Bloomsbury Publishing ($16.95)
by Summer Block
In The Flâneur, Edmund White navigates a Paris that is increasingly stranded by history. A flâneur is someone who wanders a city, strolling, taking things in, with no preconceptions and no agenda. White is the perfect flaneur—intelligent, perceptive, interested in everything, open to everything. His idiosyncratic observations are the perfect antidote to the typically weary American tourist, guidebook in hand, on a forced march through culture. (For Americans, Paris is still a duty, but an increasingly tedious one, like a sixth-grade field trip to a state capitol.)
White is intimately acquainted with Paris, having wandered its streets lovingly for nearly twenty years. He is well versed with all the many things people love about Paris: the odd little stores, the eccentric museums, the many tucked-away places. But even he admits "the city's glory days are long in the past" and piquantly comments that "Paris is the one city left where the tyranny of Paris fashions still holds women in its thrall."
White goes on to launch some more serious assaults, though he is not the first writer to note that "Paris . . . has become a cultural backwater. There aren't more than two or three internationally known French painters living anywhere in France . . . the galleries look like amateur art fairs . . . few French novels are translated into other languages; since Foucault's death no philosopher has had a universal stature; the center of the city is too expensive to welcome young bohemians or wannabe novelists."
If French culture is now mainly an archive of things past, it is not surprising that White himself wanders back in time at least as often as he investigates Parisian life today. Whether discussing the life of the novelist Colette, the prominence of African-American entertainers in the 20s and 30s, or the persecution of homosexuals in the 19th century, White also wanders the side streets of history—appropriate since Paris is as much a construct of history and literature as bricks and cement. White succeeds admirably in tying these "historical" concerns to modern-day situations (e.g., French racism against Arabs, AIDS scandals and cover-ups), but in so doing, he only accentuates the point that for Paris, the future is only a rehashing of the same old things.
White's observations, though, offer far more than the same tired truisms about France or the Parisians. He chooses to focus much of his attention on people and places that escape the public notice—including Paris' racial minorities, its Jewish quarter, and its attitude towards AIDS and homosexuals—and these observations are often loosely connected, weaving between personal ruminations, interviews, anecdotes, and history. What ties these vignettes together is largely the concept of The Flâneur; this conceit of the wandering observer gives White some license to meander in his storytelling.
Perhaps the most memorable chapter in The Flâneur is on the Parisian royalists, a small but dedicated group working to re-institute the French monarchy and crown one of two warring aristocrats. Not only is the story original—and funny—but it does much to contrast the Paris that is progressive, modern, a shrine to fashion and ever-changing trends, with the Paris that is old-fashioned, traditional, and even backward-looking.
The chapter on the royalists nearly concludes The Flâneur, but for White's closing rhapsody. Half defense, half elegy, White looks at modern Paris: "the blue windows set in the doors of the boxes at the Opéra Comique . . . the drama with which waiters cluster around a table in a first-class restaurant . . . the pleasant shock of the klieg lights that suddenly turn night into day when a bâteau mouche glides by . . . " So much is passé, so much is a cliché, but there is still something to Paris. It doesn't reside in the tourist spots, in the museums, on the runway, but in the details of a daily life that is beautiful, orderly, and timeless.
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003