An amusing stroll through Paris Edmund White, author of A Boy's Own Story and a landmark biography of Jean Genet, has wandered Paris for 16 years, and seen it as only artists, and voyeurs, can. His The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris is a langorous intellectual indulgence. If you are willing to succumb, White writes, "You can find not one but several places to go ballroom dancing at five in the afternoon on a Tuesday, say. . . . A slightly nutty friend of mine in his twenties claimed that he used to go to the the dansant every afternoon at a major restaurant on the Boulevard Montparnasse where elderly ladies sent drinks to young gigolos, who then asked them to dance. During a spin across the basement floor, some interesting arrangements were worked out; my friend went home with one dowager and cleaned her apartment wearing nothing but a starched apron and earned a thousand francs."Such offhand entertainments bits of historical curiosity, ruminations, deliberate queerness and quintessential self-exposure are White's way of wandering through the Paris of his dreams. Part reality, part relativity, his Paris is ancient and ageless, cruel and coquettish. And so is he. He explains l'air du temps trends that are so pervasive that they overwhelm personal taste and good style and proceeds to flout it quietly but with conviction. He wanders St. Germain and the Palais Royale, which brings Colette to mind; he digresses into a character sketch, both acute and accommodating, about that contradictory icon. He takes us from from Josephine Baker to James Baldwin, dinner parties to Dreyfus, anti-Semitism to AIDS, royal crypts to restaurants.
In fact, if this intensely informed and wide-ranging conversational style seems like one huge digression, that is the precisely the point. A flaneur is a voyeur, a wanderer, an observer, a loiterer; his artistry is in observing life and making it his own. Baudelaire says the flaneur's "passion and creed is to wed the crowd . . . to take up residence in multiplicity, in whatever is seething, moving, evanescent and infinite: You're not at home, but you feel at home everywhere; you see everyone, you're at the center of everything yet you remain hidden from everybody." White is walking, wandering, observing, analyzing, selecting and seducing. The only shame is that The Flaneur is such a small book. Happily, this volume is only the first of a series from Bloomsbury called The Writer and the City. At one time, the vins du Paris were all from Champagne; but White is, despite his French literary awards, an American, and so, to honor him and his great Gothic city, I propose Iron Horse, a fine and appropriately iconoclastic California sparkling with a clean, stony undercurrent like that of water running over granite. Although all its sparklings are good, the blanc de blancs is a particular and reliable favorite one of the few ways I will drink California chardonnay anymore and generally available for under $20.
Eve Zibart is a restaurant critic for the Washington Post.