5 June 2013

Edmund White: The Flâneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris (2001)

These are Edmund White's impressions of Paris after living there for sixteen years, and as we might expect they're pretty idiosyncratic, with the emphasis on the gay, flamboyant nature of the city.
White divides this into six chapters, beginning with a general account (which encompasses a large – and fascinating – digression about Colette) of the flâneur, that essentially non-tourist Paris-oriented stroller; from there he shifts his focus to multicultural Paris, to Jewish Paris, to a few rather obscure museums, to gay Paris, then to French royalty past and (unrecognised) present.

The main point is that White concentrates on the obscure, and it is really refreshing to read an account about Paris without a single mention, for instance, of the Eiffel Tower or the Moulin Rouge. So, unsurprisingly, a number of things interested me here that I'll be investigating presently, such as the marché du livre near the Parc Georges Brassens, along with the gay writers Tony Duvert and Yves Navarre.

Occasionally, White forgets his target reader and unnecessarily reminds us, for example, that August Strindberg was a Swedish playwright. (Really?). He also seems a little overwhelmed by power and money, hence all the pages on the Musée Camondo (but nothing, alas, on the wonderful little Parc Monceau at the side of it), and (yawn) the fate of the French royal family. Twice in a few pages he says he doesn't understand the French distinction between royalist and monarchist: nor do I, but then who cares anyway?

Through all this, The Flâneur is well worth reading because it digs far deeper into Paris than the usual guidebook (which this obviously isn't, and was never intended to be), and in several ways it approaches the city from an outsider's point of view.

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