BOOK REVIEW / Flowering sensibility: Baudelaire - Joanna Richardson: John Murray, pounds 30

ON 13 MARCH, 1856, Charles Baudelaire awoke in the early hours of the morning from an extraordinary dream. Wandering through the streets of Paris, he had met a friend who insisted that they drive together to a brothel. Before entering, Baudelaire gave the madam (who in the dream was also Baudelaire's mother) a copy of his newly published translation of Poe's stories, which had become a volume of pornography. As he entered the brothel, he found that he was exposing himself, and reflected that it was indecent to appear like this; he was also barefoot, and had stepped into a puddle. Inside the brothel was a series of galleries where the prostitutes stood talking to their customers, a few of them young students. On the walls hung obscene pictures, as in a museum. But not only pictures were shown in this brothel: there was also a live exhibit, a monster who had been born here and who had been placed on a pedestal, crouching in a foetal position. Just as Baudelaire had begun to engage the monster in conversation, he woke up, exhausted, and immediately wrote to a friend describing the dream. It is the only dream Baudelaire recorded.

Joanna Richardson transcribes this dream towards the middle of her voluminous biography. By then, we have followed Baudelaire through countless whining letters to his mother, through endless petty money problems, his annoying relationships with his mistresses, his misogynistic rantings and the elaborate scaffolding of his writing. We have learned, in great detail, how he dressed, how he ate, where he slept, whom he spoke to, how he flirted with hashish, how he (narcissistically) adored Poe, how he felt a sadistic attraction towards cats. The dream, hovever, strikes a different note.

Baudelaire was born in Paris in 1821. His father, much older than his mother, died when the boy was six; his mother remarried two years later. To try to impose some discipline on his life, his family sent him, shortly before his twentieth birthday, on a trip to India which he didn't complete. About that same time he caught syphilis, from which he was never cured. Throughout his life, he was in debt. His Fleurs du mal was judged obscene when it was published in 1857, and banned. After attempting to make a living in Brussels, he was brought back to Paris where he died, aged 46, on 31 August, 1867.

These bare events, explored with obsessive precision, take Richardson some 600 pages to recount. One ends her Baudelaire with the satisfying impression of understanding what Baudelaire's factual life must have been like, as if one had been shown a house by an over-scrupulous estate agent and made aware of the existence of every nook and cranny, every leaking tap. Much material is quarried for the first time (details about Baudelaire's military father-in-law, for instance, the much-maligned General Aupick) and well-known events such as the infamous banning of Les Fleurs du mal are carefully re-examined. Against these facts is set Baudelaire's singular dream.

There is a superstition, so deeply rooted that it seems incontestable, that a writer's circumstances determine his or her creation; that something in the writer's fabric causes specific lines and colours to come into being, and that if we could only dissect the goose of the golden eggs we'd be able to tell how creation happens. In Baudelaire's case, his elusive mother, his stern father-in-law, his sickness, his seemingly impotent love for domineering women, his concern with formal perfection, all add up to a textbook case pungent enough to make a psychiatrist's eyes water.

Though Richardson is careful not to indulge too often in facile interpretations, she sometimes sins vicariously by reporting the conclusions of others: 'Psychiatrists might say that, unconsciously, he was punishing his mother for betraying him.' At other times Richardson herself tells us with complete assurance which poetic images correspond to which events in Baudelaire's life; we learn, for instance, that 'whether or not Baudelaire was conscious of it' the 'mother of memories' and the 'mistress of mistresses' in the poem 'Le Balcon' was the poet's own mother. The question is: how does this revelation, conscious or not, help us read these haunting lines?

Mere des souvenirs, maitresse des maitresses,

O toi, tous mes plaisirs] o toi, tous mes devoirs]

Sometimes the complexities of a life may indeed offer vantage points from which to read the work, but to read Baudelaire's poetry as if it were a roman a clef is a deceptive if painstaking form of archeology. It gives the illusion of understanding a text, when in fact all it does is provide us with, as it were, the address at which an artist shops for his material.

However, reading Baudelaire's work in the light of his haunting dream is another matter. The dream seems to provide a parallel text in which the poet's mythical world is told under another semblance. The dream, in which Baudelaire is a sort of Oedipus confronting the monster-sphinx (one thinks of Ingres' painting, which Baudelaire saw at the Louvre), reveals the poet as a hero incapable of changing his own fate. This was what Rimbaud recognised with soulmate certainty when he called Baudelaire 'the first seer, the king of poets'. And Baudelaire himself apparently admitted to this mythical stature. 'Lost in this ugly world,' he wrote towards 1851, 'elbowed by the masses, I am like a weary man whose eye, cast backwards into the depth of the years, sees nothing but disappointment and bitterness, and in front of him a storm which holds nothing new, neither learning nor pain.'