Dispatches | August 08, 2016

brusselsjoGenre Convention is the Missouri Review’s new blog series exploring literary genres and subgenres, written by those who love or loathe them. Upcoming entries will include apocalyptic fictions, locked room mysteries, and gothic children’s stories.

I love to wander and walk. I love the anonymity that cities provide. But I don’t love crowds and I hate being jostled. I like looking, mostly through a camera lens, at landscapes that bewilder and intrigue me. And I’m drawn to characters who function in their fictional worlds in similar ways, who watch and scrutinize and meander and collect and document their surroundings. I don’t need a lot of plot from the novels I read; I’m often distrustful of a page-turner. But give me an astute observer, perhaps not always trustworthy, and I’m hooked.

The flaneur might be the most recognizable, even romantic, observer/wanderer in literature. Thanks to Walter Benjamin, we know how Baudelaire crafted this figure in his poetry. We might recognize him as Frederik in Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education, as Isherwood’s alter-ego in Goodbye to Berlin, and as Sasha or Sally, the female flaneurs in Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight and Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado. The flaneur, historically male, made his presence felt in early nineteenth century literature as a figure who stood apart from the city, even as he appeared to fuse with it. He contemplated the city’s fragmented parts from the vantage point of his own isolation in order to form an intellectual understanding of the whole. To the flaneur, the city—its architecture, its alleyways and city blocks, its anonymous faces and disparate sounds – becomes layered with meaning. The flaneur arrives at a city in flux, where rapid changes in technology and development have created estrangement between individuals and their environment. The flaneur attempts to bring intellectual clarity to the dynamism and variety of the urban society he observes.

The flaneur, we might imagine, is detached, at ease in the crowd, a roaming camera who stands in for the author. He uses his own anonymity to blend into the crowd, but he illuminates his own individuality through sharp perceptions and smart interpretations, making meaning out of the fragments of his observations. But some critics argue that the flaneur isn’t as free or self-determining as he appears. He sees and yet does not see; he knows and yet does not know. There is a chasm between his inner reality and the world of action that surrounds him. Nietzsche described his type as a “strolling spectator of historical events which leave him essentially untouched.” The contradiction seems important – is the flaneur an active observer who illuminates meaning and is thereby changed by it, or is he a passive watcher who remains isolated and untouched by the changing world around him?

One version of the flaneur belongs to the same social and moral universe as the spy and detective; both all seeing and invisible – he can assume a variety of disguises while he retains his unique identity and vigor that match the activity of the crowd. In contrast, the more passive flaneur absorbs and is absorbed by the flux of urban life. He is a man of the crowd rather than being set off from the crowd, and the city becomes the means by which he can escape from himself. This is a character of melancholy despair (and in his contemporary form, ironic detachment). The anxiety that the flaneur illuminates is of an evolving(?) city that, as a result of complex social changes, no longer has any true citizens or individuals, but only a blur of undifferentiated inhabitants. In his late 19th century incarnation, the flaneur often found himself wandering through European streets, concerned with a localized space in flux. Though this early flaneur is a cosmopolitan subject in many cases – an intellectual, a traveler, a man of the world – he is also a national construction; his identity is fused to the city and nation he observes.

While the figure of the flaneur is associated with the European novels of the 19th and early 20th century, and most particularly a figure of Paris, there has been a resurgence of this character in recent novels, though in a slightly altered form. W.G. Sebald’s novels often have a flaneur figure at their center, who is usually searching the geography of the city to locate both personal meaning and collective history. More recently, Teju Cole’s Open City uses a wandering, traveling, flaneur figure to observe and comment on contemporary urban life. In these novels, a permeating ennui, a persistent disassociation seems to have entrapped the flaneurs at the center of the book. For Sebald’s characters, the ghostly traces of the Holocaust haunt their perambulations through the cities they find themselves in. But the anxieties of Cole’s flaneur seems less defined, the causes of his melancholy and passivity a bit trickier to locate. A more amorphous, more seeping global anxiety preoccupies him.

Open City is a book that transforms and reinterprets the 19th century flaneur into a contemporary figure who uses the geography of the city (in this case New York City and Brussels) to illuminate both personal and public meaning out of a network of connections across place and time. To Cole’s flaneur Julius, the city’s geography – its architecture and art, its momentarily illuminated individuals, its rivers and neighborhood blocks – reveal the ghostly traces of the past as they collide with the present. He uses the city’s stories to reflect on his own; by consuming himself in the city’s networked narratives, he triggers his own memories. In this way, he emulates the traditional flaneur’s detective approach to looking; he observes the city from an engaged and interested distance, and in doing so, makes meaning out of the city’s fragmented histories as well as his own.

Unlike the earlier flaneur figures – like Flaubert’s Frederik – who became a lens through which to see the localized changes to a contemporary French society, Cole’s flaneur Julius has a more global gaze. Julius himself was born in Nigeria to a German mother and Nigerian father; he moves to New York to pursue his studies and travels to Belgium in order to locate his maternal grandmother. But like the earlier flaneur, he is an intellectual, a cosmopolitan subject who easily blends in with an urban crowd while at the same time is separate from it, casting his meticulous, educated eye on the landscape before him. Julius is a reticent narrator; we only learn about him through the ways in which he sees the city, through the music he appreciates, the art that moves him, the monuments that make him pause. All the while, though, we sense his deep melancholia, his nursing of old wounds, his disassociation from his own past. In fact, the entire novel seems to be a tug of war between Julius’s active looking and his melancholic solitude and disappearance into the facts and histories of the worlds he encounters.

While Julius contemplates the mundane busyness of universal city life, most of his prolonged inquiries focus on sites of trauma – the cordoned off spaces of ground zero, a monument documenting the slave trade, a photography exhibit connected to the atrocities of the Holocaust. Even in more localized spaces, Julius weaves together a network of geographic and historical linkages, fusing the present to the past, the here to the there. Just after he passes the ruins of the World Trade Center, a “metonym of its disaster,” Julius approaches Hudson River, contemplating both the history of immigration and the slave trade. The specter of 9/11 hovers over New York, but Julius refuses to see this event in isolation. Later, when he visits Brussels, Julius will debate with Moroccan immigrants the global nature of 9/11 and the links between Hamas, Hezbollah, and Al-Qaeda that travel across national boundaries throughout the world. As he contemplates Brussels from the plane and once he’s landed, Julius thinks of the traumas of World War II, his friend Professor Seito’s imprisonment in the American internment camps, the conflicts during Nigeria’s civil war, the atrocities inflicted by the Belgian kings on the Congo, as well as the present reality of Europe being a place where “borders were flexible.” In another section of the novel, Julius will reflect on his friends’ anxiety about global climate change and environmental disasters. This flaneur is not contemplating a localized anxiety, but a series of global anxieties that might be triggered by a local trace but become networked in a series of threads across place and history.

Cole isn’t the only contemporary writer who reinterprets the flaneur figure as a lens to investigate the changing nature of cities and their interconnectedness (through terrorism, climate change, economic recessions, and immigration tensions, to name a few global links). In Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner’s infuriatingly passive but smart and astute American poet in Madrid witnesses the 2004 train bombings. Damon Galgut’s In A Strange Room uses a misanthropic traveler to reflect on the Gulf War, the aftermath of apartheid, and elections in Tanzania. In Book of Clouds, Chloe Aridjis’s reclusive Tatania, a Mexican Jew living in Berlin, wanders the city, interacting with almost no one, but observing Germany’s present-day hate crimes against the remaining shadows of the Holocaust.

I realize I’m making these novels sound like real downers. But for all of the melancholy and angst and anxiety in these narratives, there is also the energetic intelligence, insight, and wit of the flaneur narrators. They make recognizable passageways unfamiliar, and they reveal the footsteps of the travelers who have come before them. Not so different from detective novels or even ghost stories, flaneur novels expose the mysteries, the buried histories, and the darkened alleys of place and memory.

Joanna Luloff is the author of the story collection The Beach at Galle Road (Algonquin, 2012), a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. She is a fiction editor for the journals Memorious and Copper Nickel, and is an assistant professor of English at University of Colorado Denver.