BOOK REVIEW / Keeping mum over the Oedipus complex: 'Baudelaire' - Joanna Richardson: John Murray, 30 pounds - Behind every genius is a woman to blame: Sue Gaisford on a biography of Baudelaire that takes his mother to task
Saturday 23 April 1994
Motherhood is a thankless pursuit. Mothers of great writers come off worst of all. In recent biographies, the mothers of E M Forster, Philip Larkin and Samuel Beckett have all been blamed for their sons' inadequacies. Yet all these men have produced works of literature that have started whole industries of commentary, appreciation and analysis. For their extraordinary gifts, their insight, their contributions to world literature, their mothers are allowed no credit at all. The considerable problems of their own lives are accorded little or no understanding. It does not seem fair, nor is it convincing.
Baudelaire's mother was orphaned and homeless at seven. The poet's latest biographer, Joanna Richardson, tells the story of the little girl's adoption by a wealthy family friend, a generous action which Richardson finds 'hard to explain'. At 25, with neither money nor prospects, she accepted the hand of old Baudelaire, a failed priest and a widower of some wealth. Their son was nearly six when his father died. Then, almost miraculously, she met and fell in love with an eligible bachelor four years older than herself, who offered to marry her and help to bring up her son. This love-match was the crime for which she is, apparently, never to be forgiven.
Baudelaire was, we are repeatedly told, 'irremediably damaged' by this betrayal. It made all adult love impossible for him, says Richardson, adding that she alone had largely destroyed him. 'When you have a son like me,' he was to write, 'you do not re-marry.' So what do you do? Reject any chance of adult love for yourself? Live alone with your son, smothering him with devotion? Will that be good for him? Richardson neither answers nor asks these questions, but she makes it clear where she stands. When his step-father's career took him to a smart Paris residence, the young poet gave his mother some earrings to celebrate - a gift, says Richardson sternly, more appropriate from a husband or lover than a son. This gesture, she adds, may have been the kind of thing that led Mauriac to write 'The Oedipus complex is quivering here to the naked eye.' Really? Earrings?
With Baudelaire, you have to blame somebody. He was undoubtedly a magnificent poet who used classical forms to express the very quintessence of Romanticism. The sheer lyricism of Les Fleurs du mal is without equal in 19th-century French poetry and the concomitant decadence argues a kind of self-knowledge and cynical disgust that might betoken integrity. He was also an astute critic, writing perceptively in praise of Delacroix, Manet and Wagner, among others, and he was an early admirer and translator of Poe.
But he was a hopeless man. Not only was he really useless at handling money, an acceptable weakness in a poet, but he shamelessly begged, borrowed and even stole whenever he thought he could get away with it. He was horribly twofaced, flattering and fawning on his friends when there was possible profit for himself, slandering and defaming them when it suited him. His publisher and most loyal friend was a man called Poulet-Malassis, an odd name which Baudelaire ridiculed by calling him Coco- mal-perche. This man ruined himself by publishing Baudelaire. Not only did the poet steal huge sums from him (which his mother had to repay), but when Malassis asked him to wait a little for money owed to him, Baudelaire not only refused but demanded it early.
He inherited his father's fortune at 21 but had spent half of it within a year. A family council decreed that the rest should be invested and the interest paid out as a monthly allowance. Of course it was humiliating to be treated like this, but it might have worked for anybody but him. By then he had contracted both gonorrhoea and the syphilis which was to kill him, via paralysis and aphasia, 25 years later. He had been given a long, prestigious education, including the private tuition he demanded. He had enrolled on various professional courses but failed to turn up. He had taken on a demanding mistress - and he had declared himself a poet.
Les Fleurs du mal was, he said, 'a witness to my loathing and my hatred of everything'. Six of the original poems were suppressed as immoral, dealing as they did with sexual perversions. Their author had by then acquired a reputation for an inability - mother-induced, of course - to lose his virginity, which seems strange in view of the acknowledged mistresses and the inescapable syphilis. And in his imagination at least, he enjoyed lurid, often revolting fantasies. Despite exhaustive researches by the general Baudelaire industry - and Joanna Richardson in particular - some things about this habitual liar's private life will never be known for certain.
But it will not be for want of trying. With its 21 pages of select bibliography, this book has something to say about virtually every month of its subject's life. Richardson has scoured every library and read every document, from contemporary jottings, through Sixties Freudianism (which finds a 'uterine character in the enclosed but liberating space' of his mother's house) up to the very latest, minutest, French, American and German studies. The social and political background disappears in a welter of detail.
At the same time, there are interesting questions begging for answers. The only time Baudelaire ever had a 'proper' job, his mother paid his train fare to Chateauroux where he was to be editor of a local paper. He lasted a week because subscribers were scandalised by his first article. But what did it say? We are not told. Again, when he was beginning his long, last illness, his mother wrote: 'They have used electricity with success, but they have stopped because they are afraid of excitement and violence.' Was this some early form of ECT?
This book represents an enormous amount of work but it is strangely disturbing. Perhaps that is because its subject was himself so disturbed; perhaps because the lines that Eliot borrowed linger tauntingly in the reader's memory, jeering that he is: 'Hypocrite lecteur] Mon semblable, mon frere.' Or perhaps we should do what everyone else does and blame the mother.
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