The critical eye

La Folie Baudelaire, by Roberto Calasso, Allen Lane RRP£35/Farrar, Straus and Giroux RRP$35, 352 pages

In 1873, the painter Edouard Manet set himself a near-impossible task. On a canvas measuring just 60cm by 73cm he would paint in detail 24 male figures at the Paris Opéra, in their top hats and tailcoats, along with a few unknown females. Every time a friend turned up at his studio he would squeeze a portrait of the visitor into the miniature frame. It was going to be, as his friend the poet Stéphane Mallarmé put it, “a total vision of the contemporary world”.

Roberto Calasso has set himself a similarly audacious project with La Folie Baudelaire. Calasso, an Italian critic, is no stranger to difficulty. His first book, and his only novel, L’impuro folle (1974) dealt with the case that inspired Freud to write about paranoia. Since then, he has written a series of critical works that defy classification: on Greek mythology in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1988), or Franz Kafka in K (2002).

La Folie Baudelaire takes as its starting point the life and work of the 19th-century poet and critic Charles Baudelaire. Calasso argues that, in reading Baudelaire, “we get the impression that a new nervous system is being superimposed over our own”. Baudelaire is defined as the first modern writer.

Calasso begins with Baudelaire’s life, describing the bare furnishings of his room at the Hôtel Pimodan and his acrimonious relationship with his stepfather. Moving from literary biography into art criticism, Calasso then looks at the painters Baudelaire encountered: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Eugène Delacroix, Edgar Degas, Manet and Constantin Guys, the unknown illustrator whom Baudelaire singled out as “the painter of modern life”. Among these figures, others appear: the younger rebellious poet Arthur Rimbaud; the critics Félix Fénéon and Jules Laforgue. Marcel Proust manages to make an appearance, too, peeping over the top hats.

Calasso is adept at finding connections between these characters: Degas and Manet, not friends, lend each other Baudelaire’s books; Baudelaire, although in the Delacroix camp of art criticism, is the finest (reluctant) admirer of Ingres. Calasso captures this shifting, overlapping world, never seeming overwhelmed by his material.

Certain anecdotes stand out. Calasso is not afraid to show these figures as occasionally absurd. Ingres, a “compact and stocky” man “devoid of a sense of the ridiculous”, runs through his studio to launch himself on to a mattress in order to create interesting folds in a drape. Degas, a keen user of early photography, tries to capture the moon, only to find it “moved too much”. Calasso also collects stories of supporting characters – from Degas’s housekeeper to Baudelaire’s mistress – to evoke an entire world. Such details, combined with his ear for a lyrical phrase, make La Folie Baudelaire a joy to read.

Calasso can describe well-known paintings, such as Manet’s Olympia (1863), with an acuity that makes them seem new again; he is also particularly good at finding overlooked or under-appreciated works by these artists. A daguerreotype from Ingres of a destroyed painting of his first wife (shown on the cover of the lavishly-illustrated British edition), is tenderly brought into view as “one of the most erotic images of the early days of photography”.

Not all readers will warm to Calasso’s seductive, and slightly gnomic, descriptions. Indeed, sometimes he strays too far into the realms of whimsy (“Guy spent the last decades of his life like a walnut shell floating on the water”). His description of a dream had by Baudelaire could apply to his criticism: “There is something highly erudite and at the same time insane about all this.”

But this combination of the frivolous with the serious – caught in the double meaning of the folly in his title – is integral to Calasso’s understanding of modernity. It includes everything, “the memorable and the ephemeral, the sublime and trash”.

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