The Flaneur – Edmund White

I used to read quite a lot of Edmund White when I was younger and have been meaning to read some of his newer stuff ever since Bloomsbury sent me a few of his latest works. I have also for this blog been wanting to re-read some of the books of his I read before. I didn’t know what The Flaneur would be about but it sounded a little different and was something non fiction so I thought I would give it a go.

With The Flaneur what Edmund White gives us is essentially his guide through the city of Paris. By actual definition a flaneur is someone who walks the streets and observes life as it passes, watching the world go by in all its wonderment. Now if this (like it does with me) describes you and you are indeed someone who loves to stroll and people watch this is a book for you.

What Edmund White has as an edge is the perspective of someone who has lived in Paris for years and knows the ins and outs of its history backstreets and where those who know Paris like the back of their hands go to. It’s like a much more personal and interesting Rough Guide in some ways, not that I am saying rough guides aren’t well written. I just think this has an edge in terms of being a much more personal stroll through the streets.

Not only are you told the hotspots to go and where to visit for history that isn’t in the Louvre or on the tour guides, you are given various histories of Paris. The book is quite short (I wish I had had this when I went to Paris last year) so is perfect to take with you should you go away but is also incredibly easy to read and wonderfully written. There are only six chapters in the book and each one seems to be an essay on a specific side to Paris. If the word ‘essay’ makes it sound like its boring then ignore the word because it is far from it.

The first subject rightly so is simply just Paris and a kind of love letter to it. There are also chapters on the immigration of all different nationalities coming into Paris and making it the racial and cultured mix that it now is where as once it was a predominantly white city. I found this chapter fascinating especially in terms of the black soldiers in the war which made me think of part of the story in Hillary Jordan’s wonderful ‘Mudbound’. Part of the book is dedicated to the literal ‘gay Paris’ and looks at that side of the city and its flamboyant and yet very dark history. As White himself is a gay man you feel there is a real honesty through some of these dark passages and seedy settings, you also know he has a passion for the history of gay culture in Paris. My favourite parts of the book were actually the literary history of the city. White wrote a biography of Genet and he is mentioned in this book too alongside the stories of writers like Colette, Balzac, Flaubert, Bechet and many, many more.

All in all if you enjoy White’s work anyway you will love this book especially as it gives you even more insight into his life. If you are a fan of Paris then this is also definitely a book for you. I would recommend this to anyone who loves the history of cities, watching life pass by, literary history, travel and wonderful writing. It was a wonderfully surprising treat to read.

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~ by greatgayreads on July 29, 2009.

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