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Fanfarlo by Charles Baudelaire – review


Baudelaire's autobiographical novella paints an intriguing picture of himself as a young dandy

Written more than 10 years before Les Fleurs du Mal, Fanfarlo is Baudelaire's only work of fictional prose. This slender volume, part of Melville House's The Art of the Novella series, is an exercise in loosely fictional autobiography. It tells the story of a young poet, Samuel Cramer, who in trying to assist his childhood friend Mme de Cosmelly, a woman whose husband has become transfixed with a charismatic, attractive dancer, Fanfario, ends up falling for her himself. As a result of his obsession his creative fire falters and he finds himself sliding towards a life of commerce.

Though the character of Fanfarlo is supposed to be based on Jeanne Duval, the Haitian-born actress and dancer who was Baudelaire's muse and lover, it's the depiction of Samuel – his ideals, his dreams, his vices, his many contradictions – that is most intriguing. This portrait of the poet as a young dandy is full of wit and beauty, lightly underscored by cynicism.

Samuel is a "fantastical and sickly creature, whose poetry shines forth much more in person than in his works". He's capable of genius but also great idleness; he's lazy, "pitifully ambitious, and famous for unhappiness"; moth-like in his manner, he's constantly drawn to the bright and the new. He glories in Fanfarlo's paint, her rouge, the glitter and the gloss of her, the gleaming muscular limbs of the dancer. They lose themselves in a tangle of bed sheets and fine wine and food laced with truffle.

It's a charmingly self-parodic portrait though it feels as if the protagonist disappoints the author in his predictableness, the ease with which he gives in. The character of Fanfarlo, meanwhile, pirouettes on the edge of things; she's harder to see, much less clearly defined, more a notion than a person, a silky sensual being fond of rare meat and potent wines, a dangerous domestic snare for the hot-headed young artist, a rock submerged in a turbulent sea.

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