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Baudelaire: To the flâneur born

La Folie Baudelaire - review.

La Folie Baudelaire
Roberto Calasso (translated by Alastair McEwen)
Allen Lane, 352pp, £35

The charm of Baudelaire is something most writers would give their eye teeth to be associated with. The poetry, a gripping mix of aesthetic refinement, physical torment and mystical self-transcendence, is inimitable. The prose meanwhile opens a window on mid-19th-century Paris – life on the streets is rendered in the kind of minute detail also found in the novels of Flaubert (who, like Baudelaire, was born in 1821).

The mingling of beauty and horror, of the pathetic and the obscene, became Baudelaire’s aesthetic trademark. He was the first flâneur, the city-dweller who is “interested in the whole world”. That quote is from what Roberto Calasso rightly deems Baudelaire’s finest prose work, “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863). His marvellous evocation of the painter Constantin Guys is of a dandy, a café-goer, a man who dislikes being called an artist and doesn’t sign his drawings but whose curiosity is the source of his genius. He is, Baudelaire writes, “a great lover of the crowd and of going incognito . . . who pushes his originality to the point of modesty . . . [R]ecently he asked me . . . to leave out his name ”.

Calasso’s best essays in La Folie Baudelaire send us back to this unique reinvention of creativity in the city to which Baudelaire signed his name. He was the prototype middle- class drop-out: self-impoverished, at war with his army general father, living rough and fond of dope. He took a gorgeous, voracious black mistress, a relationship that tormented him. He customised his clothes to show he was not bourgeois – he used sandpaper to give them a worn look. He was like some overdressed Francis of Assisi whose self-appointed to task was to love the ruined and the abandoned, the sick characters he found on Paris streets, women mostly. As he wrote, every night someone would die around him after the lamplighter had done his round. Calasso thinks it would be vulgar to inquire into Baudelaire’s psychology too deeply. He loves him for his electric, modern, nervous sensibility and praises him for representing everything that the Enlightenment, with its stress on progress and productivity, was not.

However, I wish I could be more admiring than I am. Calasso, the author of several acclaimed works perched on the border between fiction and essay, confounds even his most enthusiastic readers. What’s La Folie Baudelaire about? What kind of book is it? Didn’t the publishers think to give us just a tiny bit of help by way of an introduction, or notes? Not heading in any obvious direction, it’s a meditation on Baudelaire and his contempories, in which writers quote writers on writers. I knew the reference to Walter Benjamin but I needed to look up Adorno.

David Lodge noted years ago that the postmodern response to a text is another text, presumably to avoid seeming interventionist, didactic or judgemental in the elusive matter of truth. It’s also Calasso’s way. He believes that the artistic word exists to “resist the aggression of ideas” (hence his constant attacks on “the Enlightenment”). He wants to bypass the tyranny of the organising principle and somehow render experience more directly. He’s a kind of literary antiquarian, piling up borrowed and remembered phrases and images.

La Folie Baudelaire, printed on fine paper, contains much of interest, as well as handsome illustrations of Manet, Ingres and others. But it is obscure and, unlike the title of its opening essay, “The Natural Obscurity of Things”, the unnecessary obscurity is not helped by a translation that, having passed through Italian, French and English, is often ungrammatical and incomprehensible. (Just one example: Baudelaire did not write a poem entitled “To She Who is Too Gay”.) “Roberto Calasso is publisher of Adelphi”, reads the Italianate grammar of the English jacket. Adelphi, we note, is Calasso’s original publisher. The result, sadly, in English, is a kind of self-parodying continentalism for the coffee-table.

Lesley Chamberlain’s second novel “Anyone’s Game” is published by Harbour Books (£12)

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis