How Unpleasant to Meet Mr. Baudelaire!

Selected Letters of Charles Baudelaire: The Conquest of Solitude

translated and edited by Rosemary Lloyd
University of Chicago Press, 268 pp., $24.95

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…

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