickens, and numerous others. Elkin is frank about her own life, discussing a long, failed relationship—following him, she moved to Tokyo, where her initial unhappiness in the city transformed to deep affection—her ambivalence about leaving one city she loved, New York, which is near family and friends, for another she came to love even more: Paris. (She has become a French citizen.) Elkin also lived for a time in London and Venice, but though she loved both places, it is Paris now owning her heart. The pattern of her principal chapters is fairly steady: her own story mixed with sometimes overly detailed accounts of a notable woman associated with the city. These minibiographies and exegeses of the artists’ work are occasionally heavier than casual readers may be willing to bear, but for the patient, there are the bright rewards of insight and new information.
Enlightening walks through cities, cultural history, and a writer’s heart and soul.