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April 9, 2018

Lauren Elkin's Playlist for Her Book "Flâneuse"


In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Lauren Elkin brilliantly blends memoir with history in her book Flâneuse.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"Absorbing . . . Elkin has an eye for the unexpected detail, as befits a flâneuse. . . It will be up to booksellers to figure out how to categorize her pastiche of travel writing, memoir, history and literary nonfiction. A reader, flaneusing along the bookshelves, will find in it some of the pleasures of each."

In her own words, here is Lauren Elkin's Book Notes music playlist for her book Flâneuse:

Amongst hardened city walkers I suspect there are two camps: those who walk with music, and those who don't. I belong firmly in the first camp. When I was nineteen and had just moved to New York City for college I lugged my discman with me everywhere; by my mid-twenties when I'd moved to Paris I carried a first-generation iPod (all of my music in the palm of my hand! no more carrying back-up CDs!), and today I curate playlists on my iPhone. Sometimes, to change things up, I'll take off my headphones, and let myself become attuned to the cacophony, the conversations, the traffic. But on the whole, no walk is complete without its corresponding soundtrack.

I've chosen to organize my playlist by chapter, since each one is set in a city where I have walked, and captures a particular time in my life when I lived and walked there. In some cases where the chapter is more about In general I tend to favor music by women but this list is pretty egalitarian, which surprised me.


Martial Solal, "New York Herald Tribune (A bout de souffle)"

I've chosen this piece from the Breathless soundtrack for a couple of reasons. One, because this chapter is about my move to Paris, and how I fell in love with the city through walking the streets. I was very breathless myself back then, typical young American woman in Paris, a bit like Jean Seberg's character in the film, without the cute haircut.

But also because as I got to know Paris, and Paris as it's represented in literature, film, and art, I realized so many of the canonical artistic viewpoints on the city are masculine. Unlike in Varda's Cléo de 5 à 7, made the following year (and about which, more below) we don't see the city through Seberg's eyes, we see her in the city.

It also reminds me how much my Parisian geography has changed since then - in those early days I went to the Champs-Elysées (where Seberg sells newspapers) with friends, go to to clubs, or go shopping, or just to see it (I remember us nearly getting killed running across twelve lanes of traffic to get to the Arc de Triomphe on its traffic island - not realizing there was an underground tunnel people were using). For a lot of tourists, it's synonymous with Paris itself. Now I can't even remember the last time I was there; my life mostly takes place in the eastern parts of the city. Walking in western Paris feels like anthropological fieldwork.

Long Island - New York

Erykah Badu, "Apple Tree"

This chapter is mostly about the suburbs of Long Island, where I grew up, and my relationship to New York City, so close yet so far. It ends with my move to the city for university, which is where I discovered the joys of aimless city-walking. The record I listened to the most back then was Erykah Badu's Baduizm (I didn't remember that it was spelled with a "z," I love it) so when I remember New York in the late '90s, I remember songs like this one. Also our dorm on 121st and Amsterdam was above the Apple Tree bodega, where they also rented movies, that was a nice coincidence. I'm not sure about the lyrics now, listening to it again ("My soul flies free like a willow tree"?) but dowee do wee dowee-ee-ee, this song was the sound of freedom and self-determination back then.

Paris - Cafes Where They

Bjork, "Hyperballad"

Jean Rhys novels, my chapter about them, and this Bjork song, are about all the things we do every day to accommodate ourselves to someone who is making us very unhappy indeed. And when you're twenty years old, and living in Paris, that melancholy is extremely productive. I didn't want to let go of it, or of him; I got too much good writing out of it. And it was empowering, on some level, seeing how far I could go in this relationship before I hurt myself. It was never about the boy. It was always about exploring my limits, and then writing about it. The Bjork song has a kind of joyful sadness to it that resonated with me that semester.

London - Bloomsbury

Tori Amos, "Your Ghost"

This song is based on a piece from Schumann's 1854 "Ghost Variations." Apparently he thought he heard the ghost of Schubert playing and he jumped off a bridge. (He lived.)

The album it's on, Night of Hunters, came out long after this chapter takes place (it's set in 2004) but when I lived in London myself in 2012 I listened to it a lot as I walked around Brockley, where I lived, or took the train to the British Library, where I spent my days. I've chosen it for this chapter because there's something poised and strange about this song, its melody, its meter, that I think Woolf might like, and because the Woolf essay that inspired this chapter is called "Street Haunting." I felt, walking in Bloomsbury, a bit like a ghost in Woolf's neighborhood - like she was the one who was alive and vibrant, not me. "Is there such a great divide between your world and mine?" the lyrics go. My city walks are sometimes about narrowing that divide, or projecting myself onto the other side of it.

Paris - Children of the Revolution

T-Rex, "Children of the Revolution"

I think bumping and grinding was exactly what George Sand's lover Alfred de Musset had in mind when he wrote in his Confession of a Child of the Century, that their generation, "conceived between battles, reared amid the noises of war," heard "something in that word liberty" that "made their hearts beat with the memory of a terrible past and the hope of a glorious future." The "sons of the Empire and grandsons of the Revolution" gave themselves over to debauchery, "plung[ing] into the dissipation of wine and courtesans": the "malady of the age."

George Sand - great-granddaughter of the King of Poland on one side and a Parisian birdseller on the other - had a rather more activist, less nihilist approach to revolution and social change. But she'd have liked T-Rex's chorus: "you won't fool the children of the revolution." They've seen too much. This chapter, and its companion (Paris - Protest) are about remaining skeptical in the face of mass movements, but they also celebrate the Parisian spirit of revolution, the willingness to rise up when necessary.

I also don't mind Bono's amped up, slightly sanitized version on the Moulin Rouge soundtrack.

Venice - Obedience

Vivaldi, Concerto for Violin, Strings and Harpsichord in G Minor, R. 325. III: Presto

I love the movement in this piece - the way it's sort of hesitant at the beginning, and then it takes off. It really captures the city, how stately but also chaotic it is. I was listening to this movement a lot when I was writing my Venice novel, Floating Cities; I modeled my first chapter off of its rhythms. The Venice chapter in Flâneuse is a sort of behind-the-scenes of my writing and researching the novel. Vivaldi was a music teacher at an orphanage, the Ospedale della Pietà on the Grand Canal in Venice (today the Hotel Metropole); he wrote most of his best work while doing that job. In this chapter I write about the contrast between obedience - to our families, to our responsibilities, the things we do to pay the rent - and disobedience, doing things that make no sense or serve no purpose, like Sophie Calle following a man from Paris to Venice in Suite Vénitienne. Following can be a form of obedience or, for Calle, an act of subversion. It's the subversive work we do while we're busy being obedient that really matters. Today Vivaldi is a cottage industry in Venice, and stands in for some kind of official culture, but I like to think of him as a scrappy violin instructor writing music in his down time.

Tokyo - Inside

Ponyo on a clife by the sea - theme song (Japanese)

I was obsessed with this film (and this song) as it came out when I was living in Tokyo. I made my Japanese teacher teach me the words. That's always how I've approached learning foreign languages - I learned French from Edith Piaf's "Milord." I was suffering from depression when I was living in Tokyo, for a few reasons; sometimes I couldn't leave the house, and would have to make up some reason to explain why I was missing my Japanese lessons. But this song kind of saved me by getting me to connect with something outside myself, and gave me a way in to feeling like even if I was miserable in Tokyo, I could at least get into Japanese culture. And I got into it with a vengeance - I'm now a total Japanophile and I can't wait to go back.

I love how slightly campy the songs are in Miyazaki's films - there's always a discernible piano, swelling strings, and a woman's voice. But this is just a duet between a kid and a grown-up. I love it. Ponyo ponyo sakana no ko!

Paris - Protest

Jacques Dutronc, "Les Cactus"

Dutronc's song "Il est cinq heures, Paris s'éveille" was a hit song in the spring of 1968 and is often cited as one of the revolutionary songs of that time, but I like to think of his 1967 hit "Les Cactus" as another anthem of May '68. Le monde entier / est un cactus / il est impossible de s'asseoir! he sings: The whole world is a cactus / It is impossible to sit down. I relied on Mavis Gallant's first-hand experience of the events of May '68 for this chapter, and was very interested in not only her appreciation of it but her skepticism of it all, the way the rumor-mill worked to stoke people's emotions, which was useful to fuel the revolt but distracted from the key issues. She zeroes in on the hypocrisy of some of the people protesting (and the people protesting the protests), something that Dutronc captures in his lyrics: "Dans leurs bonjours il y a des cactus / Dans leurs cactus il y a des cactus (In their hellos, there are cactus / In their cactus, there are cactus)." One woman speaks to Gallant, a Canadian, very slowly, "as if I were a plucky child recovering from brain fever in a Russian novel. Turned out she thought I was an Algerian, and that was her way of showing she wasn't racist." But then Gallant celebrates the fact that the students supported Daniel Cohn-Bendit unequivocally, when he was threatened with expulsion from France for being stateless, and they marched down the Boulevard Saint-Germain shouting "Nous sommes tous des juifs allemands!" A powerful statement to make a scant 20 years after the Holocaust. As we gear up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of May 1968, I think Gallant's standpoint is really valuable.

I also just like the song - a rock n' roll series of triplets can take you pretty far, and I dig his goyish "ai-yai-yai"s and "oy"s. The video, too, is not to be missed: Dutronc boogying down with an abstract sculpture.

Paris - Neighborhood

Corinne Marchand, "Sans toi"

This song by the great Michel Legrand occurs at the mid-point of the film. Cléo, a proto-yéyé girl with teased hair and saucer eyes, is rehearsing her new material, and her composer, Bob (played by Legrand in the film) gives her this. She sings it direct to camera with a black back-drop behind her, and it's an incredibly raw moment in the film.

I am an empty house without you
I am a grasping, empty body without you
I cover myself in wrinkles without you
And if you come too late,
they will have buried me in the ground:
Alone, ugly, and pale without you

She commits totally to the song, it brings her to tears, and then she freaks and lashes out at the musicians. "You unnerve me to exploit me... I want to be alone." She pulls off her wig to reveal a natural blonde bob, puts on a black dress, her new hat, and leaves. The song has forced her out. It is the exact middle of the film. In the second half of the film, post-song, we see the city from Cléo's perspective, instead of the city's perspective on Cléo.

Everywhere - The View from the Ground

Alt-J, "Taro"

Though I'm pairing it with a chapter about Matha Gellhorn's war reporting from the Spanish Civil War, this song is more about her friend Robert Capa and his partner Gerda Taro, who died, tragically, when she hitched a ride on the footboard of a car and a Republican tank drove into them. (Caro himself would die violently when he stepped on a landmine in Indochina.) But it captures something of the spirit of Gellhorn in Spain, as well as her wanderlust, which is the main theme of this chapter. "There is too much space in the world. I am bewildered by it, and mad with it," she wrote. The ohs and modulating keys open things up so wide and create this ever-enlarging musical space that I think captures what Gellhorn was talking about. The lyrics can be a bit silly though. the song is so much about the unseen unsung women who covered these conflicts, and taro is one of them: she's often considered the first female photojournalist to cover a war, just as Gellhorn fought to cover conflicts even without the press accreditation, which was difficult to get for a woman. I think Martha would like this tribute to Taro. Saluting her is like saluting them all. Hey Taro!

New York - Return

Hot Chip, "I Feel Better"

In spite of the song's avowal that its narrator feels "better," that message is belied by the song's minor key. Similarly, this chapter reflects my resignation, ambivalence, and continued love for my home city. It's a city that is very reassuring to me but never quite, never completely. I always want more from it, but know there's only so much I can have. I love it but it's not my place anymore.

Hot Chip are a British band but with their clashing electronics and the strong beat they've really captured a New York pace, the beat of my heart when I'm walking down the street there. This song makes me want to walk and run and dance, all at the same time, which is a very New York feeling.

Epilogue - Flâneuserie

"Bella Ciao"

I don't know who sings this version but it's my favorite one - maybe it's a bit cheesy to have it as a tarantella but for me it's important, as I'll explain below. From what I can work out on the internet it's either Rita Pavone or Nilla Pizzi but I'm not sure it sounds like either of them. In any case I picked it because the epilogue centers around this photograph of an American girl in Italy ostensibly being harassed as she walks down the street by at least eight men at once. The photograph is often pointed to as an example of what women have to deal with on the city streets, but the photographer and the subject have protested that this is not at all a photograph of street harassment, but a portrait of an independent young woman, traveling by herself and having a perfectly marvelous time. It sums up what I was trying to get at in this book: that there are all sorts of ways in which women still do not have the freedom to walk in cities that men do, but that there is no particular way to walk in the city that is ideal. Some women want to be invisible; others want to be seen. Neither option is better than the other. What matters is that women have the choice to register on the cityscape or not, to be invisible because they choose to be, and not because they don't meet narrow cultural standards about beauty, or because the masculine viewpoint is getting more attention. Likewise if she stands out it's because she has something to say, because she wants to be seen, not because some man has decided to burst into her bubble of anonymity.

Although the title - "Bella ciao!" - sounds like the singer is hailing some pretty girl on the street, the song is an anthem of the anti-fascist resistance movement in the 1940s. It sounds like something you'd hear in a pizza parlor but it's a song about fighting the enemy and dying for freedom. The final chapter of Flâneuse is a reminder that we all participate in creating public space - the soft city, as Jonathan Raban calls it, rather than the hard city of concrete and asphalt - that we need to take responsibility for each other's experience of public space, and a call to arms for women to remake public space on their own terms.

Lauren Elkin and Flâneuse links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Financial Times review
Guardian review
Guardian review
Kirkus review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
New York Times review

The Atlantic interview with the author
The Rumpus interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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