Bloomsbury is proud to announce the first title in an occasional series in which some of the world's finest novelists reveal the secrets of the city they know best. These beautifully produced, pocket-sized books will provide exactly what is missing in ordinary travel guides: insights and imagination that lead the reader into those parts of a city no other guide can reach. A flaneur is a stroller, a loiterer, someone who ambles through a city without apparent purpose but is secretly attuned to the history of the place and in covert search of adventure, esthetic or erotic. Edmund White, who lived in Paris for sixteen years, wanders through the streets and avenues and along the quays, taking us into parts of Paris virtually unknown to visitors and indeed to many Parisians. Entering the Marais evokes the history of Jews in France, just as a visit to the Haynes Grill recalls the presence-festive, troubled-of black Americans in Paris for a century and a half. Gays, Decadents, even Royalists past and present are all subjected to the flaneur's scrutiny. Edmund White's The Flaneur is opinionated, personal, subjective. As he conducts us through the bookshops and boutiques, past the monuments and palaces, filling us in on the gossip and background of each site, he allows us to see through the blank walls and past the proud edifices and to glimpse the inner, human drama. Along the way he recounts everything from the latest debates among French law-makers to the juicy details of Colette's life in the Palais Royal, even summoning up the hothouse atmosphere of Gustave Moreau's atelier.
This is not a book about walking in Paris, and yet, that is all it concerns. The stroll White takes us on touches upon a great deal of history, not to build the city as a whole, but rather to linger on places and people that contribute in some way to the spirit of Paris, not the clean and shiny version of which White is frequently trenchant, but rather the outskirts and substrata and fringes. He relates tales of home-grown literary figures such as Colette and Proust and Baudelaire, the expatriate black Americans like Baldwin and Bechet who found a wholly different attitude toward skin color than they were accustomed to in America, prominent Jewish families who built banking empires or museums and then suffered under the puppet Vichy government during WWII, and the remnants of royalist feeling for the overthrown monarchy and the escapades of the descendant heirs.
Perhaps the most fascinating diversion White took for me concerns gay Parisians. Comically comparing cruising to flânerie - with the important difference the flâneur has no objective and the cruising gay male is the object to be had - he progresses through the rather lax attitude the French have had in general toward homosexuality. Though it was never an acknowledged behavior and arrests for sodomy are on record, punishments were light compared to the much more vilifying English response. After WWII there was a slight regression left from the remnants of Nazi influence on the government, replaced when the socialist government took control in 1981, but the gay population did not experience the same kind of persecution that their American counterparts were facing during the 60's and 70's, and by the 80's gays were accepted in many circles.
What struck me as strange was that during this time, the AIDS epidemic was entering the world consciousness, and yet France resisted. For being open to the nature of homosexuality, they were extremely resilient to dealing with the crisis, and thus education and health services were slow to develop or non-existant. White explains this in context of the French character versus the American character: minority politics were increasingly gaining weight and status in America, but in France, perhaps due to the more accepting nature, such a build up of networks and support and community mind was not necessary and did not occur. In fact, such segregation of minority politics seemed laughable and destructive to the French. This left no cohesive response until 1989 when Act Up first formed. White explains further that much of this hesitation stems from the French attitude that sexuality is a private affair and not to be politicized, whereas political is what grew the gay American response.
White does not emphasize the hows of the flâneur, but instead his whole travelogue with its divergent tangents is an example of what the flâneur does - in a very literary and engaging tone that traipses about the streets and parks and isles of Paris in a perambulatory journey to see what is to see and to experience without the impetus of formulating knowledge.
Mr. White spent 16 years in Paris, wandering all over town, into quarters tourists never visit, often parts of town Parisians avoid. As a result, he has all sorts of insider knowledge, some of it knowledge he maybe shouldn't have. This is not an organized trip to Paris, it does not hit the top ten sites one must see. Instead he moves from one topic to another, lighting for a time on whatever interests him. There is a fascinating section on African Americans in Paris, another on the wonders that can be found in the Arab Quarter. Insider gossip on Baudelaire's decadents and on the Musee Moreau.
Never heard of the Musee Moreau? This is one of Mr. White's favorite Paris museums and one of mine. Gustav Moreau was a very successful late 19th century artist Moreau favored by the aesthetes of Oscar Wilde's circle and later by the early surrealist movement, but I seriously doubt that anyone could look at his work today as anything other than high camp. Before he died, Moreau made sure that his home and the studio he kept above it would be preserved as museums just like Delcroix's had been. The result is a strangely wonderful place. The residence is really nothing to speak of--several very small rooms on the building's first two floors filled with average furnishing, a typical 19th century apartment. But the top two floors, his gallery/studio are wonderful. One entire wall is made of glass panes opened to the Paris sky. The walls are crammed with Moreau's unfinished work. He left more drawings than could ever be displayed at once so he himself designed a way to hang them all in large panels that the viewer can thumb through like a giant book. At one end of the third floor is a large spiral staircase that takes the very few museum goers to the top gallery.
There were a handful of other patrons at the Musee Moreau the day C.J. and I went there, but not many. in fact so few people ever go to the Musee Moreau that it has become a good place to meet in secret. According to Mr. White more than a few people have used it as a trysting site. Perhaps the best thing about the Musee Moreau is that it is only a few blocks away from the Musee la Vie Romantique which I've discussed at length before. The Musee la Vie Romantique is several buildings in a quiet courtyard off of the main street. One building was once the home of Georges Sand and is now devoted to her and Frederic Chopin. The garden has a charming garden cafe that always has a table available.
These are not places the typical tourist sees. But that's the whole point of The Flaneur, to experience all of a city, one must be open to go wherever the city takes you. Though this violates the key principal of The Flaneur, reading the book has given me a small list of things I must see the next time I get to Paris.
The Flâneur is the more academic of the two books (the second being Our Paris: Sketches from Memory). Extensively researched, as evidenced by the sixteen page closing chapter, “Further Reading,” The Flâneur is more than its subtitle suggests, “A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris.” It is a treat, opening up vista after vista as we walk through the City of Light guided by an author whose love of the city is clearly evident. I want this book in my pocket the next time I visit Paris.
The one disadvantage I found was that as I read about the Marais, for example, my mind floated back to my own strolls through that captivating section of Paris. As I read about the church of the Madeleine, I returned to the summer I lived just a block away on the Rue Boissy d’Anglas. I often found myself having to reread sections of White’s book after I tore my mind away from my own memories of Paris.
As I said above, I want this book in my pocket during my next visit to Paris.