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Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Book review: The Flaneur, Edmund White (2001)

I'm not sure what I envisaged when I purchased this book but having finished it the title seems slightly dishonest. White lived in France, he says, between the ages of 43 and 60 (I lived in Japan between the ages of 30 and 39, so he has some advantage over me were I ever to write about flanant in Tokyo), and so has a claim to understand Paris but his choice of topics - the book is divided into six chapters that each covers a specific area of interest - suggests an American rather than a French mentality. He describes why himself. In his chapter on gay (as in, homosexual) Paris, for example, White concludes that the specific tone of French egalitarianism precludes natives from identifying as, say, gay writers. Identifying with a minority is, somehow, illegitimate for the French, he tells us. But nevertheless there's a chapter on American blacks in Paris and one on the Jews. But he points right near the end of the book to "those little forgotten places that appeal to the flaneur, the traces left by people living in the margins" and it's hard to know if this was added as an afterthought to justify the author's idiosyncratic subject choices, or chapter themes, or if it had been a deliberate organising principle from the very beginning of the work.

I admit I was expecting a bit more footing around. The only places White actually describes walking are when he talks about Baudelaire's curious way of walking the pavements, and when he describes hunting for rough trade on the Ile de la Citee on nights that passed during his sojourn in Paris. Apart from that we are given more historical information than details about the actual appearance of the Parisian streets.

So the subtitle of the book is not quite accurate. More accurate would have been 'An American progressive's version of Paris' or some such. Which does not mean the book is not worth reading. It is. Just do not expect a tour guide or a dolorous account of slipping among the raindrops down dim cobbled streets around dinner time. (Which would have been preferable from my point of view.) This is a cultured American gentleman's version of Paris and it's worth a look even though the word "flaneur" tends to appear only occasionally, as the beginning of sections, being soon eclipsed by something of more pressing interest to the writer, such as Jazz Age performers and the current claimant for the Bourbon throne.

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