Edmund White, The Flâneur: A stroll through the paradoxes of Paris (Bloomsbury 2001)
Before the meeting: I was very happy when this book was suggested as our next title. I’d come across the idea of the flâneur, the aimless wanderer through an urban environment, as an artist archetype (I think it was at the launch of Michael Sharkey’s The Sweeping Plain in 2007), and had somehow got the idea that Baudelaire and Edmund White were the go-to writers for anyone wanting to understand the archetype.
I was misled, at least about Edmund White. That is, I thought he was going to turn out to be a flâneur like the protagonist of Teju Cole’s Open City (which I suggested as a supplementary title), and that’s not how this book works at all.
It’s a short book, part of Bloomsbury’s The Writer and the City series, in which, according to the back cover blurb here, ‘some of the finest writers of our time reveal the secrets of the city they know best’. Peter Carey’s self-indulgent and forgettable 30 Days in Sydney was part of the series, and New South’s generally excellent Cities series may have been inspired by it.
There are six chapters: a general introduction to the idea of the flâneur and the general complexity of Paris is followed by essays about French (and mostly Parisian) attitudes on race, Jews and homosexuality, with an inserted chapter on eccentric and little known museums, and a final chapter on the weirdness that is the French monarchist and royalist movements. In other words, the bulk of the book is taken up with considerations of French culture through the lens of US-style identity politics, in particular through the lens of US gay culture. There’s very little wandering the streets, though as the text wanders through its chosen themes it sometimes creates an illusion of appropriate lack of discipline.
I enjoyed White’s mini-essays on Colette, Sidney Bechet and Josephine Baker. He gives a fascinating account of the Club des Hachichins (frequented by Baudelaire, Balzac and Théophile Gautier, if you can frequent something that only happened half a dozen times). His discussion of why AIDS had so much higher an incidence in Paris than in London raises interesting questions about identity politics (big in the US, sneered at in Paris – guess which attitude turns out to be superior!). The stories of a number of individual 19th century Jews are strikingly similar to the story of Charles Ephrussi in The Hare with Amber Eyes – in a good way.
There is all that, and much more that’s enjoyable and illuminating, but more often than not I was irritated. I grew tired of the name dropping (he once dined with Foucault, but that’s only the high point), the preening (his Parisian dinner-party comrades hadn’t noticed until he mentioned it that Paris is no longer a predominantly white city), the false modesty (he once gave a talk on Genet to a Palestinian audience, who surprised him by loving it even though he is white and Western), the persistent essentialising of ‘the French’ and ‘Parisians’, the titillatory titbits (wife-swapping clubs, cruising by the Seine) and the unremitting gay perspective (the most emphatic detail in his description of a mosque is that the Gay men who cruise its hammam on Sundays don’t touch each other out of respect for the religious environment).
After the meeting: It’s Rosh Hashanah, so attendance at the Book Group was down last night. (Memo to selves: Must keep a sharper eye out for High Holidays in future.) The five of us ate a hearty French meal, gossiped, engaged with the problem of an iPhone whose screen had gone blank, and discussed the book.
One man had really loved it. He’d read it when in the south of France, just before going to Paris, and so was much more attuned to its sense of place than I certainly was. He enjoyed the way the text moved between tiny details and broad perspectives. He found himself stopping to re-read paragraphs just for the pleasure of them. Interestingly enough, he loved the first sentence for its elegance and its cheeky wit, while I was irritated by its Americo-Eurocentrism and its snobbish smart-aleckery:
Paris is a big city, in the sense that London and New York are big cities and that Rome is a village, Los Angeles a collection of villages and Zürich a backwater.
One man had surrendered his copy when the library insisted he return it (probably because I was asking for it), but he hadn’t been unhappy about that as he’d had three attempts at the first chapter and been unengaged – because as far as he could tell, all White was doing was quoting a lot of other people about Paris, which is less true of later chapters. One had read it overnight (I’d dropped off that same library copy to him on Tuesday afternoon) and had a similar mix of enjoyment and irritation to mine, though I think with more pleasure and less irritation. Perhaps part of the problem is that we had all read the entry on ‘flâneur‘ in Wikipedia, and then approached the book expecting it to be an example of flâneurism, which it really isn’t.