It is not uncommon to hear about poets, writers, or artists who led tortured lives yet produced their work only to not reach notoriety until after death. To delve into the lives of these creative souls is both intriguing and sad because the truth of their daily lives does not match our expectations of the people who have created such groundbreaking works. Charles Baudelaire is one of those creative people – without his poetry and talent, would the work of T.S. Eliot be possible? Would the words of Edgar Allan Poe be so widely translated and appreciated? Black Venus by James MacManus meanders through the tragic and sad life of Charles Baudelaire, offering a unique view of Jeanne Duval, and passing on a lesson of life that we might all benefit from reading.
Charles Baudelaire was born in 1821 and is most well-known for Les Fleurs du mal, his book of poems that were the subject of an obscenity trial in Paris in 1857. His muse or inspiration for his poetry was Jeanne Duval, whom he called his Black Venus. She was a cabaret singer whose life was intertwined with Baudelaire’s for twenty years – their relationship was complex with extremely high heights and dangerous lows. Over the years, many biographers have described her in derogatory terms as the drug addict who ruined the life of the poet, but without her he would have never written his most famous poems. His life was not an easy one, both due to circumstance and largely due to his own choices. In 1867, he succumbed to the effects of tertiary syphilis, still without achieving the success he so desired in life. Posthumously however, he has been recognized as one of the major innovators of French literature. In Black Venus, we read the story of his life as he may have lived it, with the gritty truth of the stressful, hard life that he chose.
The truth of life and poetry is that often the life of the poet is hard and gritty with poor choices – with such creative genius, one would not expect a perfectly organized person with a firm moral compass, especially considering the works for which Baudelaire is famous. Black Venus does not make any excuses or gloss over the details of what life may truly have been like for Charles – there is no magical moment when he realizes his problems and solves them as one might read in a romance. We see instead the passionate and dark life of a poet with drug use, heavy drinking, money problems, lack of impulse control, and an abundance of poor choices. MacManus does not romanticize the life of Baudelaire but he does offer an interesting look at Jeanne Duval that is in opposition to most of Baudelaire’s biographers.
While most of the biographers of Baudelaire spare no love for Jeanne Duval, Black Venus shows that she may have been as tortured and confused as Baudelaire. She was his muse and his inspiration, but their relationship was one that burned hot and went ice-cold. MacManus portrays her has a woman who sings her way to France from Haiti with all the hopes and dreams of a young woman when she finds herself twenty years later, still involved with Baudelaire and never having reached her dreams. She has a unique perspective on the poet as a man and we see how she knows they are bad for each other and yet she can’t stay away any more than he can. Her story is one that can even be seen as inspirational.
In Black Venus, the time passes slowly at times and then quickly ten years have passed. Isn’t that how life feels? The chronology of the book helps to expound on the feeling of life passing quickly before the eyes of the main characters until before they know it they are looking death and old age in the face with a heap of regrets on their souls. If there is one lesson to be learned from Black Venus, it is an inspiration to live life thoroughly – do not leave dreams for later because life happens and before too long the time to reach those dreams has passed. While not everyone will live and die and then become a famous poet, there is a chance for every person to make a difference in the world – but only if that chance is taken.
In the end, it is the ordinariness of the life of Charles Baudelaire that catches the imagination the most in Black Venus. James MacManus combines exemplary research with creative writing to weave an image of Baudelaire that shines a light in the dark corners of the true life of the poet. It was not an easy life and he at times chose the hard road – the drug usage, the drinking, the women, the constant spending of money he did not have – but it was a life that left a lasting legacy through his creativity and his mind. Through Black Venus, James MacManus demonstrates a purpose and lesson in the lives of Charles Baudelaire and Jeanne Duval, casting her not as a villain but as a co-victim in the difficult life of the gifted and innovative poet.
Hear about the book from the author in this promo of Black Venus featuring James MacManus –
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