‘Flâneuse: Women Walk the City’; ‘An Abbreviated Life’; ‘The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir’
Jean Rhys: used her evening strolls as inspiration for the emotional landscape of her Paris novels
I didn’t get to travel this summer, but contented myself with a literary tour, courtesy of Lauren Elkin, whose Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London (Chatto and Windus, Kindle Edition €9.99) allowed me to explore those cities through the eyes of women through the ages. Part memoir, part cultural history, Flâneuse offers a rich engagement with the “psychogeography” of 20th-century literature and the contemporary city.
Elkin, an academic and novelist, puzzles over the invisibility of women in history’s visual and literary streetscapes. As a woman who uses her feet to understand the world, she wonders why women were excluded from the romantic tradition of the flâneur, that mythical figure who stalks through late-19th-century literature, discovering the secrets of humanity through his wandering strolls. He is “a man of the crowd and an observer of it”, and he is, definitively, a man: he is Charles Baudelaire, Ford Madox Ford or James Joyce. Indeed, the word flâneuse does not exist – Elkin has used her linguistic instincts to feminise the nominal original, though she is more interested in “redefining the concept” than she is in merely adding women’s experience to a male history.
Elkin, whose childhood was a series of car journeys across suburban Long Island, first found her feet walking the streets of New York, where she realised that intimacy with the city could only be achieved by pacing its pavements. “Walking,” she discovered, “is mapping with your feet.”
When she moved to Paris to study, she continued her perambulatory explorations, embracing the “in-betweenness” of the pedestrian, which complemented the quest of self-discovery that her foreignness had also fostered. Elkin writes with scabrous self-awareness about her coming of age in Paris, and clearly and with real insight about the women who walked the streets of Paris before her: George Sand, who inhabited the costume of a man so as to be invisible on the boulevards; Jean Rhys, who used her evening strolls as inspiration for the emotional landscape of her Paris novels.
The evocative writing itself matches any of the writers she makes room for in her history of urban perambulation. Here she is describing the renovation of Paris in the late 1800s, when Haussman “sliced his boulevards through the dark uneven crusts of houses like knives through a city of cindered chevre.”
But Flâneuse extends its reach outside of the bohemian capital too. Elkin walks us through Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury and alongside Sophie Calle’s Venetian canals. She even leaves the cultured Continent behind for the “hideousness” and “pure functionalism” of “unwalkable” Tokyo, where she feels completely alienated from all her accumulated knowledge: “what bothered me most was the certainty I felt that there was a great city out there, full of places I wanted to discover, but I didn’t know where to look for them . . . I didn’t know where to walk.”
Elkin returns to more familiar ground as the book draws to a close, but the reader’s own thirst for travel will have been well titillated.
Fláneuse is a rich, rewarding pedalogue that would be the perfect tome to pull from your pocket when you stop for a coffee on the terrace of some urban cafe in a foreign city. While the Kindle edition is slick and user-friendly – and with a book so crammed full of trivia, the highlighting function is certainly welcome – a paperback would surely offer a more authentic experience of le flâneurie.
Ariel Leve is another alienated American woman, although Leve’s existential crisis is of familial rather than social origin. Her memoir, An Abbreviated Life (Harper Collins, Kindle Edition €9.99), details her relationship with her mother, the poet Sandra Hochman, a feminist pioneer with what could be described as a narcissistic personality disorder. Hochman, who is never named in the book, is emotionally manipulative and physically abusive. By some miracle, she manages to keep a nanny to rear the young Ariel, although the nanny’s ideas about affection and punishment are not quite the typical expression of substitute mother-love.
Growing up in the maelstrom of her mother’s poisonous attention, Levy struggles to survive as an individual and to form a secure sense of self as an adult. “How does a child build an identity on quicksand?” she asks.
Leve, an award-winning journalist with the New Yorker, among other prestigious publications, turns her traumatic experience into a cathartic journey of self-discovery. The short chapters enable her to shift between past and present, allowing the reader simultaneous glimpses of the lonely child and the woman struggling to function in the world.
Healing comes in the most unlikely of places. Leve’s intense, dysfunctional relationship with her mother left her with an ambiguous attitude towards having children herself: “There was no compulsion to give life to anyone else because I was depleted. There was nothing to give.” However, when she finds herself cast as surrogate mother to seven-year-old twins, her perspective changes. She cuts herself off from her mother as a final act of survival and embraces her new role. Be warned, however, that even then Leve’s life is not without tragedy.
The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir, by Lesley Allen (twenty7, €4.99), is a fictional exploration of a similarly warped relationship, that of 10-year-old Biddy Weir (or Bloody Weirdo, as she is more widely known) and Alison Fleming, the bully who torments her for almost a decade as she tries to navigate the perils of adolescence without a mother. The book is set in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, but the teenagers are absorbed by their own problems and have no idea about the divisive political landscape.
Allen uses the frame of a daytime-TV chatshow to provide Biddy with a platform to tell her own story, after years of self-hatred, self-harm and a suicide attempt. If the reader fears that Biddy is about to subject herself to the savage appetite of reality TV, Allen adds a sudden twist that ensures that Biddy gets both revenge and justice for everything that she has suffered.
The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir was released exclusively in digital form, but a paperback release is available from October. The uncomplicated happy ending is just the sort of tonic that non-fiction like Elkin’s and Leve’s books can rarely provide.
Authors: Martin Doyle, Sara Keating
Twitter: @MartinDoyleIT, @sarajkeating