Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and Londonby Lauren Elkin
Amazon Best Books of the Month (March 2017)
The New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice
Financial Times, New Statesman and The Guardian Best Books of 2016
The flâneur is the quintessentially masculine figure of privilege and leisure who strides the capitals of the world with abandon. But it is/i>/b>/i>/i>/i>/b>/i>/b>
Amazon Best Books of the Month (March 2017)
The New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice
Financial Times, New Statesman and The Guardian Best Books of 2016
The flâneur is the quintessentially masculine figure of privilege and leisure who strides the capitals of the world with abandon. But it is the flâneuse who captures the imagination of the cultural critic Lauren Elkin. In her wonderfully gender-bending new book, the flâneuse is a “determined, resourceful individual keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city and the liberating possibilities of a good walk.” Virginia Woolf called it “street haunting”; Holly Golightly epitomized it in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; and Patti Smith did it in her own inimitable style in 1970s New York.
Part cultural meander, part memoir, Flâneuse takes us on a distinctly cosmopolitan jaunt that begins in New York, where Elkin grew up, and transports us to Paris via Venice, Tokyo, and London, all cities in which she’s lived. We are shown the paths beaten by such flâneuses as the cross-dressing nineteenth-century novelist George Sand, the Parisian artist Sophie Calle, the wartime correspondent Martha Gellhorn, and the writer Jean Rhys. With tenacity and insight, Elkin creates a mosaic of what urban settings have meant to women, charting through literature, art, history, and film the sometimes exhilarating, sometimes fraught relationship that women have with the metropolis.
Called “deliciously spiky and seditious” by The Guardian, Flâneuse will inspire you to light out for the great cities yourself.
"Absorbing . . . Elkin has an eye for the unexpected detail, as befits a flâneuse. . . It will be up to booksellers to figure out how to categorize her pastiche of travel writing, memoir, history and literary nonfiction. A reader, flaneusing along the bookshelves, will find in it some of the pleasures of each." Diane Johnson, The New York Times Book Review
“At a moment when women’s rights have come to significant national attention, Flâneuse also reads as a document of resilience, one that celebrates female figures fighting to be seen . . . Blending historical analysis, literary criticism, and memoir, Elkin seeks to re-define the concept of flânerie itself, and to reclaim the city for its women wanderers.” Arnav Adhikari, The Atlantic
"By focusing on six writers and artists . . . [Elkin's] book makes a forceful case for the genderless joy and vital importance of striking out for the territoryon foot . . . Flâneuse is a stimulating read whose itinerary ranges from wanderlust and space as a 'feminist issue' to self-definition in connection with a specific place." Heller McAlpin, Los Angeles Times
"Lauren Elkin brings breadth and depth to a cocktail party crowded with genius . . . Her historical and literary portraits take their power from her talent for seeing aslant, making the familiar strange and vice versa . . . Ms. Elkin’s clear-eyed view of her own flâneuserie is one of the charms of a book that is pedestrian in the best possible sense: It makes you want to walk.” Jane Kamensky, Wall Street Journal
"[An] eclectic and absorbing memoir and cultural history . . . The book strikes a rewarding balance between present and past, as it establishes and illustrates the much-needed definition of the flaneuse as "a determined, resourceful individual keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city, and the liberating possibilities of a good walk." Kathleen Rooney, Chicago Tribune
“An ambitious, powerful meditation on women in the urban space . . . Cities, in Elkin's rich, intelligent prose, become not static places that lend themselves to unidirectional efforts of observation, but whole dynamic languagesinterconnected networks of constantly changing symbols . . . Elkin's book is more than just a secret history of all the women who have illicitly occupied space. It's also a revelation of just how rich, and full of meaning, that space can beif you know how to be in it." Tara Isabella Burton, Village Voice
“An impressive and wide-ranging study . . . Walking after reading Elkin’s book felt more greatly imbued with both intellectual purpose and gratitude, my own attentiveness to my surroundings heightened. I walked with a better understanding of my place within an intellectual sisterhood of wandering women, flanked by a ghostly girl squad of writers, artists, and creators.” Matilda Rossetti, The Rumpus
"Sparkling and original . . . [Elkin's] literary peregrinations defy boundaries, fusing cultural history, criticism, psycho-geography and memoir. Both playful and bracingly intelligent, Elkin’s elegant prose unfurls a portrait of the writer as an urban woman. . . With perhaps an eerie prescience, Flâneuse examines the interrelationships of city, self and world." Marian Ryan, Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Flâneuse is a deeply pleasurable book, whether you are a man or a woman, whether you know these cities (or books, or writers, or artists) or not. You will see these streets anew, just as if you were a flâneur in a New York neighborhood or along a canal in Venice. There is always something more to explore, just around the next corneror on the next page." A.V. Club
“In her richly evocative and absorbing debut, cultural critic Elkin homes in on the female version of the flaneur . . . In this insightful mix of cultural history and memoir, Elkin emerges at the protagonist as she mines her personal journey from the suburbs of Long Island to her current home in Paris.” Publishers Weekly
"Surely women also strolled and observed, Elkin thought, coining the term flâneuse and embarking on a gloriously rambling quest to celebrate women worthy of this designation . . . Elkin shares her findings in a smart and shimmering mix of her own painful and exhilarating adventures . . . [She] concludes her splendidly discursive homage to intrepid women walkers with the sobering reminder that, in many places, “a woman still can’t walk in the city the way a man can.” Booklist
"I've been waiting for years to see the history of women walkers in the city added to the critical literature of the flaneurand here, in Lauren Elkin's really smart and lovely book, it is." Vivian Gornick
“An appealing blend of memoir, scholarship, and cultural criticism . . . Elkin's own story runs through the text like a luminous thread. She tells us the woman-in-the-street stories of Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, George Sand, Sophie Calle, Agnès Varda, and Martha Gellhorn, but all sorts of other cultural figures appear, including Barthes, Rilke, Baudelaire, Hemingway, Derrida, Dickens, and numerous others . . . Enlightening walks through cities, cultural history, and a writer's heart and soul.” Kirkus
"This is a book about wandering women, the author included, who build relationships with their cities by walking through them . . . Women can and do make feminist statements simply by strolling through their stomping grounds; Elkin creates an interesting and inarguable case for this. She, too, is a wanderer and provides compelling anecdotes about her own journeys, interspersed with those of literary heavy-hitters George Sand, Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, and others . . . This is ultimately a celebration of women. You'll want to take a stroll by the end.” Library Journal
“Wonderful . . . A joyful genealogy of the female urban walker . . . The book’s narrative meanders brilliantly and appropriately across several time periods at once . . . Elkin’s flâneuse does not simply wander aimlessly, any more than Elkin does herself in this elegant book: she uses her reflection to question, challenge and create anew the life that she observes.” Lara Feigel, The Guardian
“Flâneuse is not simply a reclaiming of space, but also of a suppressed intellectual and cultural history . . . Finding ways to reframe images of women walking and to reverse male gazes, Flâneuse builds on recent work by . . . Rebecca Solnit and the artist Laura Oldfield Ford, among others, with striking intellectual vigour and clear, enrapturing prose.” Sandeep Parmar, Financial Times
“An intense meditation on what it means to be a woman and walk out in the world . . . [Flâneuse] encourages its readers to lace up their shoes and go for a walk . . . Elkin lets the reader become a companion to many women who have thought seriously about the relationship between a woman and the path she chooses to tread.” Erica Wagner, New Statesman
“Engaging, inspiring and vigorous . . . Buy it, read it, talk about it. And carry it with you in your mind when you next go walking in the city.” Matthew Adams, The National
"Deliciously spiky and seditious, [Elkin] takes her readers on a rich, intelligent and lively meander through cultural history, biography, literary criticism, urban topography and memoir . . . I defy anyone to read this celebratory study and not feel inspired to take to the streets in one way or another." Lucy Scholes, The Observer (London)
This is a book about wandering women, the author included, who build relationships with their cities by walking through them. Anyone who has taken a stroll down a city street knows how visceral the experience can be (as long as you're paying attention), but this is uniquely true for women, who have never had the advantage of a covert relationship with their city sidewalks. Unlike men, women are singularly visible, whether they were breaking norms of yesteryear by drifting without a chaperone, or are clipping around New York in modern-day heels. Women can and do make feminist statements simply by strolling through their stomping grounds; Elkin creates an interesting and inarguable case for this. She, too, is a wanderer and provides compelling anecdotes about her own journeys, interspersed with those of literary heavy-hitters George Sand, Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, and others. VERDICT At times the narrative feels dense and academic (with a hefty bibliography), but this is ultimately a celebration of women. You'll want to take a stroll by the end.—Erin Entrada Kelly, Philadelphia
An American freelance essayist and translator living in Paris debuts with an appealing blend of memoir, scholarship, and cultural criticism.White Review contributing editor Elkin presents a feminine alteration of the French word flâneur ("one who wanders aimlessly") and uses both her own experiences and those of some noted writers and other artists to illustrate her principal thesis: that women have long needed to be as free to roam about, geographically and artistically, as men have been. "The portraits I paint here attest that the flâneuse is not merely a female flâneur," writes the author, "but a figure to be reckoned with, and inspired by, all on her own….She is a determined, resourceful individual keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city, and the liberating possibilities of a good walk." Elkin's own story runs through the text like a luminous thread. She tells us the woman-in-the-street stories of Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, George Sand, Sophie Calle, Agnès Varda, and Martha Gellhorn, but all sorts of other cultural figures appear, including Barthes, Rilke, Baudelaire, Hemingway, Derrida, Dickens, and numerous others. Elkin is frank about her own life, discussing a long, failed relationship—following him, she moved to Tokyo, where her initial unhappiness in the city transformed to deep affection—her ambivalence about leaving one city she loved, New York, which is near family and friends, for another she came to love even more: Paris. (She has become a French citizen.) Elkin also lived for a time in London and Venice, but though she loved both places, it is Paris now owning her heart. The pattern of her principal chapters is fairly steady: her own story mixed with sometimes overly detailed accounts of a notable woman associated with the city. These minibiographies and exegeses of the artists' work are occasionally heavier than casual readers may be willing to bear, but for the patient, there are the bright rewards of insight and new information. Enlightening walks through cities, cultural history, and a writer's heart and soul.
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Read an Excerpt
Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London
By Lauren Elkin
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2016 Lauren Elkin
All rights reserved.
Where did I first come across that word, flâneur, so singular, so elegant and French with its arched â and its curling eur? I know it was when I was studying in Paris, back in the 1990s, but I don't think I found it in a book. I didn't do much required reading, that semester. I can't say for sure, which is to say I became a flâneur before I knew what one was, wandering the streets around my school, located as American universities in Paris must be, on the Left Bank.
From the French verb flâner, the flâneur, or 'one who wanders aimlessly', was born in the first half of the nineteenth century, in the glass-and-steel-covered passages of Paris. When Haussmann started slicing his bright boulevards through the dark uneven crusts of houses like knives through a city of cindered chèvre, the flâneur wandered those too, taking in the urban spectacle. A figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention, the flâneur understands the city as few of its inhabitants do, for he has memorised it with his feet. Every corner, alleyway and stairway has the ability to plunge him into rêverie. What happened here? Who passed by here? What does this place mean? The flâneur, attuned to the chords that vibrate throughout his city, knows without knowing.
In my ignorance, I think I thought I invented flânerie. Coming from suburban America, where people drive from one place to another, walking for no particular reason was a bit of an eccentric thing to do. I could walk for hours in Paris and never 'get' anywhere, looking at the way the city was put together, glimpsing its unofficial history here and there, a bullet in the facade of an hôtel particulier, leftover stencilling way up on the side of a building for a flour company or a newspaper that no longer existed (which some inspired graffiti artist had used as an invitation to add his own work) or a row of cobblestones revealed by roadworks, several layers below the crust of the current city, slowly rising ever upward. I was on the lookout for residue, for texture, for accidents and encounters and unexpected openings. My most meaningful experience with the city was not through its literature, its food or its museums, not even through the soul-scarring affair I carried on in a garret near the Bourse, but through all that walking. Somewhere in the 6th arrondissement I realised I wanted to live in a city for the rest of my life, and specifically, in the city of Paris. It had something to do with the utter, total freedom unleashed from the act of putting one foot in front of the other.
I wore a groove into the Boulevard Montparnasse as I came and went between my flat on the avenue de Saxe and school on the rue de Chevreuse. I learned non-textbook French from the names of the restaurants in between: Les Zazous (named for a kind of jazzy 1940s hepcat in a plaid blazer and a quiff), Restaurant Sud-Ouest & Cie, which taught me the French equivalent of '& Co.', and from a bakery called Pomme de pain I learned the word for 'pine cone', pomme de pin, though I never learned why that was a pun worth making. I bought orange juice on the way to class every day at a pretzel shop called Duchesse Anne and wondered who she was and what was her relationship to pretzels. I pondered the distorted French conception of American geography that resulted in a TexMex restaurant called Indiana Café. I walked past all the great cafés lining the boulevard, La Rotonde, Le Select, Le Dôme and La Coupole, watering holes to generations of American writers in Paris, whose ghosts hunched under café awnings, unimpressed with the way the twentieth century had turned out. I crossed over the rue Vavin, with its eponymous café, where all the cool lycéens went when they got out of school, assertive cigarette smokers with sleeves too long for their arms, shod in Converse sneakers, boys with dark curls and girls with no make-up.
Soon, emboldened, I wandered off into the streets shooting out from the Jardin de Luxembourg, a few minutes' walk from school. I found myself up near the church of Saint-Sulpice, which was under renovation then, and, like the Tour Saint-Jacques, had been for decades. No one knew if or when the scaffolding around the towers would ever come down. I would sit at the Café de la Mairie on Place Saint-Sulpice and watch the world go by: the skinniest women I'd ever seen wearing linen clothing that would be frumpy in New York but in Paris seemed unreplicably chic, nuns in twos and threes, yuppie mothers who let their small boys wee on tree trunks. I wrote down everything I saw, not knowing yet that the French writer Georges Perec had also sat in that square, in that same café, during a week in 1974, and noted the same comings and goings – taxis, buses, people eating pastries, the way the wind was blowing – all in an attempt to get his readers to notice the unexpected beauty of the quotidian, what he called the infraordinary: what happens when nothing is happening. I didn't know, either, that Nightwood, which would become one of my favourite books, was set at that café and in the hotel upstairs. Paris was just beginning to contain – and to generate – all of my most significant intellectual and personal reference points. We had only just met.
As an English major I had wanted to go to London, but thanks to a technicality wound up in Paris instead. Within a month I was transfixed. The streets of Paris had a way of making me stop in my tracks, my heart suspended. They seemed saturated with presence, even if there was no one there but me. These were places where something could happen, or had happened, or both; a feeling I could never have had at home in New York, where life is inflected with the future tense. In Paris I would linger outside, imagining stories to go with streets. In those six months, the streets were transformed from places in between home and wherever I was going into a great passion. I drifted wherever they looked interesting, lured by the sight of a decaying wall, or colourful window boxes, or something intriguing down at the other end, which might be as pedestrian as a perpendicular street. Anything, any detail that suddenly loosened itself, would draw me towards it. Every turn I made was a reminder that the day was mine and I didn't have to be anywhere I didn't want to be. I had an astonishing immunity to responsibility, because I had no ambitions at all beyond doing only that which I found interesting.
I remember when I'd take the métro two stops because I didn't realise how close together everything was, how walkable Paris was. I had to walk around to understand where I was in space, how places related to each other. Some days I'd cover five miles or more, returning home with sore feet and a story or two for my room-mates. I saw things I'd never seen in New York. Beggars (Roma, I was told) who knelt rigidly in the street, heads bowed, holding signs asking for money, some with children, some with dogs; homeless people living in tents, under stairways, under arches. Every quaint Parisian nook had its corresponding misery. I turned off my New York apathy and gave what I could. Learning to see meant not being able to look away; to walk in the streets of Paris was to walk the thin line of fate that divided us from each other.
And then, somehow, by chance, I learned that all that walking around, feeling intensely, constantly moved to scribble what I saw and felt into the floppy notebooks I bought at the Saint-Michel bookstore Gibert Jeune – all that I did instinctively, others had done to such an extent that there was a word for it. I was a flâneur.
Or rather – a good student of French, I converted the masculine noun to a feminine one – a flâneuse.
* * *
Flâneuse [flanne-euhze], noun, from the French. Feminine form of flâneur [flanne-euhr], an idler, a dawdling observer, usually found in cities.
That is an imaginary definition. Most French dictionaries don't even include the word. The 1905 Littré does make an allowance for 'flâneur, -euse'. Qui flâne. But the Dictionnaire Vivant de la Langue Française defines it, believe it or not, as a kind of lounge chair.
Is that some kind of joke? The only kind of curious idling a woman does is lying down?
This usage (slang of course) began around 1840 and peaked in the 1920s, but continues today: search for 'flâneuse' on Google Images and the word brings up a drawing of George Sand, a picture of a young woman sitting on a Parisian bench and a few images of outdoor furniture.
* * *
Back in New York for my final year of university, I enrolled in a seminar called 'The Man of the Crowd, the Woman in the Street'. It was the second half of the title that interested me: I was hoping to build a genealogy, or a sisterhood, for this eccentric new hobby of mine. The notion of the flâneur as someone who has slipped the bounds of responsibility appealed to me. But I wanted to see where a woman might fit into the cityscape.
As I began researching my senior thesis on Zola's Nana and Dreiser's Sister Carrie, I was startled to find that scholars have mostly dismissed the idea of a female flâneur. 'There is no question of inventing the flâneuse,' wrote Janet Wolff in an oft-quoted essay on the subject; 'such a character was rendered impossible by the sexual divisions of the nineteenth century.' The great feminist art historian Griselda Pollock agreed: 'There is no female equivalent of the quintessential masculine figure, the flâneur: there is not and could not be a female flâneuse.' 'The urban observer [...] has been regarded as an exclusively male figure,' noted Deborah Parsons. 'The opportunities and activities of flânerie were predominantly the privileges of the man of means, and it was hence implicit that the "artist of modern life" was necessarily the bourgeois male.' In Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust: A History of Walking, she turns away from her 'peripatetic philosophers, flâneurs, or mountaineers' to ask 'why women were not out walking too'.
This woman in the street, according to the critics, was most likely a streetwalker. So I did a bit more reading and came upon two problems with this idea of the flâneuse as prostitute. Firstly there were women on the street who weren't selling their bodies. And secondly there wasn't anything like the flâneur's freedom in the street prowler's prowl; prostitutes didn't have free range over the city. Her movements were strictly controlled: by the mid-nineteenth century there were all sorts of laws dictating where and between which hours she could pick up men. Her clothing was strictly policed; she had to register with the city and visit the sanitary police at regular intervals. This was no kind of freedom.
Our most ready-to-hand sources for what the streetscape looked like in the nineteenth century are male, and they see the city in their own ways. We cannot take their testimony as objective truth; they noticed certain things and made assumptions about them. Baudelaire's mysterious and alluring passante, immortalised in his poem 'To a (Female) Passer-by', is generally thought to have been a woman of the night, but for him she is not even a real woman, only his fantasy come to life:
The deafening street roared around me
Tall, slender, in heavy mourning, majestic in her grandeur
A woman walked past me, her sumptuous hand
Lifting and swinging her hem as she went.
Swift and graceful, with legs like a statue's
Twitching like a madman, I drank in
Her eyes, a pallid sky where storms are born
the sweetness that charms and the pleasure that kills.
Baudelaire can barely gauge her: she is too fast (though somehow, at the same time, statuesque). He is disinclined to consider who she might actually be, where she might be coming from, where she might be going. For him she is the keeper of mystery, with the power to charm and to poison.
Of course the reason the flâneuse was discounted from histories of city walking had to do with the social conditions of women in the nineteenth century, when our ideas about the flâneur were codified. The earliest mention of a flâneur is in 1585, possibly borrowed from the Scandinavian noun flana, 'a person who wanders'. A person – not necessarily a male one. It doesn't really catch on until the nineteenth century, and this time it's gendered. In 1806, the flâneur took the form of 'M. Bonhomme', a man about town who comes from sufficient wealth to have the time to wander the city at will, hanging out in cafés, and watching the various inhabitants of the city at work and at play. He is interested in gossip and fashion, but not particularly in women. In an 1829 dictionary, a flâneur is a man 'who likes to do nothing', who relishes idleness. Balzac's flâneur took two main forms, that of the common flâneur, happy to aimlessly wander the streets, and the artist flâneur, who poured his experiences of the city into his work. This was the more miserable type of flâneur, as Balzac notes in his 1837 novel César Birotteau, 'just as frequently a desperate man as an idle one'.
Baudelaire's flâneur is an artist who seeks 'refuge in the crowd', modelled on his favourite painter, Constantin Guys, a man who ambled about town, who might have fallen into obscurity had Baudelaire not made him famous. Edgar Allan Poe's short story 'The Man in the Crowd' opens up other questions: is the flâneur the person who follows or is followed? Does he blend and elude, or step back and write what he sees? In French the words for 'I am' and 'I follow' are identical: je suis. 'Tell me who you follow and I'll tell you who you are,' wrote André Breton in Nadja. Even for the male flâneur, flânerie does not universally signify freedom and leisure; Flaubert's version of flânerie reflects his own feelings of social discomfiture. In the early nineteenth century, the flâneur was compared to a policeman. In Québec, says a friend who's spent time there, a flâneur is a kind of con man.
Both surveyor and surveyed, the flâneur is a beguiling but empty vessel, a blank canvas onto which different eras have projected their own desires and anxieties. He appears when and how we want him to. There are many contradictions built into the idea of the flâneur, though we may not realise it when we talk about him. We think we know what we mean, but we don't. The same could be said of the flâneuse.
In 1888 Amy Levy wrote, 'The female club-lounger, the flâneuse of St James Street, latch-key in pocket and eye -glasses on the nose, remains a creature of the imagination.' Fair enough. But surely there have always been plenty of women in cities, and plenty of women writing about cities, chronicling their lives, telling stories, taking pictures, making films, engaging with the city in any way they can – including Levy herself. The joy of walking in the city belongs to men and women alike. To suggest that there couldn't be a female version of the flâneur is to limit the ways women have interacted with the city to the ways men have interacted with the city. We can talk about social mores and restrictions, but we cannot rule out the fact that women were there; we must try to understand what walking in the city meant to them. Perhaps the answer is not to attempt to make a woman fit a masculine concept, but to redefine the concept itself.
If we tunnel back, we find there always was a flâneuse passing Baudelaire in the street.
* * *
If we read what women had to say for themselves in the nineteenth century, we do find that bourgeois women out in public ran all sorts of risks to their virtue and their reputations; to go out in public alone was to risk disgrace. Upper-class ladies displayed themselves in the Bois de Boulogne in their open carriages, or took chaperoned constitutionals in the park. (The woman in the closed carriage was a figure of some suspicion, as the famous carriage scene in Madame Bovary attests.) The distinct social stakes for an independent young woman of the late nineteenth century are made very clear in the eight volumes of the diaries of Marie Bashkirtseff (abridged and published in English under the incredible title I Am the Most Interesting Book of All), which recount her transformation from cosseted young Russian aristocrat to successful artist, showing her work at the Paris Salon a mere two and a half years after she started seriously studying painting, until her death from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five. In January 1879 she wrote in her journal:
I long for the freedom to go out alone: to go, to come, to sit on a bench in the Jardin des Tuileries, and especially to go to the Luxembourg, to look at the decorated store windows, to enter churches and museums, and to stroll in the old streets in the evenings. This is what I envy. Without this freedom one cannot become a great artist.
Excerpted from Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin. Copyright © 2016 Lauren Elkin. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Meet the Author
Lauren Elkin's essays have appeared in many publications, including The New York Times Book Review, frieze, and The Times Literary Supplement, and she is a contributing editor at The White Review. A native New Yorker, she moved to Paris in 2004. Currently living on the Right Bank after years on the Left, she can generally be found ambling around Belleville.
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