” In Paris virtually every district is beautiful, alluring and full of unsuspected delights, especially those that fan out around the Seine in the first through the eighth arrondissements. This is the classic Paris, defined by the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower to the west and the Bastille and the Pantheon to the east. Everything within this magic parallelogram is worth visiting on foot . . . ” (1:17)
Paris’s twenty arrondissements start in the center of the city, where Musée du Louvre stands, and spiral out in a snail shell pattern. Since the sights in classic Paris usually top every visitor’s itinerary, Edmund White lures the reader out of the beaten path into the fascinating backstreets of his personal Paris. The book insinuates into the cracks where the forgotten places most appealing to the flâneur: an aimless, insouciant stroller who, neither burdened by rationing of time nor awash with bonnes adresses, sees all of the city stretching out under his feet.
This book is dedicated to the random wanderings of the flâneur, but his wanderings will take him more often to the strange corners of Paris than to its historic centre, to the strongholds of multiculturalism rather than to the classic headquarters of the Gallic tradition. (2:52)
Consider the whole city, at least intra muros, can be walked from one end to the other in a single day, the flâneur is at an advantage to take in all the rich details and local colors that usually escape the common tourists. A flâneur is more than observant, endowed with enormous leisure. He can wed the crowd but fortify his solitude. In fact, White hints at the necessary change of attitude in order to appreciate the flânerie, which transcends sightseeing, because such a traveler imposes a personal vision with a curious eye.
Although the metro is the fastest, most efficient and silent one in the world, with stops that are never more than five minutes’ walk from any destination, the visitor finds himself lured on by the steeple looming over the next block of houses, by the toy shop on the next corner, the row of antique stores, the shady little square. (1:38)
The Flâneur is a hybrid of memoir, history, and travel essays—the balance of personal reflections and historical facts makes it a very entertaining read. Edmund White reveals the traces left by people living in the margin—Jews, blacks, gays, and Arabs. Entering the Marais evokes the history of Jews in France, a visit to the Haynes Grill in Montmartre recalls the presence of black Americans in the City of Light for a century and a half. Paris actually became an offshore base and headquarter for some of the most important thoughts and acts concerning the increasingly volatile issue of race in America. To the black soldiers, artists, performers, and writers, there was an air of liberty, equality, and fraternity in France that doesn’t blow in the black man’s face in liberty-loving, politically correct, democratic America.
[James] Baldwin did most of his important writing in France, and during the late sixties and early seventies he was severely criticized for living abroad. He wrote one of the first gay novels of the postwar period, Giovanni’s Room, in which the two male lovers are both white, one an American, the other a Parisian bartender; in this lyrical book the verbal beauty conceals a despair about being gay and a self-hatred implicit in his exclusion of black characters—and of anyone less than beautiful. (2:86)
Also subjected to White’s scrutiny are the gays, who are not looked upon as decadent. But the French individualism, along with a corresponding scorn of identity politics (the French abhor having a label for everything and everyone), has made the country unusually vulnerable to AIDS. The Flâneur, in this regard, elucidates on many facets the curious ambiguities that manifest in an overview of French attitudes. That the nation insists on singularity, rejecting any form of ghettoization, becomes the very cause of its reluctance and reticence to recognize the gravity of the epidemic. Now that White unveiled his secret Paris, I risk of following my notes outlining these off-the-beaten-path sights. After all, it’s easy to be driven by the desire to see everything and to get from point A to point B. To be a true flâneur, one has to let go of such desire, and give in to the surprising streets, allowing the sights to settle in you. This jewel of a book will make independent travel more than rewarding. The deluge of references cited at the end is also worth reading.
211 pp. Hardback. [Read/
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