Reviewing “Paris Spleen”

Charles Baudelaire does not need an introduction. If you have somehow not heard of him then just give him a quick google; wikipedia will tell you much more than I can. Suffice it to say that he is a very well known literary figure due mostly to his beautiful and twisted poetry that was modern before modernism was a thing.

Baudelaire does not need a recommendation to bolster his reputation. All of his works are considered classics and have influenced the world of literature irrevocably which is why I have no hesitation in saying that this book was really not to my taste.

This is not the first time I’ve encountered Baudelaire’s works. The first was with his extremely well known and oddly fascinating collection of poems “The Flowers of Evil” which I thoroughly enjoyed. The collection takes what should be romantic ideas and twists them on their heads making sex, love and life in general dark and violent but at the same time inviting you to enjoy them as they are none the less.

I could respect the impulse and the execution is quite inarguablely beautiful but we aren’t talking about “The Flowers of Evil” this review is on his collection of prose poems titled “Paris Spleen”.

This collection is intrinsically linked with the former in terms of the name and the tone itself though it is significantly less pretty. Even in moments of disgust the former collection was written in a manner that garbed everything in a fatally beautiful attire; there is still some of that here but Baudelaire seems to shift his focus to the more pedantic and mundane in an attempt to depict the “real” Paris.

There is a lot going on in this collection. Baudelaire functions as a sort of observer of Parisian modern culture, shedding light on what lies beneath superficial beauty of the city and its people. Its scathing, visceral, violent and the whole time you’re made completely aware that this comes from the mind of someone who is just so intensely bored of everyone and everything around him.

If I were younger than I am I might have appreciated the unflinching attempt to show the reader “reality”‘ in the sort of “telling it like it is” attitude that has become so popular these days, but I’m not and I didn’t. The whole collection is imperious and oozes arrogance from its every pore. Baudelaire wants you to be abundantly clear that he despises everyone around him and how above them all he is.

You might think I’m being a bit unfair here and I admit that I’m using harsher words than I normally would but for me at least there was no way around the attitude which I feel informs the entire collection; the attitude of a bored intellectual who wants everyone to know how hard his life is dealing with these charlatans who don’t appreciate life the way that he does.

I don’t even want to get into the blatant misogyny and misanthropy that seeps through every page because from what I gather it would be rather passe of me but if you do read it, its unavoidable.

In spite of how I’m making it sound there were many poems from the collection that I did enjoy. The poems in which he delves into the realms of fantasy and fairy tale to make his point were much more interesting to me. “A Heroic Death” and “Rope” were quite fascinating particularly the latter which in my eyes is a statement on the prevalent attitude that we have towards life now. “Losing a Halo” and “Be Drunk” were also well executed, being humorous and pointed in a short span.

Amongst the more pretentious poems there were some that were more enjoyable than others, namely when he deems fit to couple his crippling ennui  with a wry sense of humor. The tone of satire takes the self indulgence out of some of these musings which make them more interesting.

As I have said I didn’t particularly enjoy this work because of the reasons mentioned above but I will readily admit that the writing is throughout beautiful. I haven’t read multiple translations of this as I did for “The Flowers of Evil” so I can’t say how the other versions compare but this version on the whole, does a remarkable job of maintaining the poetry in the prose. Martin Sorrell in his translator’s note, says that he makes it a point to preserve the prose style of the work without adding too many alliterations in an attempt to conform to a more obviously poetic style or make it too staccato in a way that strips the work of any musicality which he felt was the case in previous translations and after having read it I can say that I feel he has been, for the most part, successful in his attempt.

To conclude, I can’t really recommend the work. It honestly irked me on the level of content, seeming in many parts to be plain juvenile but if what I described to you seems appealing in some way then give it a try, maybe the writing style will be more appealing to you.

If any of you do read this or if there is some Baudelaire fan out there that has a contrary opinion don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments. I would love to have an alternate perspective on the matter that would make me enjoy it more, but as of now there is only so much leeway I can grant it on the basis of historicity and beautiful language.

Rating: 3 stars


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