La Folie Baudelaire


A spectacular act of close reading and looking by a great writer

In La Folie Baudelaire, Roberto Calasso—one of the most original and acclaimed writers on literature, art, culture, and mythology—turns his attention to the poets and writers of Paris in the nineteenth century who created what was later called “the Modern.” His protagonist is Charles Baudelaire: poet of “nerves,” art lover, pioneering critic, man about Paris. Calasso ranges through Baudelaire’s life and work, ...

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A spectacular act of close reading and looking by a great writer

In La Folie Baudelaire, Roberto Calasso—one of the most original and acclaimed writers on literature, art, culture, and mythology—turns his attention to the poets and writers of Paris in the nineteenth century who created what was later called “the Modern.” His protagonist is Charles Baudelaire: poet of “nerves,” art lover, pioneering critic, man about Paris. Calasso ranges through Baudelaire’s life and work, focusing on two painters—Ingres and Delacroix—about whom Baudelaire wrote acutely, and then turns to Degas and Manet, who followed in the tracks Baudelaire laid down in his great essay “The Painter of Modern Life.” In Calasso’s lavishly illustrated mosaic of stories, insights, close readings of poems, and commentaries on paintings, Baudelaire’s Paris comes brilliantly to life.

     In the eighteenth century, a folie was a garden pavilion set aside for people of leisure, a place of delight and fantasy. Following Baudelaire, Calasso has created a brilliant and dramatic “Folie Baudelaire”—a place where the reader can encounter the poet himself, his peers, his city, and his extraordinary likes and dislikes, finally discovering that that place is situated in the middle of the land of “absolute literature.”

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for La Folie Baudelaire:

“Roberto Calasso’s book, written in magnificent and supple prose and illustrated with reproductions of often little-known works of art, responds admirably to its title: it’s the most absorbing guided visit that one could imagine of the brothel-museum of Baudelaire’s dreams . . . One exits amazed by the intelligence and erudition of the guide, the foremost expert on a romantic and decadent Paris in which the rococo and neo-classical epochs remained living and present under the surface. And silently running throughout this account are the contradictory facets of the most gifted man in Paris at that time, Baudelaire, lover and critic of art, poet, journalist, bohemian, and dandy.” —Marc Fumaroli, Commentaire

“Roberto Calasso [is] the most inquisitively suggestive literary critic in the world today . . . La Folie Baudelaire is no narrow study of the poet's work or, even worse, a birth-to-death biography. Rather, by associating the poet with the prominent writers and artists with whom he came into contact, Calasso has created what he calls ‘analogical history . . . an ever-more-urgent desideratum in an intellectually debilitated epoch such as the present.’ A questioning assault upon the received wisdom, it exposes the hollow triumph of Impressionism and its artists, Renoir, Manet, Monet and Degas, over an implacable academy . . . the deeper purpose of Calasso's project can be glimpsed: a subtle inquiry into how the 19th century, and the popular description of it as a century of startling liberatory artistic promise and vast industrial progress, could give birth to a next century defined by Auschwitz, the gulag and Hiroshima.” —Thomas McGonigle, The Los Angeles Times

“Calasso captures [Baudelaire’s] 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.” —Emma Hogan, Financial Times

“Calasso[’s] … extravagant admiration and connective intuition make a book of equal brilliance out of a chain of fragmentary reflections—Walter Benjamin might have called them blinks—beginning and ending with Charles Baudelaire (1821-67), cast as the primary metaphysician of modernity: part-creator, part-revelator, part-enactor of our signature condition . . . Calasso emphasizes Baudelaire’s clarity and originality (his ‘firsttimeness’), his imperativeness and his fearlessness . . . [Calasso’s] Baudelaire is a person, not to say a personage. Part of the fascination of his book is its biographical or prosopographical color. ‘Baudelaire was a dandy, especially in ruin,’ Calasso observes characteristically, evoking him at 32, walking too cautiously, for fear of widening the rips in his clothes. ‘He is a first Buster Keaton in a frock coat, who moves off, slowly, through the streets of Paris.’ . . .  The highlight of this ambitious enterprise is the reading or rereading of certain painters and paintings, in Baudelairian perspective . . . arresting observations on painters and paintings alike, aided and abetted by some discriminatingly chosen illustrations, beautifully reproduced  . . . Calasso is one of the few to do justice to Degas’s rabid antisemitism. He is also a great noticer of things in the paintings . . . Roberto Calasso wends his way, inviolate. La Folie Baudelaire is bedazzling.” —Alex Danchev, The Guardian

“From a masterful biographical portrait of Baudelaire, the narrative spins out . . . to consider subjects as myriad as the airlessness of Ingres’s neoclassicism, Chateaubriand’s complaints about ‘the vulgarity . . . of passports’ and the African exile of French poetry’s enfant terrible, Arthur Rimbaud . . . his eye for illuminating anecdote is peerless. Thus he informs us of Alberthe de Rubempré who ‘was the mistress, in rapid succession, of Delacroix, Stendhal and Mérimée,’ before waspishly adding: ‘Each of them spoke too well of her to his best friend—and was then promptly ousted by him.’ . . . La Folie Baudelaire is a concrete triumph, for its recreation of Baudelaire’s milieu is so intensely vivid as to miraculously transform the distantly anecdotal into the seemingly actual.” —Lucian Robinson, The Guardian

“What a rare and special book this is, from its opening paragraph . . . But then what a rare writer is the prolific, post-Calvino Italian master Roberto Calasso—72-year-old scholar, translator, author of film scripts, radio and television adaptations, operatic librettos and seemingly most other viable prose forms in the late 20th and early 21st centuries . . . [La Folie Baudelaire is] an ideal introduction in English to one of the most urbane and readable of living masters.” —Jeff Simon, Buffalo News

“In a series of elegant, passionate, erudite books, Calasso has attempted to map out an esoteric terrain: the metaphysical in literature. This study of Baudelaire and his era therefore represents a new stage in his project, developing from one of the essays in his Oxford lecture series, published as Literature and the Gods: an attempt to show how the metaphysical is still present, if in an occluded and buried form, even at the point when modernist literature begins . . . [Calasso’s] book is baroque in its construction: its argument does not proceed from point to point but through a sequence of slow drifts and sudden aphoristic shocks. It is a gorgeous, willful, and convincing re-staging of Baudelaire’s style . . . Toward the end of his book Calasso offers a final definition of his style: ‘an audacity that came naturally to Baudelaire no less than did a certain wavelike motion of verse. And it is precisely the alternation between those two tempos—the prestissimo of provocation and the sforzato of the Alexandrine—that separates him from all those who came before him and those who were to follow him.’ Or, to put this another way, he was revolutionary, sure—and yet, as Calasso observes beautifully, ‘all his poetry seems translated from Latin.’ Baudelaire was a classicist in his investigation of corruption. He was a constant double agent.” —Adam Thirlwell, The New Republic

“Calasso’s book can be seen as a series of spirited improvisations on the theme expressed in Walter Benjamin’s essays on Baudelaire: that the poet, though he remained resolutely in the Romantic tradition, was the first to express the dark new reality of what Benjamin called ‘the permanent catastrophe’ of life after the Industrial Revolution. Calasso illuminates this image of Baudelaire: the first poet to describe the shocking beauty of a decomposing corpse; to define the mixture of disgust, boredom, alienation, and fear that hung like a permanent fever mist in the brain of the city-dweller; to glory in the allure of the unhealthy, perverse and deformed, of the artificial and mechanical, of dissonance and fragmentation—all the scenery of destruction and despair that would become the natural landscape of writers from Kafka to Sartre and onward . . . Smoothing the way is the curiously conversational tone in which even the most arcane information is conveyed, as well as the underlying sense that, as the author piles detail upon detail, he’s having a huge amount of fun. Calasso may identify with his hero, but there is no Baudelairean melancholy in his work. There’s no show-off either—only a sincere delight, an innocent reveling in his own encyclopedic mind at play. This mood is catching, and if one adopts the right dreamy pace, one can commune with Calasso through a kind of imaginative osmosis.” —Andrea Lee, Page-Turner (

“[Roberto Calasso is] an ambitious artist-critic, pushing the subject as far as he can, bent on penetrating the mind of both Baudelaire and his time. In the process, he delivers plenty of insight. . . Tough but rewarding, written with bold intelligence and panache.” —Kirkus

“[Roberto Calasso is] a writer about the foundational myths and tales of human society who has no equal in the sparkle of his storytelling and the depth of his learning . . .  His writing  . . . these lost voices speak again, in magical, uncanny and something even sinister ways . . . La Folie Baudelaire . . . now published in a translation by Alastair McEwen that captures all the shot-silk hues of Calasso’s elegant, gnomic and epigrammatic prose, returns to that 19th-century ‘landscape of the new’ through glittering tableaux of the Parisian poet’s life and work, and the art of his peers, from Ingres to Degas.” —Boyd Tonkin, The Independent (London)

“Calasso has the 19th-century savant’s light touch in his knowledge of hieroglyphs, Greek myths and Hindu texts, Turkish and Chinese culture and the ‘dandified’ behaviour of the American Plains Indian. With chapters headed ‘The Natural Obscurity of Things’ and ‘The Fleeting Sense of Modernity,’ this well-illustrated volume is not a book for the faint-hearted. It is as red-blooded as art criticism gets, and a suitable encomium for the greatest of art critics.” —Jad Adams, The Telegraph

“Let us lavish praise where praise is due: Roberto Calasso is the pre-eminent public intellectual of Western Europe, and perhaps the Western world. His extensive writings aim at nothing less than the recovery and reappropriation of the foundations of civilization. And he pursues his aim by reshaping and redirecting our vision toward the often obscure, but profoundly rich, synthesis of art, philosophy, literature and cultural theory that lies at the root of our identities . . . [In La Folie Baudelaire] he turns his formidable intellect to the birth of an era closer to home: the modern . . . [Calasso is] brilliant . . . pervasive in his studies . . . inventive in his narrative structure . . . Always surprising, never predictable, Calasso picks a progenitor of modernity that none of us would suspect . . . Charles Baudelaire, the Parisian enfant terrible, emblem of decadence and damnation to the status quo. Such eccentricity on Calasso’s part allows “La Folie Baudelaire” to shine forth as his most accessible, satisfying book . . . to read Calasso’s beautiful synthesis of the age in which Baudelaire flourished is to understand the poet as a Virgil to our Dante—exploring the labyrinthine depths of modernity’s cult of endless images . . . For we moderns, as Calasso elegantly and authoritatively demonstrates, and as Baudelaire foretold: The future is now.” —Arlice Davenport, The Wichita Eagle

Don’t expect anything so obvious as a thesis; what we get instead is a companionable guided tour of mid- and late 19th century Paris, loosely organized around Baudelaire, his associates and enthusiasms, and the idea . . . that what we like to think of as the modern sensibility (urban, alienated, etc.) first recognized itself in that time and place. Perhaps not surprisingly, more than a touch of the flaneur hovers over the proceedings. Rambling across decades and art forms, Calasso—a polymathic one-man genre whose previous books have soared in the loftiest realms where culture intersects with ritual and myth—finds room, this time around, for jokes about Belgium and digressions on mistresses and breasts.” —Jeff Tompkins, PopMatters

“At his best, Calasso is a writer of sufficient force and grace not only to summon the gods, but to make them come. A brief biographical note to Calasso’s latest book describes the publication as ‘the sixth panel’ of ‘a work in progress.’ Calasso has been laboring at this project for 25 years, and his work to date . . . constitutes a major critical accomplishment.” —Algis Valiunas, The Weekly Standard

Praise for Roberto Calasso:

“[Calasso] has certainly managed to open a new road through the old landscape of literature.” —John Banville, The New York Review of Books

“[The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony] is the kind of book one comes across only once or twice in one’s lifetime . . . Is this, then, the work of a Mediterranean genius? Of a genius, that’s certain. And it’s all Calasso’s own . . . I suggest you take a closer look at this book’s author, for he, I think, is less mortal than most of us. His book certainly is.” —Joseph Brodsky

“Calasso is not only immensely learned; he is one of the most original thinkers and writers we have today.” —Charles Simic

“Roberto Calasso [is] an exceptionally accessible thinker, original and profound . . . [His] creative energy is active throughout [K.]. He claims to present Kafka’s work as ‘illuminated by its own light,’ and succeeds in a unique way.” —Muriel Spark, The Times Literary\

Publishers Weekly
Calasso (The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony) takes seriously Charles Baudelaire's self-described desire "to glorify the cult of images." Accordingly, he uses the great poet and art critic's studies of painters as his point of departure for a delightful tour of the mid-19th- century Parisian art scene. Calasso's book resembles one of Baudelaire's Salons (his volumes of art criticism) writ large. "To write a Salon," Calasso asserts, is to allow "a sequence of images... that represent... the most disparate moments in life...." Calasso makes use of Baudelaire's contemporaries, providing close studies of, and wry musings on, the painters Ingres, Degas, and Manet, as well as the critic Sainte-Beuve. The wayward and episodic nature of the writing, as well as the wealth of background information, allows the characteristics of late modernity to emerge: the rise of the bourgeoisie, the saturation of images with the flowering of public advertisement, a belief in the progressive spread of enlightenment, a time (the Second Empire) when "everything could be accepted as parody." Calasso's aim is to introduce us not only to Baudelaire's poetry and mind, but also to his time, and to make us realize that it remains our own. B&w illus. (Oct.)
Kirkus Reviews
An intellectually challenging and sometimes obscure assessment of the life and influence of French writer Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), whose poetry and critical essays made him a founding father of modernism. Italian novelist and critic Calasso (Tiepolo Pink, 2009, etc.) demands a lot of his readers, studding his prose with arcane references and using words like "hesychastic" and "scotoma." If he lacks the lucidity of Robert Hughes or Jed Perl, however, it isn't because he's just being willfully obtuse. He's an ambitious artist-critic, pushing the subject as far as he can, bent on penetrating the mind of both Baudelaire and his time. In the process, he delivers plenty of insight. He captures the impact of Baudelaire's "supreme prose work," The Painter of Modern Life, an act of "blatant provocation" that held up an unknown illustrator, Constantin Guys, as the artistic model of his day. For Baudelaire, the anonymous Guys could depict whatever he wanted without worrying about patrons or prestige, giving him a total freedom that Manet or Ingres would never have. "In perspective," writes the author, "this meant ousting painting from its sovereign position and admitting that something no less indispensable...had come from disreputable illustration or--an even greater scandal, this--from photography." In 18th-century France, the word folie referred to a garden pavilion, "a place of fancies and sensuality." Baudelaire created a folie of his own, one that stood in opposition to a society on the decline. The word would be his legacy. "Modern--new--décadence: three words that radiate from Baudelaire's every sentence, every breath," writes Calasso. "To separate them would be to bleed them white." Tough but rewarding, written with bold intelligence and panache.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374534073
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 5/13/2014
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 293,121
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.70 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Roberto Calasso, the publisher of Adelphi in Milan, is the author of many books, among them The Ruin of Kasch, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Ka, K., and Tiepolo Pink, all parts of a work in progress of which La Folie Baudelaire is the sixth panel. Alastair McEwen has translated almost ninety books of fiction and nonfiction and seven feature filmscripts, as well as radio-play adaptations, opera librettos, and many hundreds of articles for various magazines and newspapers. He has also translated some of Italy’s finest writers (Calasso, Eco, Tabucchi, and many others). He lives and works in Milan.

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Table of Contents

I The Natural Obscurity of Things 1

II Ingres the Monomaniac 71

III Visiting Madame Azur 111

IV The Dream of the Brothel-Museum 127

V The Fleeting Sense of Modernity 155

VI The Violence of Childhood 235

VII Kamchatka 253

Sources 287

Images 321

Acknowledgments 325

Index of Names, Places, and Works 327

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