Clarissa Dalloway as flâneur: “My darling never be out late in the afternoon alone.”
There’s a pleasure in any place that comes purely from knowing it well. In the country, the feeling is often a private one: that tree, that field, that view seems to belong to you alone. In the city the same sentiment has a competitive, even arrogant edge. To claim a city’s heart—especially if you’re a writer—you have to insist that no one sees it more clearly or takes more joy in it than you.
That’s why literature is so full of solitary walkers, sauntering anonymously through city crowds, observing the people’s faces, imagining their dreams. For Flaubert, Rilke, Baudelaire, Proust, Joyce, Nescio, this lonely city-dweller not only serves as the writer’s eye, he also serves to mark his urban claim. In literature, this character is known as the flâneur—the idler, the loafer, the connoisseur of street life. Like the writer, the flâneur is full of himself; he prides himself on knowing his way around while he rubs your nose in how happy he is, on a rainy morning in the Dapperstraat.
One of literature’s most arrogant and joyful flâneurs, the most determined of city-dwellers, is Clarissa Dalloway. In Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel “Mrs. Dalloway” (recently reissued in an excellent new translation from Boukje Verheij), this female walker claims the city as the natural territory of the middle-aged woman. To read it now is to be impressed, not only by Woolf’s matchless style, but by how familiar Mrs. Dalloway seems: a confident woman planning a party to advance her husband’s career, going out to buy flowers, greeting old friends.
But it’s also to be aware of how different the city of 1925—dirty, lively, innocent—is from the city now. In the contemporary metropolis, where virtual encounters are as important as physical ones, what use do we still have for the flâneur? Does literature still have anything to tell us about the public life of cities?
“Such fools we are,” thinks Clarissa, crossing Victoria Street in London on a beautiful summer morning.
For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh. […] In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.
“Mrs. Dalloway” begins, like Woody Allen’s film “Manhattan,” with a song of praise to the city’s chaotic inspiration. Woolf follows Clarissa from her elegant house in Westminster, through crowds and parks, into unexpected encounters and moments of revelation, tumbling, building, and inventing her city as she goes. As the characters—Clarissa, her old friend Peter Welsh, the war veteran Septimus Warren Smith—cross and recross each other’s paths, the novel becomes a map, a pattern of movements and associations, catching your eye, leaving you free to pursue them or not. Enter the book and you enter a crowd of people thinking, looking, taking turns telling the story.
Taking place over the course of one long midsummer day, “Mrs. Dalloway” is a portrait of a 51-year-old woman, an exploration of the nature of time, a critique of the pretentions of authority, a nostalgic look at friendship. We catch glimpses of a mother-daughter relationship, a man going mad, a lesbian romance.
And we see the city streets as the modernist writers saw them, as a place of new freedom. In the 1920s, a generation appalled by the slaughter of the First World War came to the city to get the past behind it. Cars and planes and short skirts and votes for women seemed to be rushing the world forward into a brighter, more rational future: the city as emancipation machine. In the dynamic, motorized London of the 1920s, where omnibuses storm like pirate ships up the avenues, a limousine with blind windows blocks traffic, and an airplane spells out an advertising message in the sky, nothing is what you think and anything could change.
When she began writing “Mrs. Dalloway,” Woolf was living in the suburbs, not by her own choice. She had had a nervous breakdown, and her doctors had warned her to avoid excitement. She wrote in her diary of her longing for London, where she could “go and hear a tune, or have a look at a picture, or find out something in the British Museum, or go adventuring among human beings.” When Woolf finished the novel, she had just defied medical advice by moving back to London. “Mrs. Dalloway” is full of an intellectual woman’s delight in the wealth of ideas generated by the city, the like minds, the new opportunities.
A woman walking in the city was a new thing, as Woolf was very aware. When the critic James Wood writes about the flâneur in “How Fiction Works,” his example of a writer who doesn’t observe the city is Jane Austen: “Her heroines never idly walk along, just thinking and looking.” Of course not: they couldn’t. In Austen’s day, to walk alone down a city street was enough to destroy a woman’s reputation, or worse. Even Woolf, in her twenties, was warned by an elderly aunt: “My darling never be out late in the afternoon alone.” Woolf understood that in writing a female flâneur, she was turning convention on its head.
Sometimes, though, the city for her is a place to be neither male nor female. In a 1930 essay on walking in London, “Street Haunting,” Woolf wrote that when we go outside we leave appearances behind. “The shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken, and there is left of all these wrinkles and roughnesses a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye.” Woolf is famous for demanding a “Room of One’s Own” for women to write in. But Woolf doesn’t want to be in that room all the time. She likes the moments, as in that essay, when she goes out to buy a pencil and can be anonymous for half an hour.
A century later, the city has changed. Outside of a few UNESCO-listed, European open-air museums masquerading as urban centers, where does anyone still walk? Who admits to wasting hours thinking? The flâneur was always an outsider, but instead of being ahead of her time, now she’s trying to turn back the clock. Why isn’t she climbing the corporate ladder, taking courses in time management, squeezing minutes like blood from each day’s stone?
Who still looks at the world and not at a screen? Ali Smith’s short story “Being Quick,” from the recent collection “Naar de stad” (new short stories about city life, edited by Sanneke van Hassel and Annelies Verbeke), begins with a narrator who is and isn’t on her own: “I was on my way across King’s Cross station concourse dodging the crowds and talking to you on my mobile…” Anonymous in the city? Hardly. If Woolf went out to buy a pencil now, she’d probably make two phone calls and check her messages three times on the way.
If we were alone with our thoughts, we’d probably be nervous wrecks. The sketches by Lydia Davis in “Naar de stad” suggest that the modern, Western city is less emancipation machine than anxiety factory, a place that daunts its residents with so many possibilities and distractions that they have to take antidepressants to get by. And it only gets worse, according to the stories in “Naar de stad” that are set in Third World cities, or in the urban underground of illegality.
In a society individualized in ways Woolf couldn’t have imagined, Mrs. Dalloway’s freedom has been transformed into an endless series of choices like worms eating at our roots, cutting us away from our sense of place. The modern literary flâneur is more than anonymous, he or she is a displaced person: transnational, multiracial, post-colonial. He is the Nigerian-German-American narrator of Teju Cole’s “Open City,” the expat Dutchman of Joseph O’Neill’s “Netherland,” the “I” of the German-English writer W.G. Sebald.
She is the “I” of Mexican-Italian writer Valeria Luiselli’s novel “Papeles valsos” (“Sidewalks”), who quotes Walter Benjamin and Josef Brodsky while exploring Mexico City the postmodern way, by bicycle. “The flâneur on two wheels can maintain just the right distance to become […] both the city’s accomplice and its witness.” [translation JP] Luiselli even attempts a philosophy of airline travel, with its extra dimensions of takeoff and descent.
These writers mix genres as well as nationalities, combining fiction with a nonstop stream of dates, places, quotes, and historical facts, as if the life of cities, Woolf’s “bellow and uproar,” can best be understood by consulting Wikipedia. (Or maybe this is how the contemporary outsider expresses his loneliness and longing for connection: after all, what is the internet but a flânerie machine?) The internet dissolves the boundary between indoors and outdoors, experience and research, public encounter and private contemplation.
So in reading “Mrs. Dalloway,” with its forward-looking optimism, we find ourselves looking backwards, at a city that exists only in the imagination of the tourists and provincials who now throng city centers. Even in the most “livable” of cities, the actual inhabitants of the center are often being pushed out, their houses replaced by more profitable expat rentals and hotels, so that it’s the rare city-dweller who can still afford the privilege of walking to the store.
If you follow Clarissa Dalloway’s path on a sunny spring morning in 2013, what you encounter is the crowds thronging around her landmarks. At Big Ben, Russian couples pose for pictures. In Green Park, Italian schoolchildren crowd the paths to Buckingham Palace while a tour guide points to the empty flagstaff: the royal family are not at home.
The shop in Bond Street where Clarissa bought her flowers is now a branch of a designer clothing store. Up and down Europe’s most expensive street, the pedestrians wear jeans and sweatshirts, marking them, too, as tourists. (It’s around the corner on cheap Oxford Street that the crowds are dressed in short skirts, tights, saris, their Saturday shopping best.) We’re all flâneurs now, a mobile mass of international observers.
Yet with all our postmodern sophistication, we won’t find much to improve on the poetry of “Mrs. Dalloway”: the play with time and space, the creation of patterns out of the simplest elements of a bell ringing the hour or a tree outlined against the sky. Cole and Luiselli are masterful chroniclers of the contemporary city, but they’re subdued by the weight of history. Clarissa simply declares herself a citizen:
But she said, sitting on the bus going up Shaftesbury Avenue, she felt herself everywhere; not “here, here, here”; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere. She waved her hand, going up Shaftesbury Avenue. She was all that. So that to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places.
At moments like this, Woolf herself seems to look ahead to the virtual city. In “Mrs. Dalloway,” it’s not the people who inhabit the city. It’s the city that lives, that comes to life, in the mind of its inhabitants. We remake it every morning, the moment we step out our front door, the moment we think to look.
Trouw, May 11, 2013. Mrs. Dalloway (1925); Mevrouw Dalloway, reissued in a new Dutch translation by Boukje Verheij (Amsterdam: Athenaeum, 2013).