Aimless contemplation is a luxury rarely appreciated. To the flaneur, it is the art of living. When man makes cities out of mountains, the flaneur strolls its streets, pursuing something loftier in his mind, an apex where truth (or his version of it) resides. Here are 10 literary works that chronicle wanderings and musings.
1. Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, translated by C.K Scott Moncrieff (1922-1930) Remembrance of Things Past is Marcel Proust's grand attempt to protest the reign of time and reality in our lives. The novel comes in three volumes, exhausting the musings of a man trapped in the trivial instances of the present. In the dullness of the everyday, he unearths a private palace: his past. Proust evokes this world in the act of arising from bed after a sleepless night and indulging in the first bite of a favored childhood pastry. It is in these trifles that Proust discovers a valued existence, conjuring the past where he is king.
2. James Hamilton-Paterson's Playing with Water: Passion and Solitude on a Philippine Island (1987)
Is this James Hamilton-Paterson's Walden? But with people? The author lived a fisherman's life in a Philippine islet for three years. His lighthearted venture of living in a hut, capturing fish using handcrafted weapons, and learning skills from local villagers are elements of escapist fantasies we harbor. We long for the exotic and delight in the displacement of one's self.
3. Edmund White's The Flaneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris (2000)
The Flaneur is Edmund White's attempt to channel the POV of nineteenth century boulevardiers through the eyes of an American in late twentieth century Paris. As he moves from place to place, he sees the idealized beauty of Paris through the scrim of clandestine but public sex that goes on in the nooks of public monuments like the Bois de Boulogne and the ridges of the Seine, among other observations. For context, he chronicles the flanerie of old, from painters like Manet to writers like Baudelaire and Colette.
4. Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence (2989)
Less peripatetic and more about strangers staying put in the backwoods of France, Peter Mayle chronicles his first year in Provence, where he intended to stay with his wife to write a novel. Instead, he spent the time dealing with local custom and facing the terrors of the mistral, cold howling winds that seeped through the draughty stone house he moved into and continued to renovate throughout the course of the book. Written with wit, candor, and subtle affection, A Year in Provence opened the publishing floodgates to many such memoirs. Mayle himself went on to write at least five more books about Provence.
5. Henry David Thoreau's Walden and Civil Disobedience (296ov)
Henry David Thoreau idealized the hermit. The flaneur can take Walden, Thoreau's autobiographical account of dwelling alone in the forest, as a spiritual guidebook to individuality and modest living. Himself a disciple of transcendentalism, Thoreau believed that the road to enlightenment begins when one detaches from organized society and surrenders to nature. He further preaches the value of self-reliance in Civil Disobedience. The essay voices Thoreau's contempt for governments and mob mentality, while advocating the imperatives of personal conscience and passive resistance.
6. lain Sinclair's Hackney, that Rose Red Empire (2009)
A failed-filmmaker-turned-urban-circumnavigator, lain Sinclair has dedicated his writing career exploring the anatomy of London. In Hackney, Sinclair writes about what is most sacred to us: home. Home is the bosom of nostalgia, the patch of earth of every drifter. For Sinclair, it is Hackney, a humble 50-year-old borough northeast of London. The appeal of Sinclair's work is his depiction of the old in one glance becoming the new in another, telling us that retracing one's steps leads to a different story.
7. Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, translated by William Weaver (1974)
An ode to the strength of the imagination, Invisible Cities is a novel about a voyage to places fantastic and perhaps illusory. The book is a conversation between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, the latter narrating the worlds he has been to, weaving a map of cities to describe the vastness of the Mongol kingdom to its ruler. Calvino writes, "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."
8. Jack Iterouaes On the Road (1957)
The book that defined the Beat generation blurred fact, fiction, rules of grammar and sentence construction. It was a stuttering ode to hobo culture, a rejection of middle-class values and creeping subarbanism by giving in to the lure of the open road. Kerouac, through his narrator Sal Paradise, sought to achieve satori through sex, drugs, jazz, and poetry. On the Road is about leaving empty and letting the road ahead fill you up. It's a life summed up in a quote: "'Sal, we gotta go and never stop going 'till we get there. “Where we going, man?' I don't know but we gotta go.”
9. Walter Benjamin's One-Way Street and Other Writings (1928)
On the subject of fIanerie, German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin proclaims that being lost in the city is a profession that requires skill. One-Way Street and Other Writings is a collection that touches on all branches of that thought, detouring on German urban lifestyle, recommendations for the bibliophile, and rantings on the evolution of art in the industrial age.
10. Charles Baudelaire's the Painter of Modern Life (1964)
Charles Baudelaire meant for The Painter of Modern Life to immortalize the creative approach of journalist and artist Constantin Guys. Instead, the essay outlived its subject and became a treatise of the present-day fIaneur, "a man of the world," the "childlike artist" whose "genius is curiosity."
This story first appeared in Vault Magazine No. 21 2018.