“At about this time a punk interviewed me on television and asked, ‘You are known as a homosexual, a writer and an American. When did you first realize you were an American?’
‘When I moved to France,’ I said.”
From Edmund White’s “Skinned Alive,” first published in Granta, 1989
William Sterling Walker
The flâneur, writes Edmund White, quoting Walter Benjamin, the literary flâneur with whom he is most simpatico, “is a creation of Paris.” Published in 2001 as part of Bloomsbury’s “The Writer and the City” series, The Flâneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris shows that Edmund White was still in that city’s thrall three years after he quit his voluntary, fifteen-year exile there. And whether consciously or not, he attempted to “document every corner” of his subject as he describes in words what the documentary photographer, Eugène Atget, sought to create—a “visual record of a vanished Paris.” Not quite a memoir, not quite a history, not quite a “sentimental” travelogue—though it contains elements of these forms—The Flâneur may be regarded formally as a monograph on what White, again quoting Walter Benjamin, calls the quintessential “Parisian Art Form:” flânerie, the art of strolling and sauntering in a sensual embrace of this city. In six short chapters White alights on a plethora of places and personages, as we follow him glancing from left to right on a wide boulevard of history, culture and memory. White not only focuses his attention on the Left Bank habitués who haunted in their times Les Deux Magots or Café de Flore in the St.-Germain-des-Prés, Collette, Sartre and de Beauvoir, writing, drinking, smoking, and gossiping, he also discusses Foucault and the two Jeans—Cocteau and Genet. Significantly, White devotes considerable attention to the African-American expatriates after World War I who fled oppression in the States, delving into the hope and myth of freedom in France. In extended sections White covers the stories of Sidney Bechet, Josephine Baker, Ada Louise Smith, (also known as “Bricktop”) and James Baldwin. Then White turns away from the Second Empire Paris of Baron Haussmann and wanders into the “teeming quartiers” of the Arabs, Asians, and North Africans, the “strongholds of multiculturalism,” with a long foray through the Marais, the very heart of Jewish and Gay Paris. In these chapters White emphatically declares his empathy in the places and “traces left by people on the margin—Jews, blacks, gays Arabs and he succeeds in painting a vista of the whole city, albeit in broad strokes, as much as E. B. White does in his equally slim volume, This Is New York.
His fascination with Paris should not surprise a reader, considering the duration of his exile. In his New York Diary, Ned Rorem quotes John Ashbery, “Once you’ve been happy in Paris you can never be happy any where else—not even in Paris.” White certainly endorses a subtle variant of the same sentiment when an alternate of Ashbery’s quip appeared as an epigraph to White’s most recent memoir, Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris. “Having lived in Paris unfits you for living anywhere, including Paris.” The proof, as it were, of the centrality of that city in White’s oeuvre, is in his literary production. To date, White has probably written more words about Paris and Parisians than he has of any other city or its citizens, including two memoirs, major sections of two autobiographical novels, and biographies on Genet and Proust.
Years after I first devoured it, The Flâneur still remains one of my favorite books by White because, for its brevity and simplicity, it brims with feeling. For one of my first visits to Paris I re-read The Flâneur, to glean a few morsels of useful information and secret tips. And while I did not carry my annotated copy of The Flâneur around Paris quite like Lucy Honeychurch wandering Florence with her Baedeker’s in Forester’s A Room With A View, I had certainly used it as a resource. I had planned to take in two sites discussed by White—the Musée Gustave Moreau and the Musée Nissim de Camondo—museums I might not have seen or tried to see without White’s book to pique my interest.
But using The Flâneur as a travel guide is contray to the spirit of flânerie. In the book, White warns that Americans, including me, are “particularly ill-suited to be flaneurs,” because we are “driven by the urge towards self-improvement,” the opposite of the true nature of flânerie. In the end I saw only the silent, intense Musée Nissim de Camondo near the Parc Monceau, for the Moreau was closed at the time for either renovations or because its workers were en grieve (on strike)—but I digress.
In retrospect, I came to an inkling of the true nature of flânerie on another visit to Paris a decade ago. One bitterly cold January day, I wandered the Île St Louis, stopping to browse in Shakespeare & Company, then strolling the Maris with one of my three traveling companions. Bristling under the yoke of a twelve page, single-spaced, hour-by-hour itinerary that two of my traveling companions had zealously devised for us, I had strayed off the plotted course into an arcade on the rue de Rivoli to see a fountain pen shop; my friend—the one who had not devised the strict schedule—was sent to corral me. More than once during that trip, I had been accused of being too enamored of “bright, shiny objects” to follow such a draconian itinerary. My friend, Vance, decided it was best to send them onward without us, and we veered off into a tangle of streets in the Second Arrondissement, sauntering aimlessly until we came into the rue Daunou, and I struggled for a second to recall why the address number five had been stuck in my mind—27 rue de Fleurus being the only other Parisian address I knew by heart. Realizing suddenly, miraculously that we stood before Harry’s Bar at “SANK ROO DOE NOO”—as I had remembered now from once reading a piece in Esquire mentioning Ian Fleming’s short story “A View to a Kill”—we proceeded to while away the rest of the afternoon guiltlessly drinking too many Manhattans.
If Paris, as White writes, “is a world meant to be seen by the walker alone, for only the pace of strolling can take in all the rich if muted detail,” then the ideal audience for The Flâneur is probably the armchair traveler who hardly ever goes anywhere geographically, but who has a keen mind and vivid dreams, perhaps someone like the great solitary Manhattan walker, Joseph Cornell. He never went to France. He hardly strayed from the five boroughs of New York City. He traveled exclusively in the mind, but Cornell “longed to build memorials to the feeling of wanting to go to France,” wrote Adam Gopnik. A reader like Cornell would have no trouble imagining White one of his grand perambulations, crisscrossing the city’s arrondissements, enjoying their vitality, whether the cruisey hamam in Mosquée de Paris or the Tuileries Gardens. Ironically, though, The Flâneur is best experienced by readers in the plush comfort of a recliner and swallowed in a single sitting—the ultimate indulgence. As White writes, “The flâneur is by definition endowed with enormous leisure . . . [A] close rationing of time is antithetical to the true spirit of the flâneur.”
In flâneur fashion, let us wander back to John Ashbery’s quip and ask, how is one happy in Paris? White addressed that question in his 1994 BOMB magazine interview with visual artist, Alain Kirili:
I relax more and I practice the art of the flâneur. I spend hours walking around looking at books and things like that, without worrying about wasting time, which I used to worry about all the time.
That remark contains a whole city’s worth of thought. What White leaves unspoken is that he used to worry about wasting time, all the time, in New York, and what he left behind in New York was the city of his young adulthood, of his friends dead and dying of AIDS. White seems to have wished to escape less for the necessary solitude of the writer than for relief from the clatter of America’s too many voices. Had we but world enough and time, would we not all live in Paris?
White proceeds from the premise that the most important way to understand flânerie “is to know Paris,” not only on a pedestrian level, but to feel it as a completely immersive experience. “Flanerie is the best way to impose a personal vision on the palimpsest of Paris,” he writes and indeed flânerie becomes his strategy for living in the moment. Of Charles Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life, an essay on Constantine Guys, White says that Baudelaire (whom White regards as the “consummate Parisian”) “extols the modern artist who immerses himself in the bath of the crowd.”
For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate observer, it’s an immense pleasure to take up residence in multiplicity, in whatever is seething, moving, evanescent, and infinite: you’re not at home, but you feel at home everywhere; you see everyone, you’re at the centre of everything yet remain hidden from everybody.
One must have a near erotic susceptibility to the charms and inducements and unique pace of Parisian life, to be alive to its sense impressions. Interestingly, French grammar (as well as the grammar of Romance languages in general) distinguishes the knowledge or acquaintance of a city from the knowledge of a skill by the usage of the verbs connaître, (to be acquainted with, as one would know a person, or archaically, to know one sexually), and savoir (as one would know a skill), respectively. For White this idea is not merely metaphorical. The perceptual difference is hard-wired into the Latin language and temperament, as opposed to Anglo-American attitudes. Lest a reader miss the connection between eros and art, White raises the subject of flânerie and “amorous adventures.” Cruising and flânerie, White offers, are co-joined, intertwined. In the first and penultimate chapters, White, as he has more than once in other works, considers cruising as a subject, with a focused discussion on the “amorous adventures” of the Surrealists. White finds common cause with the (mostly heterosexual) Surrealists and believes their biographies are instructive.
As throughout the book, White waxes elegiac, writing in this section, “Some of my happiest moments have been spent making love to a stranger beside dark, swiftly moving water below a glowing city.” He continues:
When I arrived in Paris I was a fairly young-looking forty-three and when I left I was nearly sixty, snowy-haired and jowly. In the beginning I’d cruise along the Seine near the Austerlitz train station under a building that was cantilevered out over the shore on pylons. Or I’d hop over the fence and cruise the pocket park at the end of the Île St Louis, where I lived. There I’d either clatter through the bushes or descend the steps to the quay that wrapped around the prow of the island like the lower deck of a sinking ship.
To titillate in not White’s sole purpose. The freedom to allow oneself to experience pleasure is for White the essence of what it means to be a flâneur and White offers cruising as the American corollary to flânerie. The essential difference between White and the other great flâneur-writers of the past, from August Strindberg, to Charles Baudelaire, to Honoré de Balzac, to André Breton, is the degree to which each writer balances the tension between being in the city but not of it, between the voyeuristic and the participatory. If Benjamin’s model of the flâneur is an archetype of modernity, White adds his version: the middle-aged cruiser, with natural affinity for the street, a connoisseur of its theatricality, even at the risk of unfulfillment. Gay Americans of his generation saw through the prudishness and the work ethos, to cruising as a subverse revolt against standard mores. I am reminded by White’s openness to experience of a favorite epigraph to Forster’s Howards End and its powerful command, “Only connect.”
The whole book is about how White interweaves this story, his story, his reading and personal history and how his personal history intersects with gay history. To read The Flâneur is to retrace the contours of White’s own reading life in the “land of novelty and distraction.” Books are coordinates on his mental map. The Flâneur’s rambling form becomes meaning—the text itself is flâneurable and this is one of the books particular joys. The text itself moves at the ease of a casual conversation and stroll. It ambles, it flows without middle and ends in a stream of consciousness with great wit. And the book is as much about the lost art of reading as a leisure activity—as attested by White’s extensive, if eclectic bibliography, one that displays a singular depth and breath of his reading. Every landmark White notes in the text calls to mind either a book or a historical figure. A friend once said to me that White has always turned “the lack of a plot into a stylistic virtue,” and what comes across in this book is that White is a consummate stylist.
And for me, the narrative’s breeziness and brevity, its warm, discursive tone, its confidence and candor, its lightness of touch, all belie a depth of feeling for the subject of flânerie and its concomitant solitude, a feeling all writers understand. For The Flâneur encapsulates, or rather attempts to recapture his fifteen years in the City of Light, and he means for us to know that certain city’s “sadly gay” loveliness (to paraphrase the Douglas Cross lyric of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”), that flush of nostalgia similar in feeling to watching for the umpteenth time Rick Blaine say to Ilsa Lund at the end of Casablanca, “We’ll always have Paris.”
White’s vision captivates and seduces, yet it hints at the sadness and yearning for home that creep into the narratives of most exiles, no matter the reasons behind the decision to embark. Henry James wrote in his biography on the nineteenth century American expatriate sculpter, William Wetmore Story, “a man always pays, in one way or another, for expatriation,” and implicit in wandering is detachment, loneliness and loss. To be at home everywhere is to be at home nowhere.
William Sterling Walker’s stories have been anthologized in Best American Gay Fiction 2, Fresh Men: New Voices in Gay Fiction, and With: New Gay Fiction. His debut collection of short stories, Desire: Tales from New Orleans, was a Lambda Literary finalist.