Selected Letters of Charles Baudelaire: The Conquest of Solitude
Which famous nineteenth-century French writer am I describing?
Born 1821, into a professional family. Expelled from school. In young manhood went on a voyage to exotic places which shaped his sensibility. A keen frequenter of prostitutes, he contracted syphilis and for much of his life was in a precarious state of health; one doctor he consulted pronounced him a hysteric, a judgment he considered sound. His widowed mother held a key psychological place in his life—a mother he always sought to placate, and who always remained insufficiently impressed by his writing. She was also unimpressed by his handling of money: He appalled her with his tailors’ bills, and ended his life financially ruined. In his writing he sought only Beauty, and believed that Art should not have a moral goal. In matters of politics, he was suspicious of democracy, loathed the mob, and often expressed a hatred for contemporary life. His first and most famous work was prosecuted for obscenity by State Attorney Ernest Pinard in 1857, a trial which brought useful publicity. For many years he was torn between living quietly in Normandy with his mother and living more vibrantly in Paris. He described himself as an Old Romantic, considered he was old at forty, and greatly disliked steel-nibbed pens.
Are zebras white animals with black stripes, or black animals with white stripes? Similarly, this rough grid of a life, which sounds so much as if it belongs to Flaubert, also turns out to belong to Baudelaire. At times the parallels are eerie; at times, too, you almost feel sorry for Ernest Pinard, now remembered only for shooting himself in the foot twice in the same year.
But the lives of Flaubert and Baudelaire diverge sharply as soon as it comes to practical literary matters: the process of composition, the relationship between character and work, the matter of career politics. In composition, Flaubert (despite ritual protests) worked hard and fluently—he was like the camel, he once observed, and once started was very hard to stop; Baudelaire was more like an old jalopy on a winter’s morning, always whirring and coughing into feigned life, and likely to be started in the end only by a sharp kick, either from its owner or from an irritated passer-by. In matters of character, Flaubert sought to subdue the neurotic side; Baudelaire, looking back on his life in his private notebooks, commented: “I cultivated my hysteria with pleasure and terror.”
In literary politics, Flaubert observed the writer’s proper pride: his attitude is mainly, here is my work, take it or leave it; his letters never catch him out in moments of base careerism. Baudelaire, even by the low standards of nineteenth-century French literary life—and despite having as high a concept of Art as Flaubert—is a fawner and a wheedler, a calculator and an operator. There are pages in Rosemary Lloyd’s Selected Letters which, even if you allow for the gap in time and culture, and even allowing for French high style, make you embarrassed on Baudelaire’s behalf, make you blush for literature. When Sainte-Beuve patronizes his art, calling it “a bizarre kiosk which the poet has built for himself at the tip of the Kamchatka of Romanticism,” Baudelaire grovels in reply (to the subsequent double distaste of Proust). When Vigny receives the poet during his hopeless attempt to get elected to the Académie Française, Baudelaire writes in thanks: “You are yet another proof that a vast talent always involves great kindness and exquisite indulgence.” The fact that Baudelaire turns out to be a bad and often counterproductive literary operator, that his attempt to become an Academician is disastrous, that he is beaten down by publishers, that he chooses the wrong man as his agent, that his assiduous cultivation of Sainte-Beuve never produces the major article Baudelaire anticipates, makes the sad, hysterical melodrama of his life the more pathetic.
Are novelists “nicer” than poets? Flaubert, who sought objectivity in art, who invoked the invisibility of the author in his work, who declared in 1879 that “giving the public details about oneself is a bourgeois temptation that I have always resisted,” has despite all this been thoroughly investigated since his death and found to be a noble and genial fellow. Baudelaire, whose art is soaked in egotism, whose poetry gave the public details about himself ceaselessly, and who longed for the public caress of fame, has been no less thoroughly investigated and turns out to be a deluded heap of self-pity, obsessed with the supposed blot inflicted on his honor at the age of twenty-three when his financial affairs were (very wisely) taken out of his own hands, never to be returned.
Their differing attitudes to literary glory are instructive. At the time of Les Fleurs du mal, Baudelaire drew a caricature of himself gazing at a bag of gold flying toward him on a large pair of wings. He longed, he wrote to his mother in 1861, to know “some degree of security, of glory, of contentment with myself” (it is an odd triple wish: two modest, normal ambitions, and one extreme one; but then glory, like freedom, is indivisible). In a rather oddly phrased comment, perhaps suffering the contortion of envy, the poet refers to “Gustave Flaubert…who has so strangely achieved glory at his first attempt.” Compare the following encounter between Louise Colet and the novelist. One day, under the trees at Mantes, she told him that she wouldn’t exchange the happiness she was feeling even for the fame of Corneille. It was intended, no doubt, as a harmless, flattering lover’s phrase, but it riled Flaubert: “If you knew,” he later wrote to her, “how those words shocked me, how they chilled me to the very marrow of my bones. Fame! Fame! What is fame? It is nothing. A mere noise, the external accompaniment of the joy Art gives. ‘The fame of Corneille’ indeed! But—to be Corneille! To feel one’s self Corneille!”
Are novelists nicer than poets? Is it a rough truth that poets are egotists who write about themselves, whereas novelists diffuse their personalities and are therefore more capable of sympathy? “I’m as self-centred as children and invalids,” Baudelaire writes; and later, to the Second Empire beauty Apollonie Sabatier, “I am an egotist and I use you.” Philip Larkin used to say that he gave up fiction for poetry because he stopped being interested in other people. On the other hand “being interested in people.” can turn into a frigid and parasitical activity. Equally, the novelist can diffuse himself so much that he isn’t really there: V.S. Pritchett has remarked on what boring company novelists are because they’re always half-listening to the next conversation and half-thinking about their own work. At least with a poet you know where you are. Perhaps in love it’s best to avoid both, and marriage bureaus should stamp on the application forms of writers Flaubert’s remark to Louise Colet: “If I were a woman, I wouldn’t want myself for a lover. A one-night stand, yes; but an intimate relationship, no.” Isherwood, writing of Jeanne Duval, observed, “Few of us would really enjoy a love-affair with a genius.”
In his life, and for long stretches of the Selected Letters, Baudelaire is his own worst enemy: at a low, comic level, when he writes yet another letter of complaint to his publisher and declines to frank the envelope on grounds of poverty (never make your publisher pay the postage is the first rule of literary life); at a higher, more psychopathic level when he admits, “It’s part of my nature to abuse my friends’ indulgence.” Abuse it he does, mostly about money. “I am writing to you as my last two logs burn” is the refrain of Baudelaire’s letters. He is always, as it were, on his last logs. The poverty is no doubt real, but it is also largely self-inflicted by a profligate early manhood, and prolonged by an inability to get down to work. (How the poet envies Balzac, and astutely observes that you do not necessarily start off with talent and intelligence and then set to work; as appetite comes with eating, so talent and intelligence can come, as with Balzac, through toil.)
In these circumstances it is difficult—certainly for the first half of this book—to feel more than a limited sympathy for Baudelaire’s predicament. And if he abuses his friends’ indulgence, he also abuses the indulgence of readers. On one page he is fulsomely congratulating Ernest Feydeau on Fanny (“Contrary to those who complain that your novel violates modesty, I admire the decency of expression which increases the depths of the horror and that excellent art of allowing so much to be guessed”); six months later he is telling his mother, “Fanny, an immense success, is a disgusting book, an absolutely disgusting book.” He calls George Sand “a genius” when writing to ask her to fix a job for an actress friend of his; she does her best, fortunately ignorant of the opinion Baudelaire was to express of her in his Intimate Notebooks: “She has, in her moral concepts, the same profundity of judgment and delicacy of feeling as a concierge or a kept woman…It is indeed proof of the degradation of the men of this century that several have been capable of falling in love with this latrine.” When Hugo’s Les Misérables comes out, Baudelaire writes a flattering review of it, then roundly despises Hugo for taking the review at face value: “The book is disgusting and clumsy,” he comments triumphantly to his mother, Mme. Aupick. “On this socre I’ve shown that I possess the art of lying. To thank me he wrote an utterly ridiculous letter. That proves that a great man can be a fool.”
But of course, in proving that a great man can be a fool, Baudelaire is equally demonstrating that a major poet can be a hypocrite and a toady. Neither Hugo’s gullibility nor Baudelaire’s smirk makes what they wrote less good, and it is part of the reader’s job in digesting these letters not to let his or her reactions to the poet’s life and character shortcircuit estimation of the poems. This may prove difficult, since Baudelaire’s life is deeply infused in the work, and since the ideal of beauty he pursued in Les Fleurs du mal was both “sinister and cold,” as he proudly put it in a letter to his mother. But if we become reductive and translate our moral queasiness about the life into aesthetic queasiness about the work we are doing no more than Baudelaire’s sailors do to the albatross: grounding the bird and mocking it, incredulous that something so majestic in flight could be so awkward on the ground.
The reader’s other task is to remember that collections of letters tend to look like surrogate biographies, but are always partial. For instance, only one letter to Jeanne Duval, the sole serious emotional rival to Baudelaire’s mother, has survived, and that by chance. His twenty-years passion for Jeanne is reduced, in these letters, to a few haphazard scraps of complaint, self-reproach, pity, and protectiveness. In one typical outburst, Baudelaire complains that she quite fails to appreciate his work (his mother was an equally unsatisfactory reader); she is a creature “who would throw one’s manuscripts on the fire if that brought in more money than publishing them, who drives away one’s cat, the sole source of amusement in one’s lodgings, and who brings in dogs, because the sight of dogs sickens me.” It puts you rather on the side of Jeanne Duval; and of dogs, for that matter.
Baudelaire was not a great letter writer; his correspondence contains no equivalent of the Flaubert–Colet love letters (his addresses to Apollonie Sabatier read like the lifeless exercises of one taking Amatory Correspondence as part of a creative writing course), or of the Flaubert–Sand exchanges on aesthetics; when he writes about his work he is more likely to be complaining about misprints or the thickness of a character in one word of a dedication than about the nature or meaning of a poem. And yet, and yet…as this correspondence proceeds, for all the cadging letters and tedious procrastinations about why the poet can’t go and live with his mother, something heroic and profoundly moving begins to emerge. As things get worse, as time begins to run out, as illness increases, as Baudelaire becomes ever more starkly the victim of his own personality, as it becomes clear that each new and frantic plan to sort out his finances is doomed to fail and that glory with its winged bag of money is never going to fly through the window like the angel of the Annunciation, something tragic and clarifying comes over the correspondence. I once knew a neighborhood greengrocer who had suffered all his life from a disfiguring skin disease; his children knew his face only as a piece of gaudy patchwork. In his late fifties, he got cancer. The drugs the hospital used had the unexpected side effect of clearing up his skin complaint. As he lay dying, his children were able to see their father’s true face for the first time.
Something like this happens in the Selected Letters. The egotism remains sturdy, but is increasingly purified of affectation. “After he left me,” Baudelaire writes about a visit from Charles Méryon in 1860, “I wondered how it was that I, who have always had the mind and the nerves to go mad, have never actually gone mad.” “Oh my dear mother,” he writes the next year, “is there still enough time for us both to be happy?” Clearly not; and the attainability of that glory (let alone the “security” or “contentment with myself” he seeks) is receding too: “Something terrible says to me: never, and yet something else says: try.” It is evidently to be never—or never in his lifetime, at least. In an extraordinarily powerful letter of May 6, 1861, in which he characteristically rails at his mother for not appreciating his work, and uncharacteristically celebrates his happy childhood with her, the wrenching nature of this mother–son love is brutally expounded:
We’re obviously destined to love one another, to end our lives as honestly and gently as possible. And yet, in the awful circumstances in which I find myself, I’m convinced that one of us will kill the other, and that the end will come through each of us killing the other. After my death, you won’t go on living: that’s clear. I’m the only thing you live for. After your death, especially if you were to die through a shock I’d caused, I’d kill myself—that’s beyond doubt.
Of course, in these last years the reflex of professional groveling continues as does the steamrolling solipsism: when Manet writes to say that he has contracted cholera, Baudelaire gives the matter two dutiful sentences of sympathy before plunging into his own publishing problems and his own bouts of neuralgia. But the self-obsession is tempered by self-knowledge: it is now that he admits, “It’s part of my nature to abuse my friends’ indulgence”; now that he confesses to being, at the age of forty-three, still at the stage of the “ashamed child” with his mother; now that he compares himself to Shelley in terms of memorable unlovability. During these closing Belgian years, an unexpected humor emerges, too, as if, having loathed the world and its imbecilities so long and so hard, exhaustion has thinned hatred to a splenetic chuckle. “Rubens is the only kind of gentleman Belgium could produce, by which I mean a churl clad in silk.” Mme Meurice “has fallen…into democracy, like a butterfly into gelatin.” “All I’ve got out of my trip to Belgium is the chance to get to know the stupidest race on earth…and the habit of continuous and complete chastity…a chastity, moreover, that has no merit whatsoever, given that the sight of a Belgian female repels all thoughts of pleasure.” There is even the odd comic incident: “Would you believe that I could beat up a Belgian? It’s incredible, isn’t it? That I could beat up anyone is absurd. And what was even more monstrous was that I was completely in the wrong. So, my sense of justice taking the upper hand, I ran after the man to give him my apologies. But I couldn’t find him.”
These lighter moments are brief, and deceptive: merely another patch of skin clearing up while elsewhere the cancer rages. In March 1866 a stroke paralyzed Baudelaire and left him speechless. When Nadar came to visit him and argued against the immortality of the soul, the poet could only point his fists at the sun in impotent protest. He died in 1867. The following year his mother had a copy of his Oeuvres complètes sent to Flaubert. The novelist with the parallel life replied: “I am very touched by your sending me the works of your son, whom I greatly loved and whose talent I appreciated more than anyone.” Mme. Aupick, twice widowed and now having endured the death of her son (why isn’t there a verb for that catastrophic event?) herself died in 1871.