The Flâneur in Fiction: Great Books About Wandering the City


Earlier this week, in a piece I wrote about Jean Rhys at the Paris Review , I imagined walking with the author through Cambridge, London, Paris, and New York. In Rhys’ metropolitan novels – Quartet (1928), After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1930), Voyage in the Dark (1934), and Good Morning, Midnight (1939) – writing and walking become confluent activities. But her fiction arrives in a long tradition of flâneur writing. Baudelaire once defined the flâneur as “lounger or saunterer, an idle ‘man about town.’” Walter Benjamin’s writing on the arcades of Paris reads like a blueprint. Woolf haunted the streets of London by night, as did Dickens before her. Even Freud got stuck in the city, as walking in Rome invoked an “uncanny” experience, thus informing the polemic for which the father of psychoanalysis is most famous. These authors inspired us to compile a list of our favorite writing on wandering. Saunterers, loungers, and loafers: don’t forget to comment with your favorite walking stories.

Virginia Woolf’s “Street Haunting: A London Adventure” (1930)

“No one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil. But there are circumstances in which it can become supremely desirable to possess one; moments when we are set upon having an object, an excuse for walking half across London between tea and dinner.” Thus begins Woolf’s London adventure, as she rambles the streets of Soho and Holborn. Walking, the writer’s eye – which “is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure… floats us smoothly down a stream” – becomes a disembodied vessel for looking as it glosses along the surface. Woolf casts herself as the somnambulant heroine of her essay as her “brain sleeps perhaps as it looks” – much like Anna Morgan in Rhys’ Voyage in the Dark. In the essay, walking enables Woolf to assume numerous identities, dipping in and out of people’s conversations and lives as the writer daubs her pen into its ink-pot.

Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights (1979)

Hardwick’s experiences of 1940s New York come to life in the critic’s fantastically evocative autobiographical novel. Where Woolf skated on the surface of London, Hardwick zooms in on the little details that make up New York life. Her beautifully rendered observations give a real sense of what it was like to live in Manhattan in that decade, with the Second World War raging across the Atlantic – there’s a real sense of this connection and remove throughout, as well as the tension inherent to New York, which appears as its own character, a place of symbiotic dream and chaos. Head to the NYRB to read a gorgeous extract from Sleepless Nights on Billie Holiday.

Iain Sinclair’s Hackney, That Rose Red Empire: A Confidential Report (2010)

Hackney, That Rose Red Empire

is in many respects more of a report than it is a novel. Often referred to as documentary fiction, Hackney is Sinclair’s great project after living in the London borough for 40 years. The Observer‘s review described Sinclair’s book as “detailed and as complex as a historical map, taking the reader hither and thither with no care as to which might be the most direct route.” Sinclair’s book is indeed haphazard. Attuned to the very fabric of his city, the author deftly charts the developments of the area, so that his writing – like the sprawling map on its beautiful cover – becomes subject to the transformation London has undergone. In this book, London breathes, its red rose heart palpitates.

Jennifer Egan’s Emerald City and Other Stories (1996)

Strictly speaking, Egan’s short story collection isn’t exclusively about walking, but her characters are no doubt doing plenty of it in the city. From China to Spain and New York (of course) to San Francisco, the city – and how the characters navigate themselves around it – is the focal point of these stories. To an extent, this delightful, slender book of shorts is a metropolis in itself, an eclectic collective of narratives that emulates the city’s babel of voices. And like the city, you can slink into her deliciously short stories like streets, encountering in each one different characters, their tensions and dreams.

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972)

As Calvino wrote in his wonderful little novel, “Cities, like dreams, 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.” Calvino’s cities are non-places, but they are also very real – the point is that they are nowhere and yet they could be everywhere. Invisible Cities reads something like a metropolitan manifesto, its anecdotes beautiful ruminations on what cities mean. To open Calvino’s novel is to unlock a city.

Teju Cole’s Open City (2011)

In Teju Cole’s astonishing, award-winning debut novel, he writes, “New York City worked itself into my life at walking pace.” And he works the city deeper, into the psyche of his protagonist, Julius – and into us. Committing to long walks at least three times a week, Julius, relatively new to America, is launched from present day Morningside Heights into his past in Nigeria as he ponders his fraught relationship with his mother and remembers his dead father. Meanwhile, what America means to him changes, and his dream of the place becomes marred by its reality. As Woolf floats in London, Julius in Manhattan is like an island on another island, aware of the threatening waters around him. The book also takes him to another city, Brussels, where he searches for his grandmother. Cole’s hero isn’t the only wanderer. The novel is its own pedometer, moving along to the measured rhythm of Julius’ footsteps, its sparsely punctuated stream of consciousness sentences forming their own streets of narrative.

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitt’s Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America (2011)

At a recent talk at NYU, Harlem’s writer in residence, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, mentioned that her book had been categorized as travel fiction. Though Harlem Is Nowhere could be read as travel fiction, it’s often termed as urban fiction. Others have called it literature – because the book’s so elegantly put together. Yet the art of Harlem is Nowhere rests in its crossing genres. There are so many stories about Harlem, but Rhodes-Pitts’ book offers a fresh perspective on well-worn terrain, and incorporates those stories into her own, composing a mosaic of Harlem that combines history and myth, fact and fiction. An excerpt from the book on Lenox Terminal is available at Transition.