Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Book Review ~ "The Flâneur" by Edmund White

POSTED IN:  ~ PublicationsReviews ~ Books

The Flâneur
by Edmund White
Bloomsbury USA 2001
ISBN 9781582342122

Book Review

Very rarely do I criticise a book in the negative sense of the word (like saying it's crap), and never gratuitously: I really want to tell you about all the great books you should go out and buy NOW, and not waste time on the bilge! But in this case I'm going to make an exception.

It's not that the book is no good. It's more about what made me buy it.

The beautiful cover and enticing blurb, you see, led me to expect something rather different to what I ended up with, and I can't seem to get rid of the slightly bitter taste of deception from my mouth, and wouldn't want you to experience the same thing.

The back cover blah-blah says:

"One has the impression, reading The Flâneur, 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...

Edmund White tells such a good story that I'm ready to listen to anything he wants to talk about."

That was from the New York Times, and Publishers Weekly says "White's charming book is for literati, voyeurs and aesthetes, and for travelers who love familiar terrain from a different viewpoint." The Village Voice calls it "Brilliant." and Elle "Vibrantly evocative."

My in-a-nutshell summary would be something along the lines of: "A hotchpotch of rambling historical anecdotes, obviously dredged from elsewhere, with little relevance to the 'paradoxes of Paris' I was hoping for, all wrapped up in an overpoweringly homosexual viewpoint which was barely even hinted at in the blurb. Fabulously disappointing."

And disappointment is my overriding emotion here. If the blurb had said: 'A gay writer's eccentric delve into the history and happenings of the city he loves' I may well have bought it anyway just for curiosity value and enjoyed it for what it is. It's more the feeling of being short-changed and deceived that stick in the craw. And having just digested Graham Robb's original and masterly Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris doesn't make things any easier for The Flâneur in my book either.

My gut feeling would be that even White must be disappointed by the way the book was sold. Surely his artistic integrity must have told him that it wasn´t quite as 'White' (or perhaps more so) as the cover would have us believe, and that he would risk potential new readers' and fans' disapprobation for simply not being up front about the angle taken.

Entire chapters on the history of homosexuality in France, or other off-message subjects for that matter, just don't make for comfortable reading when you were expecting some more mainstream oddball facts about the city outside the usual guidebook approach. Do we really need to know that he and all the other 'cruisers' had to hastily break apart and rearrange their clothing on the tip of Ile Saint-Louis as the floodlighting river cruisers (the other ones) went by? Who cares? I would have cared, potentially, as I said, had the book been marketed for what it was, but in that case I'd have wanted far more juicy details about what White says most people, straight and gay, consider pathetic and sordid. Could have been a good read, but not slotted in between long passages about obscure writers with queer tendencies for the most part and a couple of lines from time to time with tenuous references to parts of Paris before more mush.  

Worried that this review might come across as a bit heavy (although I'm sure you can tell I couldn't give a monkey's what people choose to do in their own free time), I checked out a few of the comments on the UK and US Amazon sites. It's reassuring to see I'm not alone in my thoughts concerning this title. A couple of ridiculous 5-star gushes, obviously spurious, are nicely countered by a rash of 1 and 2-star reality bites which actually tell it like it is, entitled, for example: "Reads like a hack job done for the money", "Boring. And self-satisfied.", "Not a pleasant read", "Pretentious", "Less White, More Paris s'il vous plait", "Not completely what it seems", "Reader as outsider?", "Slight", "A missed opportunity", "Look! Look! I'm homosexual!" and "Mainly gay interest".

I'm afraid I have to agree. Even a terribly serious Guardian reviewer had to concede that comments (with justification) such as the following were necessary: "Though his book calls itself a stroll, White does very little walking...", "...his book seems to be more about the native land he has now returned to than the city he adopted...", "White rejoices in the subjugation of Europe by American commerce...", "White too often retreats from the streets, which are the flâneur's proper realm...", "The chapter on homosexuality abandons strolling altogether...", "White's interest in racial and sexual outsiders is odd..." and so it goes on.

The final slap in the face is a 16-page show-off 'chapter' where White narrates us through a long and tedious list of all the books on Paris he's read. Well done Ed, I'm really impessed. Or that's what the author wants us to think, it seems.

Oh well. It's all water under the bridge in the end, but this deception has turned what could have been a positive review of what seems to be regarded as a cult classic by some into simply a dismissal and certain condemnation of a far from satisfying read... my book on flânerie will be nothing like this one... Maybe it'll be worse!
© 2011 Sab Will / Paris Set Me Free - Contact me directly with suggestions, questions and requests, thanks.


Ms. B said...

Edmund White is, and always was, an out and proud homosexual. His novels and autobiographical books all deal with homosexuality. He has written biographies of famous gay men. Why did you suppose that The Flaneur would be an anomaly? Love your blog and also loved The Flaneur (but then, I knew what to expect).


Sab said...

Thanks for the comment Ms.B. Without balancing points of view the review would remain sterile. Appreciated.

Anne said...

Hated it too but more for its pretentiousness than anything else. Glad I'm not alone.

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