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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