Monday 29 October 2012

The Flaneur

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.

Dreaming of France, a weekly meme from Paulita at An Accidental Blog


Paulita said...

I put this on my list. I think I'd love it. I agree with the author that most Americans are bad at ambling around without a specific purpose. That reminds me of the movie A Room With a View when the two British women put away their Baedeker (their guide book) to have an adventure.
Thanks for playing along.
Here’s my Dreaming of France meme

bermudaonion said...

I love Paris so will have to look for this. I think he's right about Americans - it seems we're always worried about the next big thing instead of enjoying the moment.

Dvora said...

I also read this a few years ago and maybe it's time for a reread. He goes into a lot of history, and it isn't all centered around Paris. His discussion of black Americans who went to France and the history of the Jews in France was not centered on the capital. White writes about topics that I find fascinating and he does it very well.

MedicatedMoo said...

I think Edmund White makes a good point of Paris being a 'musuem' these days.

We loved Paris (went there last weekend!) and did our best to wander aimlessly, stopping only for a browse in an interesting shop or for coffee, but the attractions are, let's face it, the 19thC and back ones.....

We did a 'new Paris' bus tour and were bored witless by it. Seeing a library built in 1987 at Mitterand's behest was about as fascinating as it sounds.

Esme said...

I am going to pick this up-thank you.

Susan said...

Sad but true- we were typical Americans in Paris when our family went there a year ago. We filled every waking moment with purpose- there was so much we scheduled ourselves to see. I'd love to go back for a more leisurely visit. This book sounds wonderful! (And what a great meme.)

Brona said...

I'm another closet Francophile!

I've only read some of White's short stories but have always wanted to read more. Sounds like this is could be a match made in heaven!

Genie -- Paris and Beyond said...

Louise, I think that it takes many trips to Paris before one feels they have the luxury of strolling like the flaneur. I have found when one wanders without regard to whether one is lost or not that discoveries about Paris will appear before your eyes: architecture, parks, benches, people, markets, churches... Many/most are not in the tour books. After almost 20 trips to Paris I discovered amazing treasures in October. Yes, I will be back.

You will be amazed at Basilique St. Denis.


Louise said...

Genie, I think you're quite right. Tourists on a short trip don't have the luxury of aimless wandering- in any city. It takes some familiarity doesn't it? 20 trips! Wow, I'm so jealous. It's such a big deal to get there from Australia. Although I'm very lucky and we're deep into planning our third trip. I'm really looking forward to Basilique St Denis.

Brona- I'm not really in the closet, I'm out there loud and proud.... Glad you're another francophile too.

Susan, there is so much to see, I think as Genie says it does take time and a number of visits to be able to take a more leisurely approach. White lived there for 17 years after all, he didn't achieve it al in a rushed one week stay.

I hope you enjoy it Esme.

Kath- it is a museum if you think about it. But the most glorious museum in the world I think. Is that the library built like 4 books? Last visit I stayed around the corner from the national library but never managed to visit it.

Dvora- I agree. It's fascinating. I really like books that have such a breadth like this one. They're intelligent and so fascinating.

Kathy- it's a great read.

Paulita- I hope you enjoy it too. It's a lovely compact little read, so rich, so fascinating.