“I’m drawn to characters who …watch and scrutinize and meander and collect and document their surroundings,” notes Joanna Luloff, writing for the Missouri Review’s new Genre Convention blog. What she admits she’s referring to is the “recognizable, even romantic, observer/wanderer” known in literature as the “flaneur.”
What is a flaneur? And why should we care? The flaneur is your story telling ticket to better range of observation and depth. Why I’m writing about it now is to remind authors that its use is not restricted to literary fiction. It’s a story telling device that has been adopted successfully by spy and detective mysteries and thrillers. It could be useful in any genre.
A French word that translates roughly as “loafer,” the flaneur is not usually a character so much as a “roaming camera,” “at ease in a crowd,” that could be said to operate as a stand in for the author. Traditionally most often male, if identified with a character, the flaneur uses his ability to blend anonymously with the crowd to pull meaning out of observations. Because he stands apart, he is able to assemble the story’s fragmented pieces in such a way as to add intellectual clarity. His estrangement means that he is not emotionally involved. He can, therefore, be a more astute observer than the rest of the characters, who are.
Christopher Isherwood’s “alter-ego” in Goodbye To Berlin exemplifies the flaneur Luloff is talking about. “From my window, the deep solemn massive street. Cellar-shops where the lamps burn all day, under the shadow of top-heavy balconied facades, dirty plaster frontages embossed with scrollwork and heraldic devices. The whole district is like this: street leading into street of houses like shabby monumental safes crammed with the tarnished valuables and second-hand furniture of a bankrupt middle-class.
“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”
That makes the case for literary fiction. How about the other genres? Typically, the flaneur occupies what Luloff calls “the same social and moral universe as the spy and the detective; both all-seeing and invisible…” Because of its ability to detach and to observe as though invisible, the flaneur has found a home in genre novels as a way of allowing a narrator to make observations that might not advance the plot but will enrich our understanding of the world in which bad guys are pursued.
In Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell, one of the popular Wallander series, our Swedish detective-hero reports: “Before leaving Ystad he had spent two days reading up on Latvia, and had gained the impression of a little country that had been oppressed by the whims of history, repeatedly falling victim to the sparring of the big powers. Even Sweden had marched triumphantly into this country, bloodstained and ruthless. But it seemed to him that the key moment had been in 1945, when the German war machine was crippled and the Soviet Army marched into Latvia and annexed it without encountering real opposition.”
These observations are made by the detective, yet what is observed has little to do with the detective’s job. We realize that Wallander himself is a bit of a flanuer. Detached? Yes, he wants to quit the force and retire to his country cottage. He has no iron in this fire. Okay, there is the love attraction to the widow of the deceased (of course). But the detective is an outsider, an observer, and as such has an angle that might not be visible to those boiling in the pot of every-day doings.
In the detective mystery genre, the flaneur often morphs into a street-wise crank who’s seen it all and wants to expose the seamy, dark side of our world before falling into a pit of cynicism. In A Drink Before The War, Dennis Lehane allows his private eye, Patrick, operating in Boston, to observe: “It’s impossible to park on Tremont or even idle there for more than thirty seconds. A platoon of meter maids, imported from the female Hitler youth shortly after the fall of Berlin, roam the street, at least two to a block, pit bull faces on top of fire hydrant bodies, just waiting for someone stupid enough to stall traffic on their street.”
In short stories, it’s likely that the flaneur will show up not as a roaming camera so much as in wise observations and commentary dropped into a closely narrated story to give it depth and perspective. In “Thunderstruck,” by Elizabeth McCracken, collected in The Best American Short Stories 2015, we encounter a befuddled mother trying to cope with a wayward twelve-year-old: “She and Wes couldn’t figure out when to punish and when to indulge, when a child is testing the boundaries and needed discipline, and when she was demanding, in the brutish way of children, more love. In this way, their life had been pasted together with marshmallow topping and hot fudge. Shut her in her room. Buy her a banana split. Do both: see where it gets you.”
What makes this a flaneur? The detached observations. This twelve-year old is involved in dangerous stuff. Concern is urgent. When we encounter lines like “the brutish way of children” or “life had been pasted together with marshmallow topping and hot fudge,” what we’re really getting is not a worried sick mother but a dispassionate observation that opens a window onto this world in a way that a very distraught mother could not.
Fiction has not said goodbye to the flaneur. If anything authors of any genre should be sending the flaneur a big hello.