A City Walk Novel Pays homage to the Flâneurs of the Past

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TO WALK ALONE IN A Crowd
by Antonio Muñoz Molina
Translated by Guillermo Bleichmar

The flâneur is literature’s slowest radical. A writer goes around, looks at things, writes about them. Our lives are busy with activities, but the flâneur is just watching. Our stories are full of plot and characters, but flanker argues that paying attention is all literature has to do. The flâneur encounters the city in both space and time as the people and places before it and all the history that preceded it form a map of what it means to be alive when added to the flâneur’s own thoughts and experiences.

The eponymous narrator of Spanish novelist Antonio Muñoz Molina’s “Walking Alone in the Crowd” seeks to create such a map for our time, a book of watching and thinking that is also a tribute to the great walking writers of the past. . His personal canon includes Poe, Melville, Baudelaire, De Quincey, Pessoa, and Walter Benjamin, not all flâneurs in his writings, but a “literary traveller”, each in his own way choosing to participate in observing life.

For the narrator of Muñoz Molina, flânerie It is becoming a multi-year project. It will travel through various cities: Madrid and Paris in Part 1; New York is in Episode 2. In her handbag she will watch and listen, “filled with pencils from the first page to the last page, clippings, headlines, notebooks filled with old newspaper articles or brochures and glossy advertisements from fashion magazines.” From this debris he will make a modern book of the city, a scrapbook of contemporary life. The result is a 400-page collage of personal observations, descriptions of the city, excerpts from overheard conversations, biographical illustrations of writers and artists, environmental facts, and advertising slogans, collected in serial vignettes ranging in length from one paragraph to several pages. .

Muñoz Molina isn’t the only contemporary writer to update the flâneur project — Lauren Elkin has written extensively about the female flâneur or flaneuse, for example – but their continued call to history of such writings shows how times have changed. Benjamin’s “Arcades Project,” which began in 1927, is filled with scholarly quotes and wisdom, while Muñoz Molina’s pages are filled with advertising junk that bombards us every day. Where in the past flaneurs were almost invariably addicted to one type of drug or another, today “urban hallucinations no longer need to arise from the mind, because they are made objectively accessible on thousands of screens at the same time.” Today’s readers have changed, too, and will likely be more wary of the cultural biases of this narrator’s gaze—which he chose to see, which authors he spoke of—or as the self-proclaimed “restless archaeologist of the present.”

There are plenty of excellent passages, informative biographical sketches about the lives of his favorite authors, or sensitive thoughts about his beloved wife. And Guillermo Bleichmar’s translation is consistently elegant. But there are too many paragraphs describing his pens and his favorite cafe, too many environmental disasters lined up as if we didn’t know about them. Too much simply points to facts that we’ve all already seen. Where Benjamin fuels the energy of his writings with Baudelaire’s passions and inventions, and Pessoa’s with his gripping voice, Muñoz Molina’s narrator seems content to catalogue, as if writing something was enough to make it interesting.

The narrator overhears a man in a cafe reminiscent of TS Eliot 100 years ago saying, “The great poem of this century can only be written by being rejected.” This is an increasingly urgent project as garbage continues to pile up, but so does the need for imagination to turn garbage into something that will motivate us.

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