I first read The Flaneur about 10 years ago, but I didn't remember it all that well. For some reason a week or so ago I spent a frenzied 20 minutes sifting through the bookcases looking for this slim volume. I had to read it again. I don't quite know why it became such a burning ambition. But I'm glad I did reread. It's a fascinating promenade through "the paradoxes of Paris".
Novelist and biographer Edmund White lived in Paris for 17 years from the age of 43 to nearly 60. He spent many pleasant hours strolling around Paris and clearly loves her, although he does seem to love her, purported flaws and all. "Paris has become a cultural backwater.......... London, New York, Berlin and Tokyo are the happening capitals. French culture has become a museum".
Paris is well suited to The Flaneur- a beautifully French concept- an "aimless stroller who loses himself in the crowd, who has no destination and goes wherever caprice or curiosity directs his or her steps". Paris, where "virtually every district is beautiful, alluring and full of unsuspected delights, especially those that fan out around the Seine in the first through the eighth arrondissements. This is the classic Paris, defined by the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower to the west and the Bastille and the Pantheon to the east. Everything within this magic parallelogram is worth visiting on foot".
Edmund tells us that "Americans are particularly ill-suited to be flaneurs,..........they are always driven by the urge towards self-improvement." I wonder if that applies to Australians too? I did try to do aimless wandering on my evening walks, although I was always particular to try and pay attention to where I was going because I didn't want to get lost. Perhaps I'm too practical to be a flaneur? Too grounded in the mundane?
The first chapter is about the joys of strolling through the cobbled and busy streets of Paris. The rest of the book is more about the "Paradoxes of Paris". Each chapter more fascinating than the last- race relations in Europe, a Jewish history of Paris, gay Paris, the many and varied museums of Paris, and the most fascinating of all about the royal history of Paris.
I learnt so much in the rather too brief chapter on the royal history of Paris. Many French Queens were crowned at The Basilique de Saint Denis (very high on my wish list for next year), whereas the Kings were generally crowned in Rheims (something that I knew because of my ever so slight fascination with Joan of Arc). Louis XVI was sentenced to death by just one vote! 361 to 360, after a trial lasting two months. He was then killed in the Place de la Concorde, before being put into a common grave where Louis (and Marie Antoinette) where to remain until the restoration of the royal family in 1815.
I was more than astonished to realise that there are still royalists in France 223 years after the revolution. Actually, there are royalists and monarchists. Somehow these are different, but it seems you need to be French to understand how. And perhaps even more amazingly there are those who consider themselves the heir to the French throne.
Some fascinating factoids.
Slavery in Europe disappeared by the sixteenth century. Although continued in colonies for some time.
Black American soldiers were not permitted combat duties in the First World War.
Balzac is said to have inspected, but not partaken of the hashish jelly on offer at fashionable meetings of the intelligentsia. Baudelaire may have tried it "once or twice". Although perhaps this was enough to make him scratch the glass from the lower panes of his fashionable Ile St Louis windows, so that only the sky was visible.
The Flaneur is not for everyone, but I think it's fantastic. A highlight in Bloomsbury's The Writer and The City series.