Black Venus: James MacManus
Flowers have a certain alluring aroma when they are newly placed in a vase. The scent is pure, the color perfect and the stems perfectly straight and pronounced. But, after a while the color loses its luster, the scent fades and the odor might become rancid or more pungent. The stem begins to wilt and the flower might begin to crumble. But, in between the flower creates a spirit or mind of its own as the owner watches it take on its own life, breath and personality. Flowers often look like they want to create a story or tell one of their own from the moment they are placed in a vase until they final pedal or leave is wilted and they are replaced with more. Life often takes on the same journey but in a unique and different way. Flowers begin as simple seeds, they bloom and the end result can be magnificent. Flowers are here for a short time. One day they are vibrant and beautiful and the next day they are dried up.
Life takes on different meanings for people. Some spend their whole lives trying to attach some meaning to just their existence. Black Venus is not just the story about Charles Baudelaire and his relationship with Jean Duval. It’s more. Charles Baudelaire spent his life trying to live up to what he thought the world needed and wanted him to be. Struggling with his own identity, wanting to rise above his fellow comrades, Charles led a double life in many ways. Born to Francois Baudelaire and Caroline Archimbaut, Charles learned at an early age that the finer things in life would cost and whatever it takes he would find a way to not only have the luxuries he felt he should be afforded, but become famous in a way that would shake the literary world, might cause him create criticism and earn him a reputation that most would think scandalous but would give anything for.
Charles never thought anything about overspending, gambling, taking chances with his money, using women for his own pleasures and experimenting with opium and drugs. Throughout the beginning of the novel we learn more about Charles, his early life, education and how he accumulated so much debt that his mother and stepfather would not disinherit him, but would administer an allowance to him rather than giving him all that his father left. The huge inheritance would have funded his addictions, passions and given him the freedom to not work, allow him to spend his time in cafes with his friends lamenting over their troubles, the world, the new revolution in France and visit art galleries while hoping to become a world famous poet.
One simple evening spent in a cabaret called Le Reve, would change more than just his perspective on life but bring excitement to him that would have long range effects that some might say created a furor with far reaching and lasting effects. Alluring, exotic, Creole woman, who came from Haiti and managed to find her way to Paris by stowing away on a boat and using her skills as a woman and singer to pay for her passage. When Charles viewed her in this packed room of rowdy men, the air changed, his life seemed to bloom in a different direction and the impact was like a freshly bloomed flower. Her captivating dark eyes, her breathtaking quality would keep him coming back for more. But, Charles spent much time with his friends discussing politics of avarice, poverty and the Romantic Movement. Charles dressed to the hilt and although he and his friends frequented many places all too often the proprietors would allow them free reign in many respects. Charles seemed obsessed with Duval. Duval and her friend Simone create colorful experiences as she pursues her dreams with Charles in her own way, uses her wiles to get what she wants and cleverly manages to stupefy a saleswoman in an elegant shop when she purchases several items and charges them to his mother.
Charles created an image for himself and insisted to his mother he will become a famous poet because he sees things he states that “other people don’t see.” Confrontation with his mother over his excessive spending, learning more about Duval we find out how this creative man decides to keep her as you might say a kept woman for special services rendered to him. Her father a wealthy coffee planter and her mother a slave Duval lived the life of a slave and never contacted her father. Meeting Simone Clarimont who came from a small village would afforded her the one and only friend she had. Their talks were frank, yet sometimes not entirely truthful but they were true friends. The scene in the boutique is priceless and the end result will definitely make you smile and applaud for Duval.
Poulet-Malassis was a publisher who wanted to revive his company by finding an author that would create a new wave look, sound to soar his company to success. The bohemians dedicated themselves as the author relates to “the proposition that their art prevailed over such mundane necessities of life as earning money, food, or clothes or rent.” To this type of life Charles decided to descend as he was able along with his friends to frequent many places and the owners or proprietors of these cafes allowed them to treat their establishments as their own private clubs. The discussions would be interesting and when this publisher met with Charles we learn more about his thoughts, his newfound idea for a fresh, earthy and unique approach to his poetry and we find it addressed as almost obscene. The Flowers Of Evil: his title. The collection would not be filled with romantic poetry but would tantalize society, create a stir as the themes focused on despair, alienation, lust, sex, earthiness and much more. His publications were printed in journals and in 1857, Auguste Poulet-Malassis published the first edition of Les Fleurs du Mal creating more than just a bit of notoriety for Charles.
Sexual content, explicit language, graphic descriptions and an urban flavor, Charles Baudelaire would either set the bar for others or find himself set apart. His break from the form of verse, his style of writing, his themes about urban corruption, lost innocence and alcohol, did not alienate followers but increased them. But, Jean Duval provided as we learn the inspiration for his writing and they would remain together in a stormy relationship for two decades.
Charles was captivated by Duval’s appearance, her scent like that of a flower that would never dissipate or disappear and her exotic appearance so individual he could hardly resist her.
Throughout the novel we get different perspectives on the times, the government, the revolution and the literary scene. Charles tries to immerse himself in many aspects of the scene by frequenting different cafes, cabarets and many other places where he and his friends can discuss their work, their ideas, ideals and their hopes for the future. Within this novel we get learn how his poetry was published, the harsh realities he had to face when society shunned his thoughts, did not understand what his message was and decidedly branded him. Accused and prosecuted for writing poems that were considered obscene, some even read to those assembled in court, many wanted to hear more, others pretended to be mortified but the end result would cost not only Charles his career and money but many others would lose too. With a mother who controlled his money, tried to program his social life so that it would meet what she wanted and be accepted by society, Charles Baudelaire’s life would take on a different complexion learning that friends are sometimes what you care fair weather ones, many could not risk their own careers or advancements to come forward for him and a new friend, Edward Manet is comes on the horizon. Their friendship and work paralleled each other’s as Manet thought his poetry was expressive, hit the mark and he hoped his paintings would eventually express similar themes. But, throughout this entire ordeal, although Duval came to what you might say the rescue with a starling revelation during the trial the end result would change for both of them. Imagine learning first hand that Manet was about to paint Duval. Seeing the remarkable sketches and the way she was depicted were truly amazing. The brought both him and Duval much notoriety and a portrait that would create quite a stir and make Manet a fortune and fame.
Jealousies, betrayals, deceits, lies and loneliness were just some of what Charles felt as he watched Duval’s fame come front and center, angered by what he witnesses and finally the end result would be how she wanted the “ladies of France to see her.” How she was painted the lighting and more the reader will learn when you read Chapter 24. How they ended it you decide.
What about his friendship with Appollinie Sabatier? Would renewing that bring him some stability? How would Charles redeem himself with the publisher? Could he ever write poems that would not be condemned? Author James MacManus takes readers back in time to Paris and allows us to witness the revolution, the changes within the many different literary communities and hear the voices of both Charles and Jean as the go through the motions in some respects of their rocky, torrid and smoky relationship. How would each of these figures turn their corner on their lives. Who would they ask for assistance? Would this publisher be able to reunite Duval with Charles? Where she decides to go and what happens will surprise you and the end result still remains to be seen. As Charles and Poulet-Malassis try to recover some of what they had and hopefully winning their appeal. The result will definitely be not what the reader will expect.
Jean Duval’s ending was created by fate. Hoping to go to America something would end her dreams. Could Duval ever be a happy person? Could she be a productive artist if she and Charles had a more traditional life together? Traveling back home, Charles reconnecting with her what the end result brings is one exotic woman whose individuality was often compromised in order to please crowds, others and not herself. She was for the most part her own person but struggled to find her place in the world. Black Venus he called her. Whose final journey will we learn about? What about the poems in the new edition of Les FLeurs du Mal? Would they sell? What was Jean’s final request of her friend Simone?
Like a flower that blooms and the leaves shine for some time the days of their lives flourish and then the pedals, stems and the final results like every beautiful flower when life comes to an end. Black Venus is a compelling, heartbreaking story of two people whose love was forbidden, scorned, whose lives intertwined with so many and whose love of the arts, although different was paramount to both. This is a definite must read.
Fran Lewis: reviewer
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