Mysteries of the City

Mark Ford

  • Baudelaire: The Complete Verse edited and translated by Francis Scarfe
    Anvil, 470 pp, £10.95, January 2012, ISBN 978 0 85646 427 0
  • Baudelaire: Paris Blues/Le Spleen de Paris edited and translated by Francis Scarfe
    Anvil, 332 pp, £10.95, January 2012, ISBN 978 0 85646 429 4
  • Seeing Double: Baudelaire’s Modernity by Françoise Meltzer
    Chicago, 264 pp, £29.00, May 2011, ISBN 978 0 226 51988 3

Figuring oneself as Hamlet in the middle of the 19th century was a perilous business. Think of Mr Wopsle, who performs the role in a hilariously bad production in Great Expectations. When he agonisedly wonders whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings etc he is assailed by contradictory cries from the audience: ‘Some roared yes, and some no, and some inclining to both opinions said “Toss up for it”; and quite a Debating Society arose.’ On seizing one of the Players’ recorders during his altercation with Guildenstern, Wopsle/Hamlet is raucously entreated to play ‘Rule Britannia’. And when, his moralising over, he dusts his fingers on a white napkin after handing back Yorick’s skull to the gravedigger, an inspired prankster yells out: ‘Wai-ter.’

Charles Baudelaire had, it might be argued, a more authentic claim to the inky cloak and cosmic melancholy of the troubled prince than any other writer of the era. His much loved father, Joseph-François Baudelaire, died when he was only five, and for a blissful year or so he had his mother to himself. ‘I lived constantly through you, you were mine alone,’ he recalled in one of his many painfully needy and reproachful letters to her. ‘You were both an idol and a comrade.’ This paradisal state was abruptly terminated by the arrival on the scene of a military man, Lieutenant-Colonel Jacques Aupick, who would in time rise to become General Aupick. Thirteen months after Baudelaire senior’s death, Aupick made his not too bitterly grieving widow pregnant, and a month before she was due to give birth they were married. The baby was stillborn. Baudelaire, who eventually came to hate his stepfather with an intensity rivalling that of Hamlet for Claudius, never forgave his mother her betrayal.

In 1841, when Baudelaire was twenty, Aupick, deciding he’d had enough of the young poet’s wilfulness and insolence, arranged for him to take a sea voyage to Calcutta. Charles’s ‘aberrations had caused cruel anguish to his poor mother’, Aupick explained in a letter to a friend justifying the exile. But like Hamlet, Baudelaire avoided completing the trip: when the ship docked at Réunion in the Indian Ocean he refused to go any further, exchanging, in the teeth of the entreaties of the captain, who was a friend of Aupick’s, the Bengal-bound Paquebot des mers du sud for the Bordeaux-bound Alcide. In a letter written to Aupick the day after he was deposited back on French soil Baudelaire declared himself penniless but as having acquired from the voyage ‘a fund of good sense’. This claim was to be pretty quickly belied by the reckless extravagance with which he shortly after set about squandering the substantial inheritance from his father’s estate that he came into later in the year. But if his aborted trip to the Orient didn’t bring him a fund of good sense, something he would never really acquire, he did return with a fund of exotic imagery that he would deploy brilliantly in Les Fleurs du mal.

‘To be or not to be …’ Baudelaire’s only recorded attempt at suicide came in 1845, when he was 24. ‘I am killing myself without grief,’ he wrote in his farewell letter to the Polonius in his life, the much put-upon Narcisse Ancelle, mayor of Neuilly, who had the unenviable task of administering the conseil judiciaire imposed by the family as the only possible means of reining in Baudelaire’s compulsive spending. This legal limit on his access to cash only partly worked, for he could still borrow. He hated the conseil judiciaire with all his considerable powers of hatred, railing against the humiliation of being treated like an irresponsible minor; he blamed it, and those who’d forced it on him, for his spiralling debts and the poverty and squalor of his day-to-day existence, as he drifted from seedy hotel to seedy hotel, pursued by creditors. But it wasn’t the debts, he insisted to Ancelle, that were driving him to suicide, for ‘nothing is easier than to rise above such things.’ It was ennui or spleen that lay at the root of his decision: ‘I am killing myself because I cannot live any more, because the fatigue of falling asleep and the fatigue of waking are unbearable.’ Yet he couldn’t help adding a reference to his mother having ‘involuntarily poisoned [his] life’: ‘She has her husband; she possesses a human being, an affection, a friendship.’ By accident or design, the poet’s knife-thrust failed to pierce any vital organs.

Despite such histrionics Baudelaire was as aware as Dickens was of the absurdity of acting like Hamlet in the age of progress. In the early poem ‘La Béatrice’ he presents himself wandering through a kind of wasteland, ‘terrains cendreux, calcinés, sans verdure’ (in Francis Scarfe’s prose translation: ‘ashen, vacant lots, burnt to a cinder where no green grew’); he sharpens, Hamlet-like, the ‘dagger’ of his thoughts on his heart. Dickens uses exaggeration and bathos to poke fun at the pretensions of narcissistically self-absorbed young men; Baudelaire – just as effectively – uses overblown Gothic. Over his head he notices a sinister cloud that turns out to contain a group of vicious demons that look like cruel, inquisitive dwarves. They gaze at him coldly for a while and then begin to mock him:

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