Memoir, English, 211 pages
A Flâneur is a stroller, a loiterer, someone who ambles through city streets in search of adventure and fulfillment. Having lived in Paris for sixteen years, Edmund White embraces this wandering habit through the streets and avenues of Paris, along the quays, and into the quarters and parts of the city virtually unknown to common tourists and indeed to many Parisiens.
For White, Paris is best seen on foot, from Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower in the west to the Bastille and the Panthéon in the east, all is walkable. And is therefore the great city for the flâneur, that aimless stroller who loses himself in the crowd, who has no destination and goes wherever curiosity directs his or her steps. By definition, a flâneur is endowed by enormous leisure, and is purposeless in his activity, someone who can take off a morning or afternoon for undirected relax walk, since the specific goal or a close rationing of time is contradictive to the true nature or spirit of the flâneur. A flâneur is therefore a true observer, and because of this purposeless destination, he or she can capture the day-to-day local habits, the inhabitants’ character and tastes, the spirit of the city. A flâneur is in search of experience, not knowledge. This book is a companion to those flâneurs in the streets of Paris, as White reveals many secrets of Paris history, the hard parts as well as the juicy parts, the inner drama of its people, the dreams and complaints, with huge volume of details and trivia facts that often make me stunned. Walking along some streets and going through the passages of the old quarters, with White as your companion, you learn not the cliché things of Paris, but more its paradoxes.
White accompanies us to the epoque where most intellectuals of the city still gathered in the cafés of Saint Germain-des-Prés to discuss litterature, politics, and philosophies, and how all has changed; now the quarter is just a common commercial district with chic boutiques in every corner. He also reveals the drama of some french personages, writers, musicians, politicians, and the very buildings or streets related to their lives. White also highlights some historical debats concerning the jewish community as well as the homosexuality journey in this city. He also guides us search the Paris past through the (tragic) lives of french kings and queens. Small and bizarre museums and public gardens also keep some important story of the city. Apart from those historical context, White also brings us to here-and-now time where its people are struggling between keeping the old Paris and the rush flow of modernization and urbanization, and how they desire to keep Paris “Paris”, and not becoming just a common modern european capital. Opinionated, all is told in a way as if he himself were talking with me, accompanying me with the every step strolling down the streets.
I enjoyed this book, though at first pages I thought he was just mumbling around here and there, not knowing much where those sentences are aiming at. But maybe that is just the style of a flâneur, wandering around… If you love a memoir with rich historical aspects, you will love this book.
At the end of this book, White shares with us all the references he used while writing this book, and the list is huge! No wonder he could come up with the enermous yet compelling details of this city.
Edmund White is now a New Yorker and teaches at Princeton University.
Paris, 2 February 2010