What Is A Flaneur?

As described by James Wood in How Fiction Works, the flaneur is

the loafer, usually a young man, who walks the streets with no great urgency, seeing, looking, reflecting.

Flânerie describes aimless behaviour. In French it’s spelt like this: flâneur.

Wood also uses the great phrases ‘porous scout‘ and ‘Noah’s dove‘ to describe this authorial stand-in. These characters are focalisers.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE FLANEUR

The Flaneur comes straight out of Romantic poetry. The poet of Wordsworth’s Prelude (began in 1798) is the classic Romantic Flaneur. Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) also created Flaneurs in his poetry. Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) drew on the poetry of Baudelaire and created even more Flaneurs, bringing the Flaneur to the attention of literary critics.

The Flaneur was born again. We see an updated Flaneur in Rilke’s autobiographical novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Briggs (1910), in Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre (1938) and in Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925).

The Flaneur is a wandering narrator who is at once an outsider and native to a particular urban environment.

The flaneur hangs around cities because there’s not so much for him to do in the country. You won’t find Jane Austen’s characters wandering around aimlessly. But these guys aren’t truly aimless: they wander around with the purpose of deconstructing social life in order to form a critique.

THE FLANEUR IS DIFFICULT TO WRITE

If you’re writing a Flaneur main character the story will be propelled forward mainly by writerly brilliance. Descriptions must be amazing.

The raison d’etre of the flaneur novel is to allow the writer to have a say about something, so entire novels written in this style tend to become a series of essays and these will vary in quality. The flaneur story is perhaps better suited to short stories.

THE FLANEUR IS HIGHLY SENSITIVE

James Wood also uses the term ‘overloaded flaneur’. He offers the examples of Salman Rushdie’s novel Fury (2001) and the titular character from Herzog, a 1964 novel by Saul Bellow.

A man goes out to record, with all the writer’s fineness of observation on his side, what the writer would have seen were the writer able to speak autobiographically, like the ‘I’ of a Romantic poem.

The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel

This ‘too-porous scout’ suffers from sensory overload. He suffers because of his sensitivity. He has also lost his way.

The old maps have gone, and the new signs are unreadable; and so the modern flaneur is driven mad by the indecipherable abundance of contemporary signification.

Illustration from “Peter the Wanderer”. Edward Ardizzone. 1963
Illustration from “Peter the Wanderer”. Edward Ardizzone. 1963

THE FLANEUR IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Middle Grade Novels

Since the flaneur loves busy, interesting cities like New York, some critics have made a subcategory of American children’s literature set in New York where we might find the children’s literature version of the flaneur. Eric L. Tribunella finds the flaneur in:

Although Tribunella published that paper in 2010, he cites examples from the Second Golden Age of Children’s Literature, which started after WW2 and ended around 1970.

Picture Books

Do modern young audiences have any time for the flaneur? When it comes to picture books, there is a subcategory designed to take the reader through a city, as an armchair tourist. Some critics have said that this is the picture book version of the flaneur, in which the reader is the flaneur, not necessarily a character inside the story. Again, look out for American picture books, particularly those set in New York or Los Angeles.

Young Adult Novels

In modern teen fiction, consider the mall instead of the city as a place where young flaneur hang out.

In stories where teens hang out in malls — and often in real life too — teens are not welcome. The mall has the feeling of a safe, cloistered space and mall designers go out of their way to make shoppers feel as comfortable as if they were at home: modern malls are carpeted and warm and play calming music. Comfortable big furniture is provided as islands of refuge. Yet when teenagers congregate in malls they are not genuinely welcome unless they happen to have the disposable income of adults. Therefore, the mall in young adult literature is a setting which functions as a symbol of teenage-hood itself: that liminal space between childhood and adulthood.

THE POSTMODERN FLANEUR

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Weetzie-Bat (1989), the debut punk-rock fairytale novel by Francesca Lia Block features a narrator who is both part of her urban environment but also narrates as if she’s an outsider. This archetype has been called a post-modern flaneur.

By this interpretation, the flaneur in children’s literature is unlikely to go away, since the entire category of young adult literature makes heavy use of that feeling of being an outsider trying to find your place.

FURTHER FLANEURS

  • For more examples of young adult novels with a flaneur quality, see The Flaneur Goes To The Mall at The Millions
  • A variation on the Flaneur archetype in storytelling is the Sunday Wanderer. This is a character who wanders around leisurely making observations about their surroundings. It comes from an earlier era in Judeo-Christian countries when Sundays really were for doing nothing. But the Sunday Wanderer doesn’t have to be wandering on a Sunday. In literature, Katherine Mansfield’s Miss Brill is an excellent example of the Sunday Wanderer. Unlike the Flaneur, The Sunday Wanderer is neither associated with masculinity nor urban settings.

Header painting: Atkinson Grimshaw – Tree Shadows on the Park Wall, Roundhay Park, Leeds

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