The Art of Flânerie

Jeanne Matthews 2Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com

A flâneur is what the French call an idler.  He strolls about the city at his leisure, taking in the sights and the smells and the sounds.  He is an explorer of the urban landscape, a connoisseur of faces and scenes and random snatches of dialogue.  His curiosity takes him into the cafés and the galleries, the parks and the arcades, the markets and the boutiques. He observes, but is careful not to be seen observing.  He is a human camera, a mirror reflecting his unique understanding of the people and the culture around him.  He is the narrator of all that he perceives.  There’s no equivalent for the word flâneur in the English language unless, perhaps, the word “writer” comes to mind.

The German critic Walter Benjamin made the concept of flânerie emblematic of the writer.  The writer wanders through the crowd, eyes alert for the juicy detail, the tantalizing morsel that will inspire a new character or provide intellectual food for a new plot.  Honoré Balzac, himself a writer and flâneur, described his observations as a kind of “gastronomy of the eye.”  It’s an apt metaphor.  Writers are insatiable consumers of the human panorama.  We stalk the streets in search of personalities and happenings that we can adapt and convert to our literary purposes.  Each time we walk out our doors, we become spies.  We eavesdrop shamelessly.  We collect incidents and images and appropriate them freely and without a qualm in our writing.  A writer will steal the very nose off a person’s face and pin it on a character in his next book.

Charles Dickens was a flâneur of London, rambling as much as thirty miles a night.  Frank O’Hara has been described as an American flâneur.  His “lunch” poems were written in restaurants, bars, and hotel lobbies where he loitered and listened.  And Edgar Allen Poe invented a new genre in which he put the flâneur to use as a detective. Not all the literary ramblers were men.  The most notable flâneuse is probably Virginia Woolf, who haunted the dark corners and vine-laced courtyards of Soho and Holborn.  She named the title character of one of her novels Mrs. Dalloway, a woman who likes to dally along the way.  My series detective Dinah Pelerin has encountered murder and strange cultural customs in the Australian Outback, the Norwegian Arctic, and a small Greek village on the island of Samos.  But in Where the Bones Are Buried, she becomes a flâneuse of the city of Berlin where the past and the present mingle in disconcerting ways.  Being Dinah’s chief research assistant, I was obliged to reconnoiter the city on her behalf.

Berlin is a fascinating amalgam of neighborhoods and walking is the best way to enjoy the sights.  Actually, “walking” implies too purposeful a stride.  The flâneuse should saunter or, better yet, mosey – with no particular destination in mind.  I moseyed for miles.  When my feet got tired, I stopped and loitered in the cafés, soaking up the atmosphere, noticing the tics and habits of the other customers and making up backstories for them.  Some of the Berliners I ran across during my meanders through the city appeared as characters in the book.  So did a few of the places where I got lost.

It’s hard nowadays to get lost anywhere in the world what with our cell phone genies telling us every turn to make, but the flâneuse and the writer embrace the thrill of being lost in unfamiliar territory.  It opens the mind to other kinds of experience and other ways of being.  In certain settings it brings a frisson of fear as night begins to fall.  Not knowing the way home concentrates the attention marvelously and stimulates the imagination.  Sans Siri, sans guidebook, I wandered along the graffitied remains of the Berlin Wall, the bohemian, funky streets of the Kreuzberg Kiez, and the winding banks of the River Spree.

Where the Bones are BuriedWhen not scouting foreign locations for Dinah, I live in the suburbs south of Seattle where it’s harder to be a flâneuse.  Automobiles are the primary mode of transportation.  Sidewalks are less common and pedestrian crossings more hazardous. Travel is rarely aimless.  Everyone has somewhere to go and a time by which they need to be there.  The cafés are mostly fast-food eateries and the patrons tend to be in a hurry.  They don’t linger over their coffee to contemplate the odd behavior of the guy behind the counter.  They don’t mull the mysterious utterances of their fellow diners and imagine their guilty secrets.

Wherever I find myself, I try to cultivate the art of flânerie.  It’s more a state of mind than a specific landscape.  It’s an attitude of awareness, of curiosity and creative interpretation.  It’s a way of seeing and understanding the world.  For most writers – for me – it’s an addiction.

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17 thoughts on “The Art of Flânerie

  1. This is one of the best blog posts I have ever read! I learned a new word that created a new landscape in my mind; it reminded me of how much I adore words and they myriad of meanings they form. Thank you so much for hosting Jeanne, and I really should look into her books, too. This was a joy to read.

  2. I enjoyed seeing flaneur and writer linked, having felt the connection myself. Thoreau was a great advocate of sauntering and people who don’t practice it don’t know what they’re missing. Your books sound most interesting.

  3. Like you, Jeanne, I’ve always preferred to be a traveler who wanders the alleyways, visits the market, sits at a café and talks with the locals rather than be a tourist that ticks off major sights. My books reflect my wanderlust but I didn’t realize that I was a flâneuse. Thank you for that new word!

      • My mother was a flaneur years ago, and I was along for the stroll; I was fortunate to be an infant, toddler and young little girl growing up in Center City, Philadelphia, aka Olde City, but at the time I was unaware. Every day my mother would dress me up, and then don an amazingly stylish outfit with toeless, platform heels, a matching leather pocketbook, gloves, and of course, a wonderful hat. She took special care to line her lips with a special lip brush ( how I wanted that brush) and then apply a gorgeous coral shade of Hazel Bishop lipstick. She also used green eye shadow and a spritz of Guerlain’s Mitsouko or Coty’s coveted Chypre toilet water ( never understood the term), and then we would saunter through Washington Square ( I was usually in a stroller) or kicking and screaming my way through Lit Brothers or all of the wonderful specialty bakeries, cheese stores, fish stores, etc. Center City was charming with cobble stoned streets and police officers on horses and, of course, the Reading Terminal. South Street was not built up to resemble Bourbon Street, but it was also very colorful with merchants and others selling their wares.

        • What a wonderful tale, Skye! I never had that particular experience with my mother because we lived out in the suburbs, not conducive to ambling, but I well remember going to town on shopping trips with her dressed to the nines, all set for tea and a slice of cake at our prime department store, Miller & Rhoads 😉

          • Lelia, this was a daily jaunt, until we moved out of the city—I was six years old at the time. We roamed Independence Square, Jeweler;s Row, the Franklkin Mint, the Betsy Ross House and Carpenter’s Hall; every store was a specialty shop, with perhaps a tiny grocery store, but the big highlight, to pacify the ornery little girl was the stop at the pharmacy on the corner to get a real cherry coke served over crushed ice and in a silver parfait container with paper inside.

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