Literary Hub

On the Struggle to Become a True Parisian Flaneur

paris

For a month, several summers ago, I walked daily from the 19th arrondissement of Paris’s northern periphery, all the way home, across the river, to the 13th.

My friend Zach had given me the keys to his apartment so that I could water his plants and use the place to write while he was away. In the mornings, I took the metro to Zach’s, watered the geraniums on the balcony, and sat at his desk, on one corner of which stood a gray typewriter. I never used it, but I liked the sight, as I did the delicate, unusual objects—branches, thickly painted notebooks, a miniature bronze submarine helmet—placed in unexpected corners of the otherwise spare apartment.

In the afternoon, I ate crackers and sardines on the balcony, watching Avenue Jean Jaurès. Afterwards, I would move from the desk to the couch, my feet stretched on the coffee table, and as I became ever more lethargic, I would get up and walk home.

The shortest route back took well over an hour, walking straight down rue La Fayette and Faubourg Saint-Martin. In my daily crossing from north to south, the city changed frequently: from the young, artistic crowds around the canal, to streets lined with Indian and Pakistani restaurants, African hair salons, textile shops, groups of men soliciting business, the hurried shoppers of Les Halles, tourists congregating around the Notre Dame cathedral and the islands, and farther, on the left bank, to where neighborhoods became quiet, and I turned onto boulevard Port Royal, lined with plane trees, where the elderly residents of my neighborhood were out on their walks as the day’s heat subsided.

I’d recently started writing a novel. At that point, I knew only that my young, female narrator would be walking in Paris, at times accompanied by a writer. For a while, I thought that if I wrote enough meandering descriptions of the city it would culminate in a book, with the mysterious outlines of plot glimpsed here and there, in the narrative of my thoughtful and elusive narrator. Every chapter could be a different neighborhood, I thought, or a different memory of a walk. I was searching, that summer, for an easy way to write a book—as easy as walking—and each day I tried out a different path.

As I walked home from Zach’s, I registered the sights and sounds of the city to include in my writing. When I sat at the desk the following morning, the geraniums damp and fragrant, I began by writing something I’d retained from the previous walk. (Later, I would settle the narrator of my novel close to Zach’s neighborhood, in a studio apartment on top of a fictional Café du Coin, whose exact—imaginary—location I walked past many times that summer.)

When I was bored or stuck, I looked through Zach’s bookshelves. More often than not, I ended up reading parts of Dickens’s Night Walks, about several days that Dickens had walked the streets of London in the small hours, not able to sleep due to an unnamed event which left him distressed. He walked under bridges, past prisons and through cemeteries, the Covent Garden market where boys slept beneath cabbage wagons, as church bells fell on “homeless ears.” I would go back to my writing with turns of phrase borrowed from a long-ago London at its strangest hours, when, Dickens says, the sane and the insane are equal. Had he tried ridding himself of his distress tossing around in bed, he writes, it would have taken him much longer to recover.

On my walks, I tried to don this very character, whose voice I’d so internalized that I heard him narrating my path.

In novels that unravel with walking, the weight of the narrative is often felt through the shadow of an undisclosed mental strain. Perhaps walking without pause, losing oneself in the labyrinth of a city, is akin to feeling emotionally adrift; perhaps the chaos, multiplicity, and anonymity of a city is a relief to the chaos of one’s own mind.

After recovering from a fainting fit in Paris—its cause not explained except that it follows a visit to the Musée Fragonard to see anatomical anomalies of animals—Sebald’s Austerlitz informs us that he left the hospital and resumed his walks with his friend:

…one Saturday afternoon when a cold mist hung low in the air, we wandered through the half-deserted area between the tracks of the gare d’Austerlitz and the quai d’Austerlitz on the left bank of the Seine, slowly finding our way among abandoned dockyards, boarded-up warehouses, goods depots, customs halls, and a few garages and car repair shops.

I also visited such industrial purgatories and peripheral neighborhoods, not only out of curiosity, but as a prerequisite to writing. I’d lived in Paris for three years, and I thought that in order to write about it I had to go beyond the neighborhoods I knew to the city’s fringes, which could mirror an inner, troubled landscape; a muted psyche too frail to speak for itself. I didn’t know at the time what made my own narrator so frail, nor why she was endlessly walking the streets of a foreign city. But I thought I might be able to get away with not knowing, if only I discovered the city’s desolate corners, whose meticulous descriptions would speak for my lonely narrator as well.

*

Having read more flaneur novels than I have walked cities in solitude, I was a bit disappointed that summer by my own walks, which were slower than those fictional ones when characters roamed the streets with ease, recalling memories, noticing the residue of history around them and collecting the stories offered them by strangers. I saw less, without the rapid progression of the narrator’s recording eyes. The steady change of neighborhoods from Zach’s apartment back home did not, in reality, unravel with an easy succession. It was a long, slow, crowded walk, with many wide-laned boulevards to cross. I’d often realize that I’d taken a wrong turn and walked all the way east, or west, and would need to figure out another way to get home or track my path back. Sometimes, exhausted, I would take the metro. In novels, it was always easy to wander, even to get lost, without tiring.

“I like to sit on the terraces of Paris cafés, and I also like to walk through the city, sometimes for a whole afternoon, with no fixed destination,” says the narrator of Vila-Matas’s Never Any End to Paris. “I like walking through a part of the city I haven’t seen for a while. But I also like doing the opposite: walking through a place I’ve just walked through. I like Paris so much that there is never any end to the city for me.”

Whenever I read flaneur novels, I would want to get up at once and start walking. But my experience of walking the city was closer to what I felt writing: jagged and slow.

The flaneur, of course, is a literary invention. James Wood writes that he is “at once a kind of writer and not really a writer. A writer by temperament but not by trade. A writer because he notices so much, so well; not really a writer because he is not expending any labor to put it down on the page, and after all is really noticing no more than you and I would see.”

The flaneur is also usually a man—young, aloof, casually registering the details of his surroundings. He is as imperceptible as a ghost as he floats through the city, noticing his surroundings without judging them, sensitive to the slightest details. What Wood calls both “a reporter and a poet manqué.”

On my walks, I tried to don this very character, whose voice I’d so internalized that I heard him narrating my path. But I knew that I did not share the same urban experience. Walking home, I had a double consciousness: the first one recording the sights befitting a flaneur, and the other one myself, walking as I always did, alert in rough or crowded neighborhoods, aware of catcalls and stares, of my purse, my shoulder strap falling, my skirt riding up my leg or alighting if I passed the ventilated grills of the metro.

I discarded this second consciousness—of walking the city as a woman—when I wrote. I took my narrator all the way to the abandoned train tracks that had circumscribed Paris until the 1930s. I had her follow a group of teenagers spraying graffiti on walls, and past them into a tunnel, where she sat at its darkest depths. I’d been in this tunnel myself, with my husband and with friends, each time frightened of who or what might emerge from the other end. I’d never think of walking it on my own, though I was pleased that my narrator was braver than me. But what I couldn’t ignore, even as my narrator walked the city from north to south, in and out of strange pockets, is that a woman does not walk the city as a shadow. Her walk is often jarred by apprehension, and a different sort of alertness—not just to architecture, history, and cultures, but to the city around her who notices her presence and may cause her harm. (Teju Cole similarly remarks that one can’t be a black flaneur in a white terrain. Blacks, he says, practice “psychogeography,” wandering the streets alert.)

*

Around this time, I read the novels of Patrick Modiano one after the other—seven, maybe nine of them. They are hard to recall individually, because they merge into a single landscape of the city at night, of train stations, dimly lit bars, apartment numbers, and foyers. His characters walk the streets of Paris as if lost in a fog, trying to grasp a whole—of their past and of the city, whose entirety is always a step beyond their reach.

Sometimes, as I walked, I would have this same sense that Paris escaped me. I felt that there was another city, more alive, more authentic than the one I inhabited. It’s a feeling I’ve had all my life, in every city I’ve lived in, perhaps because I’ve never felt like a native in any one place. But suddenly, during a walk, I would come upon the rounded corner of a building, avenues stretching left and right, a bird taking off from a lamppost, the afternoon light striking the road, and I would feel that this was indeed the real city. Trying to go back to these spots to show someone else would be futile, because the impression was always momentary, and had to be experienced then and there. In writing, the effect of these glimpses, which I could not hold on to for long, could be created more sturdily by making lists, adding up significant details and piling them one on top of the other.

Inventories have a particular place in flaneur novels which by their very nature build with the accumulation of neighborhoods, streets, cafés and stations, satisfyingly tangible in their wealth of names and numbers.

The pleasure of the list, Umberto Eco says, is that it creates the sense of wholeness in its plentitude. In The Infinity of Lists, he distinguishes lists in art and literature into two categories: the first creates the illusion of continuing beyond our gaze, like the 250-line catalogue of ships in the second book of The Iliad, where each ship is specified by the name of its captain. Thus, we are left to imagine the thousands of unnamed men accompanying every vessel, their numbers stretching far past the list itself. The second category of list creates the illusion of an entire world contained within it, like Achilles’s shield, so densely populated and insular in its shape that it assures us we need look no further than its peripheries.

In novels that unravel with walking, the weight of the narrative is often felt through the shadow of an undisclosed mental strain.

I turned to lists again and again, to put together all that my narrator had seen on her walks, and all that she remembered of her past.

Some mornings, while I ran loops around the Luxembourg Gardens, my mind firing off ideas one after the other, I would suddenly have the shape of the novel—all of it—held together neatly in its disparate conversations, memories, and streets, as if by a centrifugal pull. I would, for a brief moment, feel that I could go home and deliver it whole, and that it would contain a whole world inside it. Of course, when I returned to writing, I would quickly remember the cumbersome activity, much like walking the city, where I had to progress slowly, scene by scene and line by line.

*

After the summer, my narrator’s past in Istanbul began seeping more insistently into the novel, so that her walks in Paris merged with the walks of her childhood, and earlier, to those of her parents’ student years. I was writing far from Istanbul, my hometown, in the period following the Gezi protests which had erupted not only to protect a small park, but in response to Istanbullus’ frustrations about their right to inhabit the city—to walk it, to feel ownership of it, without the constant assault of construction, of new policies thrusting them this way and that.

While I wrote in Paris, news from Istanbul signaled a place that was changing daily. I was annoyed, even angered when well-meaning friends asked me, “How’s everything in Istanbul?” Perhaps because I didn’t know the answer myself and felt guilty, perhaps because the question confronted me with the reality of change, in which I was taking no part.

In my writing, I retreated to a nostalgic era—one I knew from the stories of my parents, and the books of Orhan Pamuk, many of them influenced by European flaneur novels. I may have felt that this was the only way I could write about Istanbul, because mythical places need not be accounted for with facts and I let my characters roam the city from shore to shore.

After reading this early draft, my husband told me that he’d been curious about the exact configuration of these Istanbul walks and had traced the characters’ steps on Google Maps. He informed me that one leisurely stroll I described would take over six hours to complete.

By the following draft, I’d discarded most of this imaginary city, feeling that my nostalgia was dishonest. During my trips back to Istanbul, I’d find that so much had changed since my last visit some months before that I could hardly tell taxi drivers what road to take to my mother’s apartment.

But abandoning my narrator’s precise routes in Paris in favor of this imaginary place had shown me a new path: I discovered why she’d left her home, and what kind of yearning she must feel in Paris. “Arriving at each new city,” says Calvino’s Marco Polo in Invisible Cities, “the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.”

Little by little, my narrator’s tireless walks gave way to stillness. She’d arrived in Paris only to hide from it, I realized. She spent entire days in her room, afraid of the city outside. In her hesitant ventures to walk to the river, she would be assaulted by her memories, and turn back.

The city, after all, is not a narrator, capable of giving words to one’s own consciousness. It is, rather, a mirror, and walking its streets brings you face to face with the turns of your own mind, its dark and forgotten stretches.

“Cities, like dreams,” Marco Polo says, listing the places he’s seen on his travels, each one a reflection of his own home, “are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”

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