Navigating public space is never a neutral act…




Flâneuse addresses the troubled political history of women in public spaces. In what ways do you think women walking in public is a politicised act?

It’s never a neutral act, to navigate public space, not for anyone. I’d like to hope that Flâneuse troubles the act of walking in the city for those who would consider themselves flâneurs as well.

To walk in public is always going to be an encounter with alterity. How we navigate those encounters is the basis of an ethics, or a politics, not only of intervening in public space, but of the way we think our society should be structured, and how we accord value and respect. I’m thinking of Martha Gellhorn, for instance, who was in Spain with Hemingway and Robert Capa to report on the civil war, and Hemingway and Capa are out on the front lines, or meeting with generals or whatever mucky-muck was making a statement that day, and she didn’t have access to these higher-ups. So she went out walking in the streets to talk to everyday people about what they were living through, turning flânerie into a form of testimony. That act of reporting on daily life – life “from the ground up” as she would say – is a political statement, an act of valuing the everyday in the face of extraordinary events, and the man or woman or child in the street instead of the elected (or unelected) official.

You acknowledge a debt to pioneering women writers like Virginia Woolf and Jean Rhys. What is it about their work that speaks to you?

They’re these experimental female modernists who are in love with the city, and know desperation, life on the edge. I think that was very reassuring to me when I was at university, which is the first time I read either of them. Mrs Dalloway, in its depiction of the lives of strangers together in the city, helped me resolve a lot of existential angst. Good Morning Midnight helped me understand that life didn’t have to be happy all the time. Americans – and probably Brits as well – grow up and live in their world in which happiness is the great goal. Are you happy? Does it make you happy? We’re forever holding life up against our definitions of happiness and readjusting to bring ourselves more in line with it. Rhys – and living in France as well – helped me see that life could still be meaningful even if it was unhappy. And the city played a major role in that too.

“Lauren Elkin on her new book, Flâneuse”,