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La Folie Baudelaire Hardcover – October 16, 2012

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

What Calasso, a wizard of cultural erudition and scintillating interpretation, did for Kafka in K. (2005), he does for Baudelaire here. As in all his propulsive yet intricately figured books, Calasso dives right in, pulling biographical and historical facts into the slipstream of his richly anecdotal critique, along with glinting quotations and startling observations. The French poet and critic takes shape in all his resistance to society as Calasso considers Baudelaire’s transforming sensibility, “a Baudelaire wave that rolls across all things,” particularly as manifest in his art essays. He also parses Baudelaire’s habits of being, including inebriation, and his thorny relationships with his mother and his muse and lover, the Haitian-born Jeanne Duval. In vital and witty close readings of both published and private works, Calasso traces the coalescence of Baudelaire’s seminal and controversial definitions of modernity and osmotic influence. This ignites Calasso’s own freshly discerning responses to Ingres, Delacroix, Manet, and Degas, in which he offers evocative and moving insights into the artistic audacity and moral ferment of Baudelaire’s Paris, that oft-revisited revolutionary crucible. --Donna Seaman


“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 (Newyorker.com)

“[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

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

“[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 on Roberto Calasso

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

“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 on Roberto Calasso


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (October 16, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780374183349
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374183349
  • ASIN: 0374183341
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.2 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #187,522 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Kevin Killian HALL OF FAME on March 25, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Our book club decided to read this book for its debut meeting, and we met Saturday afternoon, each carrying a copy of Calasso--it is a strangely heavy book, with deep satiny paper that convey sort of well the dozens of period visuals from Ingres and Manet and Delacroix, et cetera, but lugging it around becomes a chore. In addition, the manner in which Calasso constructs his chronicle is, as others have testified, byzantine as a shaggy dog story but ten times as portentous. We had started the book hoping to read a biography of Baudelaire, but that was not to be. It is rather a book of emblems, each page turning inward to reveal another charming anecdote about life between the Empires, and the continual struggle of men to become number one in French Parnassus. At the center of them all, we find eventually, not Baudelaire, but Saunte0Beueve, the professional journalist for whom Calasso has nothing good to say, who wrote long articles on culture that apoeared every Monday morning for decades, who boasted of his election to the Academie Francaise and who relished his position as gatekeeper to culture.

To him Baudelaire was a rogue whose Paris Spleen and a few of the poems from Les Fleurs du Mal were works of genius, but on the whole, like Bartleby, he would prefer not to.
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It is doubtful if you can find any ideas in this book. Rather, the book abounds with encounters which enhance or even build anew our mode of being precisely because the experience shatters our usual categories with which we accost things; and because of this vacuum we have new space to renew our ourselves. Such experiences, in the end, can make us alien to others as is the case for Bauderliare, Mallarme', yes, even Proust. So, should anyone ask, I could not say what this books is about, yet paradoxically it offers much fruit for those willing to pause in their too rapid reading and ponder as they read.. The text of this book is stretched on a warp of many startling quotations which in themselves might inspire us to yield to the "great temptation to recreate true life."--Proust, (p.275). These many quotations are difficult reading, but for me are the veritable heart of this book woven deftly together by Calasso's own text.

Sainte-Beuve (p.260) asserts Baudelaire built an outpost, a veritable Romantic Kamchatka which Sainte-Beuve christens as 'Baudelaire's folly.' The essential insight is that the inhabitants on this island outpost are in this world, but not of it. The have departed from the midst of those who live in the wide and shallow consciousness of the Many for this ``bizarre pavillion, a folly, high decorated, highly tormented, but graceful and mysterious. . .''---Reece Harris.
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Calasso says that everyone wants to put Baudelaire in the same category as themselves. I find him operatic verging on Grand Guignol, which isn't me at all. Calasso can be infuriating. There's a distinct element of mumbo-jumbo* about him, as indeed there is about Baudelaire himself, not to mention the entire Romantic movement (Baudelaire is a Romantic or he is nothing; I'm more of a Rimbaldian), but mercifully this is mainly about Baudelaire the art critic. Those who stay the course may learn much (it may help to be a Francophile first). At school, according to Calasso, the only thing Baudelaire was good at was Latin composition. 'All his poetry is as if translated from a dead, nonexistent tongue, blended with Virgil and Christian liturgy.' We don't have to agree to find this mighty suggestive. Sumptuously illustrated, but I fear more destined to be leafed through than read

* viz page 21: 'on countless occasions we sense Proust extending Baudelaire's progression and sonority'; no examples cited - and what on earth does 'extending progression' mean? It might be fairer to say that Baudelaire brought out the worst in Proust (not in his magnum opus, of course). On the other hand I look forward to Calasso's Proust book should he be contemplating such; it is impossible to write a bad book on Proust, I long ago concluded. Jonathan Franzen should probably read Proust and give up fiction. I cite Franzen because Freedom is the only ambitious modern American novel I've read
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Too intellectual, obtuse, and wandering.Quite disappointing.I do not recommend buying. His other works are excellent, but the denseness and hyperintellectuality here made me stop reading very soon--an unusual experience for me
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While the author makes one arresting point after the next, pulling from masterfully picked quotes, the book fails miserably from a horrid translation job, especially when it comes to Baudelaire's quotes. The author is magnificently eloquent when he describes Chuck B's non-pareil use of language, yet flops with every butchered excerpt. Maybe what we're reading is Baudelaire first translated into Italian and then that Italian translation translated into English. Like looking at a xerox copy of a photo of a painting. Regardless, if the master of French language deserves this book (and he certainly does), he is at the very least worthy of the kind of translation effort we have been spoiled with in recent decades. If neither the author or his hack translator were up to the task, where was the editor when we needed him? Maybe at an opium den, in tribute to Baudelaire, dozing off, when he should have been furiously making notes.

And if a proper, literary translation was too much to ask, how about having the original French bits as footnotes? Even if the reader's French is primitive, it would serve Baudelaire a lot better than these pale, tepid, detumescent renderings.

Poor Charles must be spinning in his Montparnasse grave, justifiably full of bile and contempt for his manhandlers. They have done him wrong.
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