:: Article

The Paradox of Romance

By Max Dunbar.

Fanfarlo, Charles Baudelaire, Melville House, reissue 2013

Baudelaire wrote little prose fiction in his lifetime, and it would seem that he was not particularly interested in it. When the protagonist of Fanfarlo, Samuel Cramer, notices that his friend Madame de Cosmelly is reading a novel by Walter Scott, the sight provokes him into a dismissive rage:

– Oh! what a boring writer! – A dusty unearther of chronicles! – a tedious heap of bric-à-brac descriptions, – a pile of old things and cast-offs of all sorts; suits of armor, kitchen ware, furniture, Gothic inns and melodrama castles, where some mechanical mannequins walk around, clothed in jerkins and multi-coloured doublets; well-known types, which in ten years would no longer interest an eighteen-year-old plagiarist; impossible ladies of the castle and lovers perfectly irrelevant to today, – no truthfulness of the heart, no philosophy of feelings!

So much for the narrative arts, you might think — but it’s a shame that Baudelaire didn’t pursue what little prose he wrote, for Fanfarlo is a great piece of work, it just could have done with being longer. Samuel Cramer is a promising young roué along the lines of Clovis Sangrail or Dorian Gray. In describing him, Baudelaire captures perfectly disaffected young adulthood, full of big dreams without concomitant effort and discipline: ‘One of Samuel’s most natural failings was to deem himself the equal of those he could admire; after an impassioned reading of a beautiful book, his unwitting conclusion was: now that is beautiful enough for me to have written! – and, in only the space of a dash, from there to think: therefore, I wrote it.’ He adds: ‘In today’s world, that sort of character is more widespread than we think; such beings teem on the streets, in public walkways, taverns, and all the refuges for strollers.’

Cramer is recruited by de Cosmelly to sort out a delicate interpersonal problem. It seems that de Cosmelly’s husband is having an affair with a burlesque dancer, the Fanfarlo of the title, causing his wife considerable embarrassment. In her bitter agitation, Madame de Cosmelly offers a caustic satire on the censorious middle-aged imagination: ‘why,’ she asks, ‘among two equal beauties, do men often prefer the flower that everyone has inhaled to the one who always resisted these passers-by in the darkest paths of the conjugal garden?’ She also reflects on what would later be called the battle of the sexes, theorising that young women ‘lack a shameful education, by that I mean a knowledge of men’s vices. I would want each one of these pitiful little girls, before being subjected to the conjugal bond, to hear in a secret place, and without being seen, two men chatting amongst themselves about life matters, and especially about women. After that first and fearsome ordeal, they could give themselves over to the horrible vagaries of marriage with less danger, knowing the strong and weak points of their future tyrants.’

De Cosmelly’s placeman, set out to destabilise the relationship, begins by trying to demolish Fanfarlo’s reputation as a dancer through anonymous yellow tabloid journalism, and Fanfarlo finds herself ‘accused of being rough, common, devoid of taste, seeking to import into the French theater some props from beyond the Rhine and the Pyrenees, such as castanets, spurs, boot heels, – not to mention that she drank like a grenadier, loved too much little dogs and the concierge’s daughter, – and other such dirty laundry of private life, which are the daily fodder and sweet delicacies of certain minor papers.’ It’s not long, however, before Cramer too becomes enthralled by the dancer and seeks to have her for himself.

The ending is messy and inconclusive, with a sense of dread that never gets round to tangible manifestation, and this reflects a paradox of the French romantics: a love of the city and the modern darkness, coupled with a simultaneous moral recoil from it. Baudelaire was against democracy but took part in the 1848 revolutions: his style was romantic but threw over Wordsworth’s daffodils for imagery of corruption and decay. Cramer is described as a ‘passionate atheist’ but denounces ‘the pale phantom we call Reason, who illuminates the aridity of his path with a pale lantern, and who, to slake the recurrent thirst of passion that seizes him from time to time, pours him the poison of ennui’ and also says that ‘The phantom that escorts us is truly a phantom of reason; we can get rid of it by sprinkling it with holy water from the first theological virtue.’ The conflict between reason and romance (not necessary in my view, but there we are) is something that runs through Les Fleurs du Mal as well, and perhaps that’s why Baudelaire had so little truck with prose fiction: perhaps he thought the form would compel him to resolve that contradiction, whereas poetry carries no such obligation.

Fanfarlo has been rereleased as part of Melville House’s ‘Art of the Novella‘ series, and MPH have done a real service to literature in reissuing great fiction that has been forgotten because it was written in a neglected and commercially unviable form. The Baudelaire section has a wealth of accompanying material full of criticism, real life origins and poems for Jeanne Duval, the courtesan and ex lover Baudelaire based Fanfarlo on. Duval is as elusive in the notes as Fanfarlo is in the book: the nineteenth-century American critic James Huneker probably got it right when he said that like most romantics, Baudelaire was always ‘in love more with Woman than the individual’. Samuel in the book talks of ‘the age when you are in love for its own sake’ and that’s why, despite the tassels and bangles, Fanfarlo comes off as strangely blank: when you are in love only with the idea of being in love, the love of your life becomes a shifting shadow.

Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 21st, 2013.