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The Flâneur in Fiction: Great Books About Wandering the City

Earlier this week, in a piece I wrote about Jean Rhys at the Paris Review, I imagined walking with the author through Cambridge, London, Paris, and New York. In Rhys’ metropolitan novels – Quartet (1928), After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1930), Voyage in the Dark (1934), and Good Morning, Midnight (1939) – writing and walking become confluent activities. But her fiction arrives in a long tradition of flâneur writing. Baudelaire once defined the flâneur as “lounger or saunterer, an idle ‘man about town.’” Walter Benjamin’s writing on the arcades of Paris reads like a blueprint. Woolf haunted the streets of London by night, as did Dickens before her. Even Freud got stuck in the city, as walking in Rome invoked an “uncanny” experience, thus informing the polemic for which the father of psychoanalysis is most famous. These authors inspired us to compile a list of our favorite writing on wandering. Saunterers, loungers, and loafers: don’t forget to comment with your favorite walking stories.

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Virginia Woolf’s “Street Haunting: A London Adventure” (1930)

“No one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil. But there are circumstances in which it can become supremely desirable to possess one; moments when we are set upon having an object, an excuse for walking half across London between tea and dinner.” Thus begins Woolf’s London adventure, as she rambles the streets of Soho and Holborn. Walking, the writer’s eye – which “is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure… floats us smoothly down a stream” – becomes a disembodied vessel for looking as it glosses along the surface. Woolf casts herself as the somnambulant heroine of her essay as her “brain sleeps perhaps as it looks” – much like Anna Morgan in Rhys’ Voyage in the Dark. In the essay, walking enables Woolf to assume numerous identities, dipping in and out of people’s conversations and lives as the writer daubs her pen into its ink-pot.

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