Beautiful Losers: The Flaneur in St. John's Literature

By Chafe, Paul | Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Beautiful Losers: The Flaneur in St. John's Literature


Chafe, Paul, Newfoundland and Labrador Studies


THOUGH MANY OF THE WORKS produced by Newfoundland novelists focus on either the frontier-like Newfoundland of the past, or the simple outport existence (or both), most of these authors are modern urbanites: both Wayne Johnston and Michael Winter divide their time between St. John's and Toronto, Michael Crummey and Joan Clark live in St. John's, and Patrick Kavanagh lives in Ottawa. Recent award-winning novels such as Lisa Moore's Alligator or Edward Riche's The Nine Planets have more in common with the (sub)urban fictions of Don DeLillo or Richard Ford than with any traditional literary depiction of Newfoundland. Paul Bowdring's The Night Season (1997) and Michael Winter's This All Happened (2000) are two of the first truly contemporary St. John's novels. Bowdring's scholarly protagonist and Winter's would-be novelist narrator are filled with angst, loss, and nostalgia for their own mistakes and missed opportunities, neither of which are connected to a particular Newfoundland sense of longing. Unlike Johnston's Fielding, it is procrastination, not Confederation, that determines the fates and failings of these characters. The narratives of Bowdring's Will Wiseman and Winter's Gabriel English offer the reader a glimpse into a new and different breed of fictional Newfoundlander--not the struggling settler or oppressed outporter but the urban idler. If The Great Gatsby is a portrait of the lives of New York's idle rich in the 1920s, then This All Happened and The Night Season depict the existences of a far more rare and interesting collection of individuals--the St. John' s idle poor, or at the very least, the idle lower middle class.

Both novels revolve around liberally educated, artistic urbanites living in downtown St. John's. These characters are content to subsist on government grants, odd jobs, and the good will of their fellows. Their lives seem to revolve around hours of contemplation (as close to work as these characters come), short excursions outside the city, avoiding those they may have offended or slept with (or both), and meeting nightly at a pub or cultural event--be it a "folk night," public lecture, poetry reading, or gallery opening. Though Winter claims his book to be "a literary tableau of Newfoundland life" (vii), both novels and their characters are rooted in St. John's--any forays into rural Newfoundland reveal these characters to be recreational campers at best, unprepared and unable to exist in the celebrated Newfoundland environment that still defines them. The Newfoundland narrators of these novels are of the city: they live in it, they observe it, they read and write it, and--most notably--they spend a large portion of their time strolling through it. It is in this respect that these new Newfoundlanders have much in common with one of the more interesting creations of modernity--the flaneur.

The flaneur has its origins in the works of Walter Benjamin, and in particular in his Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism and The Arcades Project. According to Benjamin, the street becomes a dwelling for the flaneur: "he is as much at home among the facades of houses as a citizen is in his four walls" (Baudelaire 37). The flaneur is a man of some means, most likely bourgeois, for he can afford to spend his days walking in the city, avoiding the life of labour. Though he walks the same streets as the homeless "rag-pickers" that inhabit Benjamin's city, he is not one of them, for he can easily enter any cafe, shop, or arcade district. Yet like the rag-picker, he is a scavenger, a parasite of the city. Though his walk through the city may lack the focus of the homeless man hunting and begging for food, he is dependent on what he finds during his stroll to survive. During his ambling, the flaneur will make the observations or formulate the ideas that will maintain his leisurely existence: "Basic to flanerie, among other things, is the idea that the fruits of idleness are more precious than the fruits of labour. …

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