This superb revisionist biography, meticulously documented but with a narrative as enthralling as a novel, shows Baudelaire from the perspective of his mother, whom he never forgave for remarrying after the death of his father. Richardson makes readers sympathize with this loving woman, who cherished both her ardent and sucessful husband, Jacques Aupick, a career soldier and diplomat, and her irresponsible, paranoid postadolescent son. Richardson effectively rehabilitates General Aupick, "finally to be remembered by the hatred of the stepson with whom capricious fortune had endowed him." Her depiction of Baudelaire's self-destructive lifestyle makes even more mysterious the grandeur of his accomplishments, achieved under the most forbidding circumstances. Richardson, whose translations of Baudelaire's poetry (1975) are disappointing, cites prose in English translation and poetry in French. Recommended for literary collections.-Marilyn Gaddis Rose, SUNY at Binghamton
Baudelaire's discarding of the conventional distinctions between good and evil and his assertion of the beauty and truth found in the perverse and grotesque would pit him against the censors of his day. Upon the publication of "Les Fleurs du Mal" ("Flowers of Evil") in 1857, he was prosecuted on morals and obscenity charges and narrowly escaped imprisonment. In this extraordinary biography, Richardson (the author of highly regarded lives of Stendhal, Verlaine, and Hugo) finds that the leading French "decadent," initially at least, invented himself, that his early use of hashish, his talk and writing of sexual perversity and depravity, his morbidity and dissolution, were part of "his attempt to create his legend." While "the satanism of Baudelaire was only a pose," she writes, "the anguish . . . was real and absolute." And much of that anguish grew out of his tormented, inordinate love for his mother, a woman who practically abandoned her sensitive son, packing him off to boarding schools so that he would not irritate his new stepfather. Baudelaire did become addicted to drugs and alcohol later in life, though probably for medicinal reasons, as he struggled to quell the agonies of several ailments, including syphilis. Baudelaire had "a taste for squalid sexual encounters," but Richardson agrees with most biographers that his only "passionate love" was for Jeanne Duval, a drunken, addicted, black lesbian with no qualms about exploiting the writer's weaknesses. This is a massive, remarkable work, revelatory about all the stages of Baudelaire's fascinating life: in every way, a literary biography.