Sunday, January 20, 2013


"The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home."
                                             Charles Baudelaire

“Man as civilized being, as intellectual nomad, is again wholly microcosmic, wholly homeless, as free intellectually as hunter and herdsman were free sensually.”  
                                             Oswald Spengler

Flâneur. Derived from the French verb flâner, meaning “to saunter or lounge”, flâneur is a term traditionally understood to mean "stroller, idler, walker". As described on The Arcades Project website, he is typically an educated man and wealthy enough to spend his days strolling idly through the streets of Paris (or some other such city), probing his surroundings and making observations about people and places that might otherwise go unnoticed. He is “a narrator who is fluent in the hieroglyphic vocabulary of visual culture,” a voyeur with a “cool but curious eye”. Rootless, anonymous, an inveterate outsider, he is a man who, for all his refinement, for all his vanity, is wildly protean in nature, sometimes invisible, often solipsistic, degenerate, effete. He is a parasite, “dragging the crowd for intellectual food.” And how we envy him this, this indulgence of eye and heart and mind. From Charles Baudelaire, Georg Simmel, Marcel Proust, and James Joyce to Franz Hessel, Walter Benjamin, Juan Goytisolo, and Edmund White, intellectuals and writers alike have found themselves transfixed by the enigma of this distinctly modern, distinctly urban prowler.

The nameless 46 year-old narrator of Genazino’s short novel The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt is just such a man.  While not wealthy enough to support his penchant for wandering the streets of Frankfurt, he is lucky enough to be employed by the small but rapidly expanding Weisshuhn Shoe Factory as a tester of shoes! And so begins the irony, the humor, of this lightly, delightfully philosophical tale. “All you have to do is spend the whole day walking around in brand new shoes,” explains the narrator, “and then write as detailed a report as possible about your sensations while walking.” Troubled by his past, by failed relationships, by love, he lives his days in silent rebellion against what he calls his “unauthorized life”--the fact that he was born into the world without his consent. Yet he is no misanthrope--no Timon of Athens, no Schopenhauer.  As with all flâneurs he finds the city irresistible, drawn out of his apartment each day to wander its crowded streets, to examine its shops and restaurants, marveling like a child at the sights and sounds, and piecing them together as clues. For the details of urban life, he has a promiscuous eye (and nose), noting with interest, with pleasure, a woman in a wheelchair, a Mickey Mouse tie, the stench of “hairspray, gasoline, bratwurst, smoke and chicken excrement.” He marvels at a cockeyed dog.  In his ramblings through the city he notices a Japanese woman eating a peach, admires “an old cardboard trunk with a tin-plated handle”, observes an elderly gentleman in a restaurant who has dropped a potato on the floor. The “unlooked-at-people” hold a particular fascination for this man without qualities in his restless struggle to make sense of the city in which he swims, to discover the meaning of his aimless, lonely, fish-like life.

Wilhelm Genazino was born in Mannheim, Germany in 1943, has published numerous books, including eight novels, a trilogy, and two collections of essays.  His many literary honors include the Bremer Literaturpreis (1989), the Hans-Fallada-Preis (2003), and the Georg-Büchner-Preis (2004).  He lives in Frankfurt.  The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt was translated from the German by Philip Boehm and published in 2006 by New Directions Books, New York. 

Peter Adam Nash

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