Black Venus
James MacManus
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Buy *Black Venus* by James MacManusonline

Black Venus
James MacManus
Thomas Dunne Books
368 pages
May 2013
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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This is not the richly cultured Paris of Chopin and Berlioz but Charles Baudelaire’s Paris: a circus world where envy, greed, and revenge drive passionate people to ridiculous extremes. While one sin breeds another, an envious person can play off another's avarice to avenge a perceived slight. MacManus creates a sense that Baudelaire was essentially a hedonist whose sins did greater service in poetry, even when the sobering effect of his tragedies was important for keeping the balance.

Baudelaire is the famous author of Les Fleurs du Mal, a cycle of poems written for the beautiful cabaret singer Jeanne Duval. Dark songs of lust, desire, and damnation, the poems captured the imagination of the French people and eventually led to Baudelaire’s obscenity trial and his shocking fall from grace. Meanwhile, Jeanne is forced to hold her own, her feline charm and the curve of a well-cut dress over her full bosom commanding the attention of men.

In 1842, artist and muse are bound together by the obvious and age-old promissory note of sexual attraction. Until now, Thomas has lived his whole life in the shadow of his mother, Caroline Aupick, who refuses to give Charles his father’s inheritance for fear that he will squander it away. She hopes that her son will join her for a quiet life in coastal Normandy, but Charles is unable to resist the siren call of the politics and poverty in Paris. The city opens itself to him like a book, and Charles descends into the city’s bohemian cafés, looking for inspiration.

A member of the literary fraternity that includes Gustave Courbet, Alexandra Dumas and Balzac (all disillusioned with the politics of avarice and poverty), Charles joins them in their dreams of becoming famous. Openly experimenting with hashish and opium, Charles walks the seedy tangle of streets and the cobweb of alleys, setting his eyes on exotic Jeanne in the crowded, smoky café Le Reve. As he peers into the haze, watching Paris’s most famous and sensual singer, Charles feels suddenly alive. Finally he has found the muse who will satisfy his most vital need: his hunger and desire to write.

Once Charles is seduced by Jeanne’s allure, art and obsession meld, inextricable. Against the opposition of Caroline Aupick, Charles throws his lot in with his mixed-race Haitian muse, enduring hardships and poverty, each unwilling to leave the other’s side. Theirs is a haunting, muddled passion, in spite of the discouraging circumstances. Yet in this connection to Jeanne, Charles is able produce his most vibrant and sensual poetry, in which the struggle between good and evil, sobriety and drunkenness, and chastity, lust and love vie for prominence.

Focusing on Jeanne’s relationship with this young man and the decadent milieu he inhabits, MacManus explores how Charles’s wild, irrational nature and hedonistic life entrance Jeanne. While a “flinty morality” damns the excesses and hypocrisies of the age, Jeanne finds carnal pleasure in the cafes and taverns of Paris, refusing to the end to be branded as a whore. Charles keeps moving as finances and opportunity dictate, never quite able to keep up with his debts. His small accomplishments continue to mirror the unattainable ideal of a woman who never seems able to return the love she’s been offered.

From the blossoming of their first love to Charles’s long friendship with Apollonie Sabatier to the crushing destitution of life on the streets, Baudelaire becomes a symbol: a great man unable to ignore the woman who torments him. MacManus’s talent is that he can fuse the mindscape of the poet with his feline muse and mirror the deepest passions and darkest despairs of both. In a story where real live hearts are rumored to be restless, yearning and bleeding, Jeanne becomes the ghost who haunts Baudelaire’s work and the melancholic, savage, seductive spirit that inspires him.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2013

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