Sep 28 2012

The Would-Be Bohemian

Len Gutkin

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Charles Baudelaire's portrait of fictional poet Samuel Cramer in the 1847 novella Fanfarlo—a brief send-up of the artistic personality in the mid-nineteenth century—remains forcefully apropos: "He is at once a great lazybones, pitifully ambitious, and famous for unhappiness." Fanfarlo satirizes Parisian bohemia with a light touch, far from the gothic grotesqueries and threatening chiaroscuro of Les Fleurs du Mal or the dark ironies of Le Spleen de Paris. Edward K. Kaplan's brisk new translation of this early work nicely captures the book's humor—airy but not without a certain reserved malice.

Baudelaire's novella presents Cramer as "one of the last Romantics of France." We are more likely now to read him as one of the first fictional anti-heroes of nineteenth-century "decadence"—J.K. Huysmans's des Esseintes or Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray in embryo. A "paradoxical character," Cramer is a "half-famous notable…whose poetry shines forth much more in his person than in his works." He is "the god of impotence—a modern and hermaphrodite god—so colossal an impotence, so enormous, reaching epic proportions!" The odd mixed-note of admiration and disdain sounded by the narrator in the opening pages gives way to more straightforward dismissal as the novella progresses. Cramer is histrionic, narcissistic, and grandiose. "When some memory would make a teardrop well up in the corner of his eye, he would go to the mirror and watch himself weep."

The heart of Fanfarlo is an extraordinary monologue on psychology and poetics Cramer delivers for the benefit of one Mme de Cosmelly, a childhood flame whom he hopes to seduce: "We have exerted so much effort trying to make our hearts more sophisticated, we have so misused the microscope in order to study hideous growths and shameful warts that cover them, and which we magnify at will, that it is impossible for us to speak the language of other people. They live in order to live, and we, alas! we live in order to learn…We have psychologized like madmen, which increases their madness by trying to understand it." Cramer's other strategies of seduction include proffering samples of his third-rate poetry, mocking Mme de Cosmelly's reading habits (of Walter Scott: "Oh! what a boring writer!—A dusty unearther of chronicles!—a tedious heap of bric-a-brac descriptions") and, finally, agreeing to tempt Fanfarlo, a popular actress, away from Mme de Cosmelly's straying husband. Cramer imagines that if he succeeds he will be rewarded with Mme de Cosmelly's favors. But he performs too well, falling in love with the actress.

Fanfarlo was supposedly modeled on Baudelaire's mistress Jeanne Duval, though she's not granted much specificity in the novel that bears her name. Mme de Cosmelly calls her "stupid," though they've never met and she's hardly unbiased. Baudelaire does tell us a lot about Fanfarlo's elaborately appointed digs and her rich appetites: "Fanfarlo loved meats cooked rare and wines that made you drunk." Readers familiar with Zola will recognize in the debauched Fanfarlo a precursor to Nana. Like Nana, Fanfarlo's most pronounced characteristic is the sexual magnetism inextricable from her career on the stage. "Why," Mme de Cosmelly asks regarding herself and her rival, "among two equal beauties, do men often prefer the flower that everyone has inhaled to the one who always resisted those passers-by in the darkest paths of the conjugal garden?" Fanfarlo is concerned with the erotics of publicness, with the charismatic power of the woman on view.

And what does Fanfarlo look like? We learn about the "noisy fabrics" she prefers to wear, her "plumply slender" hands, and, most important of all, her leg: "Already that leg, for Samuel, was the object of eternal desire. Her leg, at once long, thin, strong, plump, and muscular, possessed all the propriety of the beautiful and all the licentious attraction of the pretty. Sliced perpendicularly at its widest spot that leg would have marked a sort of triangle the top of which would be located on the tibia, and the calf's rounded line would have provided the convex base." Cramer's comically un-erotic fetishism—Fanfarlo's body reduced to a limb, and that limb dissolved into geometry—anticipates the late Victorian and modernist drive toward abstraction. One thinks, for instance, of Whistler's "Arrangement in Gray and Black," the title transforming the painter's mother into the formal terms of the medium, even as the painting itself remains firmly representational.

Baudelaire may stand at the wellspring of the long, rich tradition meant to Úpater la bourgeoisie, but no one saw more clearly that the bourgeoisie and bohemia were, Cramer-like, paradoxical complementarities. By the novella's end, with Mme de Cosmelly's husband restored, Fanfarlo and Cramer settle into a rather conventional domestic pattern, "condemned," as the critic Rhonda Garelick puts it, "to bourgeois respectability." Fanfarlo "is learning how to have children; she has just succeeded in giving birth to twins." Meanwhile Cramer has found success not as a poet but as an author of "four scholarly books." "God of impotence" indeed!

Len Gutkin is a Ph.D. candidate at Yale. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Rain Taxi, Make, jacket2, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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