Baudelaire’s Bordeaux

For most English readers, Baudelaire is the poet of Les Fleurs du Mal, and perhaps of little else. Some of the more lurid details of the life are well known: the early death of his father; his stepfather’s putting him on a ship to Calcutta when he was 20, from which he jumped and returned to France; the exhaustion of his inheritance in a torrent of dissipation; the strokes and paralysis, probably resulting from syphilis; and finally the early death in 1867 aged 46.  He was a herald of that decadence which achieved its highest, gamiest flavours in Huysmans and Rimbaud.

Yet when Baudelaire embarked on his literary career he wanted to make his mark not in poetry but in prose. In 1847 he informed his mother that he was going to commit himself to achieving commercial success in the newly dominant literary form of the novel:

From the beginning of next year, I’m turning to a new trade — by which I mean the creation of works of pure imagination — the Novel. I do not need to demonstrate to you here how grave, beautiful, and infinite this particular art is. As we are discussing material matters, all you need to know is that good or bad, everything can be sold: it’s just a question of assiduity.

Not for Baudelaire, however, the kind of assiduity we associate with Zola — the laborious compilations of fact and observation from which a novel would emerge — or even the scholarly immersion of a Flaubert about to write Salammbô. Baudelaire’s prose fiction is short, astringent, and shaped by a feline literary taste which shunned as cardinal sins both realism and sentimentalism.

“La Fanfarlo”, a short story published in 1847, shows the wry tonal and moral palette towards which Baudelaire was drawn. A literary flâneur, Samuel Cramer, accidentally passes in the park a woman for whom he had nursed tender feelings when they were both children. Now Mme de Cosmelly, Cramer’s childhood sweetheart has married a rich man and come to live in Paris, but the marriage has quickly tired. She is neglected and her attempts to rekindle her husband’s attentiveness are ignored, since he has taken for his mistress a celebrated dancer, La Fanfarlo. Mme de Cosmelly prevails on Cramer to steal La Fanfarlo from M. de Cosmelly, who would then presumably reconcile himself to his marriage. Cramer agrees, secretly proposing to himself that he will find his reward for this deed in the arms of Mme de Cosmelly. As Baudelaire tartly remarks, “Only poets can be candid enough to invent such monstrosities.”

Events fall out rather differently from Cramer’s plan, however. Having reconnoitred La Fanfarlo’s house and observed her in the theatre, Cramer realises that La Fanfarlo will “have to come to him”. But how to lure her? Notwithstanding the fact that he knows nothing about music Cramer starts reviewing lyric theatre for the Parisian press, and takes every opportunity to slate La Fanfarlo:

She was accused of being brutal, common, bereft of any taste, of wanting to import into the theatre habits from beyond the Rhine and the Pyrenees, castanets, spurs, heeled boots — not to mention that she drank like a trooper, that she was too fond of little dogs and her gate-keeper’s daughter — and other scraps of dirty washing from her private life, things on which certain little papers feed and feast.

The strategy works. La Fanfarlo’s interest is piqued, and she quickly grasps that these terrible, swingeing reviews are “nothing more or less than a special kind of weekly bouquet or the visiting card of a stubborn wooer”. She sweeps Cramer off to her small house in a new quarter of the city, a “ravishing slum”, where they become lovers. M. de Cosmelly is cast off and returns sullenly to his wife; they leave Paris and retire to their property in the country. Nor, however, is Cramer lastingly happy. Once the first raptures have worn off, he suffers “all the horrors of that vicious marriage known as concubinage”. La Fanfarlo bears him twins and pushes him towards a career in politics. “How low he has fallen!” exclaims Baudelaire as he concludes this elegant tale of unintended consequences and surprising outcomes.

Wine plays a role in Cramer’s metamorphosis into the fallen creature he becomes.  He and La Fanfarlo share a particular taste which they indulge in the meals which accompany and sustain their liaison:

Samuel and La Fanfarlo had exactly the same ideas on cooking and on the sort of food needed by creatures of the élite. Insipid meats, pallid fish were excluded from that siren’s suppers. Champagne rarely dishonoured her table. The most famous Bordeaux, those with the finest bouquets, made way for the heavy, close-packed battalion of Burgundies, of wines from the Auvergne, from Anjou and the south, and foreign wines, German, Greek, Spanish. Samuel was wont to say that a glass of red wine should resemble a bunch of black grapes and contain more to eat than to drink — La Fanfarlo loved meats which dripped blood and wines which bring intoxication.

Part of the interest of this passage comes from its homage to a lost wine-producing area of France. Wines from the Auvergne enjoyed a high reputation in the first half of the 19th century — in 1832 André Jullien had compared the wines of Chanturgue to “third-class” Bordeaux. But overcropping and a misjudged outbreak of je m’en foutisme towards the contamination of the regions vines by phylloxera (which had arrived in this part of France in 1868) meant that quality and reputation tumbled. Vineyards were grubbed up and Auvergne wine became all but invisible commercially. In 1890 the département had 45,000 hectares given over to vineyards. By 1930, that had fallen to 10,000. Such vineyards as survived were kept going by traditionalists who produced wine for their own consumption. They too were a dwindling band. In 1992, the vineyards of the Auvergne covered only 2,500 hectares.

But Cramer’s fondness for wines which are full-bodied to the point of being more like food than drink, and which, still evocative of the raw material from which they have been made, are so to speak becalmed on the threshold of becoming wine, touches on a theme of the story, and reminds us of wine’s significance for Baudelaire as a mysterious substance which had the power to multiply individuality (as the subtitle to “Du vin et du hachisch” puts it). The transformative power of wine is the burden of the song Baudelaire composed for wine in that essay (in which, not coincidentally, he compares wine to a supreme dancer). In “La Fanfarlo” the wines which are served to accompany Cramer’s entrapment and degradation are also strong potions which summon into existence the unexpected future in which he finds himself imprisoned.  

Given his veneration of wine as an almost magical liquid, it is unsurprising that Baudelaire should have so ferociously mocked the banality of Brillat-Savarin’s sole comment on wine in La Physiologie du Goût: “The patriarch Noah is supposed to have invented wine. It is a drink made from the fruit of the vine.”

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