on 8 January 2003
A very useful introduction to Baudelaire's life and poetry.
The poetry quotations are presented in original French and translated (Graham Robb's valiant efforts - but which is the definitive Baudelaire in English?)as footnotes.
The poet appears as a mass of contradictions - impeccably dressed for example - and a blatant self-publicist - but essentially a genius, a genius with a sense of vocation which was to involve degrading expeditions through the seedoiest underbellies of French urban and Provincal life, all and ably and enjoyably described by the author.
This book will appeal to those wanting to know about the circumstances under which the poems were written rather than a detailed exposition of individual meanings.
on 20 February 2013
Charles Baudelaire was the consummate craftsman, whether composing a sonnet or concocting his dandified getup. And, on the basis of Claude Pichois's biography, it seems he also took the same care when annoying his enemies and dazzling his friends. But, of the many epithets that have been applied to this gloomy visionary, it is not Baudelaire's thoroughness but his self-mythologizing that has been the most persistent. It is Pichois's job, then, to disentangle the fact from the legend, and he largely succeeds; nevertheless, in doing so, he comes perilously close to writing the hagiography he claims to be avoiding.
Pichois's is an old-fashioned linear approach propped up by comprehensive contextual detail. It places Baudelaire squarely within his milieu, a child of revolution, and elucidates the numerous forces acting on him. The reader follows the aspiring poet as he mourns the loss of his father, gets expelled from school, spurns his mother's (and stepfather's) bourgeois respectability, blows his inheritance, avoids conscription, succumbs to syphilis, attempts suicide, cavorts with prostitutes, modernises poetry with Les Fleurs du Mal, drifts into ennui, and, finally, dies a painfully protracted death from syphilitic complications in 1867. It is both breathtaking and sad, a modern tragedy without redemption.
There are, however, some oddities. For example, within ten pages, it is stated that Baudelaire was born on both 21 and 9 April 1821. Then, later on, it is said the poet frequently referred to his illness as syphilis, but, according to Pichois, the disease was 'discovered and named only in 1905': is this not impossible? Another fault is Pichois's penchant for misleading and reductive statements: where's the evidence of Baudelaire's 'considerable fund of xenophobia and anti-Semitism' in this book? And was Louis-Ferdinand Celine nothing more than an 'anti-Semitic novelist'?
Unfortunately, Pichois's is a blinkered love, and even his prose is marked by his subject's dark imagery (the letters documenting Baudelaire's downfall proliferated 'like worms on a corpse') and grasping for epigrammatic universalities ('A great poet is also a great manipulator'). Nonetheless, for all their innocence, such instances prove just how much the great poet has greatly manipulated his biographer. Even in death, then, Baudelaire is cunning and duplicitous, craftily exerting his influence from beyond the grave; but, despite the book's depth, he's still an enigma, and that is just the way he wanted it.