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Hemmings' forthright, common-sensical approach to literary lives has worked well for such relatively straightforward, prose-writing souls as Emile Zola and Alexandre Dumas. Here, however, though he efficiently covers each aspect of Baudelaire's ""damned"" life and career, there's none of the deeper insight needed to explain how this tortured genius came to write ""the most profound and influential single volume of poetry in the French language if not in the whole of world literature."" The familiar story of Baudelaire's childhood and youth is detailed--with Hemmings finding the behavior of mother Caroline and stepfather General Aupick (who had Baudelaire declared a ""permanent minor,"" consigning him to humiliating life-as-a-beggar) somewhat less blameworthy than previous Baudelaire scholars. (Newly discovered letters are offered as evidence of the General's affection for his stepson.) And each of Baudelaire's roles receives its own discussion: the dandy; the art critic; the translator of Poe (whom Hemmings considers ""second-rate""); the De Quincey promoter (again Baudelaire's enthusiasm is oddly denigrated, with a rather stuffy moralizing tone); the self-hating misogynist, unloving lover of mulatto Jeanne; the syphilitic. But Hemmings, who seems essentially unsympathetic to Baudelaire even while conscientiously analyzing his motivations, fails to bring these strands together into a persuasive portrait. And, far more crucially, Baudelaire-the-poet is never vividly projected here--especially since Hemmings insists, in his relatively sparse discussions of the poetry itself, on using his own ghastly translations. (""Les Fleurs du Mai has of course attracted a great number of translators. I have not studied their work. . ."") Solid enough, then, on the details of Baudelaire's life--but, notwithstanding Hemmings' academic/psychological wrestlings with the notions of Free Will, Evil, and Damnation, Enid Starkie's 1958 biography (stolid and occasionally clumsy as it is) remains a far better picture of Baudelaire-the-poet than this uninvolved patchy study.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1982
Publisher: Scribners