La Folie Baudelaire (French title used for English translation)

Pros: occasional flashes that register

Cons: assumes possession of knowledge (and information) few have; chaotic (lack of) structure

I think that I know quite a lot about 19th-century French literature and painting, but not enough to evaluate how idiosyncratic are the assertions in Italian editor/writer Robert Calasso’s “La Folie Baudelaire” (translated from the Italian by Alistair McEwen with a lot of French and Latin left untranslated and the many images uncaptioned — information about them is pushed back to a list between the notes and the acknowledgments at the end).

It’s also been a long time since I read anything by Baudelaire (I know that I read Intimate Journals as well as The Flowers of Evil, am unsure if I ever read Paris Spleen) and recall little about his life other than trying to be a dandy under very straitened circumstances, his championing (and translating into French) of the work of Edgar Allan Poe, and the successful prosecution of Flowers of Evil as an “offense against public morals” (he was fined, not imprisoned).

french poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) photo by Etienne Carjat c. 1866

I am quite prepared to believe Calasso that Analogy was Baudelaire’s Muse, that he “always needed to work on preexisting material, some phantasm glimpsed in a gallery or a book or on the streets, as if writing were above all a task involving the transposition of forms from one register to another.”

Calasso launches a 100-plus-page ramble through the paintings primarily of Delacroix, Ingres, Degas, and Manet from Baudelaire’s 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life” and concludes with a chapter about the critics (and in Calasso’s view great writer) Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve that “naturally” leads to the author of “Contra Sainte-Beuve,” Marcel Proust). There’s also extended discussion of Rimbaud after he abandoned poetry for (shady) business in Africa, recurrent mentions of Chateaubriand, Mérimée, and Talleyrand. The latter was the launching point of Calasso’s earlier exploration of 19th-century French culture in La rovina di Kasch.

The book is more about the milieu of Baudelaire than about Baudelaire, and assumes far too much knowledge about 19th-century French culture than more than a few specialists in the Anglophone world have. At least readers can examine reproductions of some of the paintings to assess what Calasso says about them (what he says about Degas’s “Interior,” which I saw recently in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and about  Zola’s novel Thérese Raquin, which I recently wrote about inspires confidence that I provisionally extend to assertions I have no way of assessing without going to the works alluded to and occasionally discussed more than en passant).

Degas’s “Interieur” is darker; I have upped the lightness of my photograph to make what is in it more visible, though Calasso’s point is the emotional as well as physical distance between the woman who seems unaware of the man watching her (or is he looking at the open silk-lined case on the table between them rather than at her?)

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