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BOUND TO PLEASE / Words of wanderers echo in city streets

The Japan News

By Kumi Matsumaru / Japan News Staff WriterFlaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London

By Lauren Elkin

Chatto & Windus, 336pp

A flaneur, a wanderer or a stroller in a city, is considered someone who observes things that would easily be missed by others. They would find themselves in markets, cafes or on the streets, noting little things, and then examining them in relation to society or themselves.

But acclaimed flaneurs tend to be male, especially when such behavior is discussed in the field of art. Poet Charles Baudelaire, photographer Eugene Atget and philosopher Walter Benjamin, all active in the 19th or early 20th centuries, would pick up small things for idiosyncratic admiration or to relate them to the advent of the modern era.

Their ilk later in the New World were also men, such as box artist Joseph Cornell and painter Edward Hopper. In Japan, well-known flaneurs include artist Genpei Akasegawa and architect Wajiro Kon.

In “Flaneuse” (a term coined by author Lauren Elkin by converting the French masculine noun flaneur to flaneuse — a woman flaneur), the author walks in the footsteps of females who wander cities ranging from New York and Paris to Tokyo. She writes how she and they thought, lived and worked in the cities, combining cultural meandering and memoir.

Elkin, who grew up in Long Island, “felt at home in the crowds” on her visits to Manhattan, to which she later moved to go to university. She even writes, “I blame the suburbs” for having so much emptiness. (A photograph of roadside shops in the book’s “Long Island” section reminded me of a human-less version of Hopper’s “Nighthawks.”)

In New York, Elkin felt she no longer belonged to a caste, “visible only when you are out of place,” but wandered in pleasant obscurity in the crowd.

As Elkin became alert to the city, she became alert to women’s history, literature, politics and more. Reading everyone from Simone de Beauvoir to Susan Brownmiller, she became aware of the history of female flaneurs.

As her wandering spreads to other cities, the lives of Virginia Woolf, Sophie Calle and others run parallel to, or get entangled with, that of the author.

In Paris, where she moved in 2004, Elkin sees and thinks about things like a character created by British author Jean Rhys, or even Rhys herself. Her regular visits to London brought discoveries and contemplation, enhanced by references to Woolf.

Tokyo, where she moved around the end of 2007 with “Mr. X,” with whom she had also spent time in Paris, disappointed her at first with its automated, industrial, ugly nature based on pure functionalism. It did not seem worth leaving her Paris life behind.

While tracing the lives of people who come to Tokyo like her, such as the woman in Sofia Coppola’s film “Lost in Translation,” Elkin finds places she can connect with. Although as her relationship with Japan grew, that with X soured, and Elkin’s flaneuring continued in Paris again and other cities.

The idea of flaneuring may not be welcomed by those favoring continuity and stability unchallenged by unexpected — and sometimes unnerving — openings. But if you embrace the notion that a city has a life and gives you a kind of freedom that keeps you “going, thinking and engaging,” then “Flaneuse” is something to read.

Where to Read

Somewhere in the city — a cafe, a station, a bench in a park or any other place you can feel the bustle of the town and enjoy solitude at the same time.

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