Edmund White's reflections on Paris form the first in a series of alternative travel guides in which a writer takes readers on a personalised tour of their city. White fashions himself into Baudelaire's passionate observer, The Flâneur
--"that aimless stroller who loses himself in the crowd, who has no destination and goes wherever caprice or curiosity directs his or her steps"--threaded with a Proustian sensibility, connecting personal and historical memories with locations. His chosen routes are the cracks that run through Haussmann's imperialist Paris, "the traces left by people living in the margin--Jews, blacks, gays, Arabs--or mementoes of an earlier, more chaotic and medieval France".
But even caprice is never entirely random. White retreats into the privatised public spaces of writers, artists and collectors: from the Hôtel de Lauzun where arty denizens including Balzac, Gautier, Manet and the ubiquitous Baudelaire attended exotic dinners parties fuelled by powerful hashish, to the Musée Camondo, built by a prominent banking family who were wiped out in the Holocaust. He maintains that the contemporary vitality of the city lies in the teeming quartiers where Arabs and blacks live, but, tellingly, rather than lead into a discussion of France's postcolonial history, White uses these areas to peer into the jazz-soundtracked encounter between Parisians and American blacks between the wars, the stage taken by Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet, Richard Wright and James Baldwin. White is quintessentially an American in Paris and his struggle with the tensions between US identity politics and the universalist citizenship of France sometimes reveals more about the walker than the streets he walks, most especially in his discussion of AIDS in France.
White's Flâneur is the city guide as story-teller, rather than inventory-taker--a guidebook of which Walter Benjamin would have approved. The Flâneur is a jewel-box of a book offering rich rewards, which, while not serving up Paris as a list of sights for us to check, certainly conveys some of the city's aura in a beautifully compact format.--Fiona Buckland
'Edmund White is one of the most virtuosic living writers of sentences in the English language' Dave Eggers 'White's genius as a flaneur is revealed in his affinity for unexpected pleasures, and he includes many for our delectation' New Yorker 'One has the impression of having fallen into the hands of a highly distractible, somewhat eccentric poet and professor who is determined to show you a Paris you wouldn't otherwise see ... White tells such a good story that I'm ready to listen to anything he wants to talk about' New York Times Book Review
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