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An affectionate and telling portrait
on 16 February 2001
The tone of this lovely book is set from the start. I laughed when I read the first sentence, I smiled at the second, and by the end of the first chapter I was already packing my bags (metaphorically), boarding the train, and longing to be in Paris.
Edmund White is an accomplished writer who lived in Paris for fifteen years, from about 1983, before returning to his native USA. If he was in love with the French (which seems likely) it was never to the extent to being blinded to their flaws. Taking the notion of the Flaneur, the attentive urban ambler, as his inspiration he takes a gentle and informative stroll through some of the lesser known byways of the French capital, and French history, pausing to point out curious features and to cast light along the way.
Somehow, without ever forcing the pace, he manages to explore art, politics, and sex. He discusses the paradoxical attitudes of the French to race discrimination and the appallingly inadequate response of the state to AIDs in the 1980s. He examines the contrasts between the American and French attitudes to fashion. He ponders on flirtatiousness - how it cannot be avoided in Paris and how it cannot be attempted in New York. He muses upon the creation and endless re-invention of cities, . He writes perceptively about jazz music between the wars, including the danse sauvage of Josephine Baker and its effect upon (amongst others) Marshall Tito, and he struggles (as must we all) with the precise distinction between monarchist and royalist that so exercised the proprietor of his local café. There are many reasons for reading this book. One is that it is beautifully written (it helps). Another is that, without ever losing the objectivity of the foreigner, the author manages to empathise with his subject. When I finished reading it I wanted to start again.
The publishers, Bloomsbury, are to be complimented on producing a first class book. The Flaneur is intended to be the first in a series entitled The Writer in the City. If subsequent volumes match the quality if the first then there is a great deal to look forward to.