Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

La Folie Baudelaire, by Roberto Calasso – a reader’s progress report

9780241957561When I hailed this book in such a gung-ho way at the beginning of the week with ‘Bring it on’ I little knew that by the time I came to write my piece I’d have spent time thinking ‘Take it away’. That was just a phase, so here I am after all! I had been circling this book warily in Hatchard’s bookshop for some time, until the last time I saw it beckoning me from a display stand I decided to buy it. The reviews of it have been stunning, and the most alluring quotes from them adorn the cover. The prospect of losing myself in the world of Baudelaire was very attractive, as it made me feel young again, studying Les Fleurs Du Mal, Baudelaire’s scandalous collection of poems, at the age of 19. This was just the right age to be introduced to the splendid Franglais word (and concept) Spleen, Baudelaire’s stock-in-trade, that carefully calibrated mixture of ennui, melancholy, satiety and alienation, secure in the knowledge that, having feasted on these heady ideas and copied favourite lines and stanzas out on rose-coloured deckle edged paper to stick on my pinboard, my sunny life, happy friends and less rarified pleasures would still be there for me when I emerged. I found my old copy with all my scribbled clunky paraphrases and underlinings (goodness knows what rubbish I wrote in my essays) and marvelled at how much I still remembered, how rapidly it took me back. It helps that Baudelaire’s poems invoke all the senses, in their light and dark moods, and drag one back into his world with all the immediacy of sight, sound, scent and touch.

So, I started reading La Folie Baudelaire full of optimism, and yes, as advertised, found myself lost in its world. But the deeper into it I got, the harder I found it to work out what to say to tempt a potential reader, as my own reading was so autobiographical. This is a book in which the author uncompromisingly pursues his own programme, and does not stop to see how well his readers are keeping up. I’d had a little madeleine moment recently when I read Edmund White’s connoisseur’s account of Baudelaire’s flânerie in his wonderful little book The Flâneur. So – a highly praised book that promises to draw the reader into Baudelaire’s world – what could be better? Especially one that glances at the poetry, but promises to delve more deeply into his interaction with the French art world and the artists he censured and praised, an area of his writing that I do not know so well. Answer: potentially not a lot could be better. But I consider I have barely skimmed the surface of it, and can do no more than tell you what the challenges and rewards have been so far.

This is not a conventional biography, nor a conventional work of criticism. I have stumbled inadvertently into the middle of a cultural project, and so I have a lot of work still to do to make sense of it. Roberto Calasso (unknown to me hitherto) is an Italian critic, cultural commentator and editor. La Folie Baudelaire is the last but one volume in a life’e work, a 7-volume conspectus of culture, embracing Europe and Asia, art, music and literature. None of this is clear from the book in my hand, but it does explain the very first thing that excited me about the book: it plunges straight into its subject – no introduction, preface, foreword – nothing to prepare the reader who has not been on the journey so far. I thought that was tremendous! What a hero. But challenging – it does mean that I had to learn from scratch Calasso’s approach to the matters he has in hand. He approaches his subject tangentially. Shreds of Baudelaire’s life and thought emerge through anecdotes, woven into deeper studies of other figures who connect with his life and work; in this case the artists whose work he supported or attacked, the other critics who supported or attacked him. His family and social circle likewise appear as threads running through these themes.

Calasso takes for granted the known biographical and historical facts; he specialises in the lesser known, the undiscovered, the overlooked. Reading the book means following his train of thought (while marvelling at his breathtaking erudition). Sometimes the train rushes along the rails and over the points, sometimes it stops and enables the reader to look very long and hard at the view. The narrative switches perspective from time to time, and to let one’s eye glide over a paragraph is to wonder how we stopped being with Ingres and started being with Delacroix, or even Baudelaire again (I am so glad I have been in training by getting to grips with Mrs Dalloway – very helpful in this instance!). But I have found the reviews to be right: I thought for many pages it would not happen, I was having to work so hard, I was within an ace of giving this book up, but before long I did find myself beguiled into Baudelaire’s beautiful, sordid, slightly gamey milieu and gulping down new facts, new insights, new connections. I did not get what I expected, but what I did find was new and intriguing. Just to give an example, a discovery that I am describing here out of context: on the cover of the book is a grainy image. It is a daguerrotype of a painting on an easel in an artist’s studio, with a glimpse of another painting behind it. The painting on the easel is of a nude woman, lying down, part-facing the artist, in a pose reminiscent of but not exactly the same as the later painting by Manet, L’Olympia. It is an unknown painting by Ingres, whose studio is identified by the glimpse of a known painting behind it. The painting is of Ingres’s first wife, Marie Chapelle, and Ingres made the painting disappear when he married his second wife. But he kept hidden this daguerrotype, discovered comparatively recently and long after his death. Calasso gives us this intriguing wisp of biography that leads to a commentary on the innovation of this particular pose and its influence on later treatment of the nude female body. This is just one example of the changes of pace – an anecdote rushes the reader along with the excitement of discovery before a pause to go much deeper into the critical meaning of it.

So, this book is hard for me to recommend right now, but I must have a go. It is uncompromising, assured, arcane, meandering, name-dropping, controversial, anecdotal – not an easy read, but challenging and potentially rewarding. Its sense of meandering where it will belies a strong grip on structure, but it is a structure controlled by Calasso’s purpose and the connections he wishes to make. It is not the book to read first about Baudelaire and his world, or if it is, there are many gaps to fill. As a reader I had to decide whether to keep Wikipedia and the OED at my elbow, to look up the unknown characters and the unknown (English) words (I am not going to give examples and excite the pity of VL readers who have them in their daily vocabulary…), or just to immerse myself and let the book take me where it will. I chose the latter – I can always go back to Wikipedia at leisure if it really matters, and it is in the pace and idiosyncrasy of the text that any pleasure in reading it lies. I am not in a position to read this in the original language, and I pay tribute to Alistair McEwen’s translation that is unafraid of the complexities, rips along and does not get in the way of the reader (except for those unknown words, which I’m sure are standing in for equally eclectic Italian ones).

Roberto Calasso: La Folie Baudelaire. Translated by Alistair McEwen. Pbk. London: Penguin Books, 2014. 351pp
ISBN13 9780241957561

3 comments on “La Folie Baudelaire, by Roberto Calasso – a reader’s progress report

  1. Kate
    September 11, 2015

    That was exhausting! There is no way i would even go near that book, but I do admire you for writing so enthusiastically about it.

  2. Hilary
    September 11, 2015

    What intrigues me from a quasi-professional point of view is the way the book is packaged and marketed. It is not an academic text. It is an attractive Penguin with a silky cover and a comforting orange spine. It is bedecked with quotes from ecstatic reviews – ‘Seductive’ (Telegraph), ‘Dazzling’ (Guardian), ‘Come and get it’ (Financial Times) (I jest). And yet it is a really difficult read, and in no way an introduction to the life and work of the chap in the title. I do wonder how many readers, not in on the Calasso project, have given it 25 pages and diverted it to Oxfam without passing Go. Just who is in the target audience? Weekend broadsheet supplement review readers for sure, but what do they make of it?

  3. athling2001
    September 11, 2015

    Wow! Congrats on reading all the way to the end. I think I would have wandered off in a daze early on.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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