cover image La Folie Baudelaire

La Folie Baudelaire

Roberto Calasso, trans. from the Italian by Alastair McEven . Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35 (432p) ISBN 978-0-374-18334-9

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%E2%80%A6." 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.)