BAUDELAIRE by Joanna Richardson


The Life of Charles Baudelaire
Email this review


 Another of Richardson's massively thorough, massively documented, but only minimally engaging biographies of French literary lights (Zola, 1978, etc.). Richardson sorts through conflicting testimonies about the notorious poet of Les Fleurs du mal: He was a voluptuary, he was a virgin; he indulged in drink, he drank moderately. In fact, according to the author, he was a man divided against himself, unable to resist carnal desires yet feeling degraded by them--a true Catholic at heart, despite his conviction in 1857 for offending public morality with his poems. But Richardson primarily hangs her view of Baudelaire on one thread: the unhealthy symbiosis between the poet and his mother, and the poet's conflicting needs, first, to avenge himself on her for remarrying and abandoning him emotionally when he was a boy; and, second, to recover the earlier, idyllic period of her widowhood, when he was the focus of her love. Quoting liberally from the poet's letters to his mother, Richardson limns a life as wearying to the reader as it must have been to the poet: the endless cajoling and castigating requests for money (youthful extravagance by the poet-dandy had led to the appointment of a trustee to dole out his inheritance), efforts to flee creditors, writings conceived but never executed. His devotion to the prostitute Jeanne Duval was thus a revenge against his conventional mother; his chaste love for the courtesan Apollonie Sabatier was an attempt to recover the lost maternal love. This is all credible but not very satisfying, for as Richardson herself shows, this man was highly complex: rebellious, sensitive, egotistical, self-doubting, cynical, naive. Yet while highlighting Baudelaire's misery, she fails to illuminate the means by which he, as he once put it, turned the mud of life into poetic gold. Fortunately she does rely heavily on quoting letters from the time, and thus presents a heartrending picture of Baudelaire's last year, before his death at the age of 46 in 1867: Struck by hemiplegia and aphasia, the poet who had made such exquisite use of language was virtually unable to utter a word. Strictly for students and devotees of this great poäte maudit.

Pub Date: Nov. 28th, 1994
ISBN: 0-312-11476-1
Page count: 624pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1994