December 8, 2014
The Art of the Novella challenge 6: Fanfarlo
by Jonathan Gibbs
Author: Charles Baudelaire
First published: 1847, in Bulletin de la Société de Gens des Lettres
Page count: 61
First line: Samuel Cramer, who authored some of his Romantic follies as Manuela de Monteverge—in the good old days of Romanticism—is the contradictory product of a pallid German and a brown Chilean woman.
I had the pleasure last week of sitting, at an author event, next to Meike Ziervogel, who as well as having two books to her name (Magda and Clara’s Daughter) is publisher of Peirene Press, a British outfit that specialises in contemporary novellas in translation. I’d spoken with Meike by phone and email before, but never met her, and in between chatting to prospective readers, we had an interesting talk about the nature of the novella – which we found we were coming at from very different directions.
I sketched out my evolving thesis that the novella was linked to the reçit, and was in essence the extension of the anecdote, or tale – as in The Arabian Nights – and so could be seen as the late development of an ancient form, that had veered aside from the demands of the novel to take in and represent more, more, ever more of life.
Meike’s take was radically different. She sees the novella as more experimental, as closer to the poem than to either the novel or tale. In fact our discussion started from my question as to the predominance in contemporary fiction of the present tense narration. I was worried that it was a fad, that it would start to date, whereas she sees it as essential to the modern way of approaching storytelling.
“You Anglo-Saxons, with your obsession with narrative!” she said. In a later email she summarized her thought thus: “I think a novella has much more to do with the present, the here and now, the journey, the exploration at the moment of writing (as a first instance of creation) and at the moment of reading (as the completing moment of creation).”
She also suggested I read Deleuze and Guattari, who treated the novella form in their book A Thousand Plateaus, and sends me the following quote:
You will never know what just happened, or you will always know what is going to happen: these are the reasons for the reader’s two bated breaths, in the novella and the tale, respectively, and they are two ways in which the living present is divided at every instant. In the novella, we do not wait for something to happen, we expect something to have just happened. The novella is a last novella, whereas the tale is a first tale.
Now, I haven’t read the whole essay, or chapter, yet, so I’m just going to let that simmer for the moment, but it’s clear to me that there are two different oppositions at work here: what one might call the Anglo-Saxon/European opposition, but also the classical/modern.
Of the 16 novellas published by Peirene to date, the oldest in its original publication dates from 1985, whereas The Art of the Novella only runs up to 1922. Which leaves us a bit of a gap. The author event was at Waterstones Piccadilly in London, where we also spotted a table showing that bookshop’s selection of novellas – no Peirene or MHP titles on show, shame on them! But it’s another useful resource nonetheless:
I’ll come back to this question later, once I’ve read the Deleuze and Guattari chapter, and the latest Peirene title, White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen. For now, though, I should turn to this week’s novella, Fanfarlo, the only prose fiction work by Charles Baudelaire, which I picked for my latest read simply because I liked the jump from Falesá to Fanfarlo.
Now, here’s an admission. Though I studied French as an undergraduate, I’ve never really got Baudelaire, or not at any rate as a poet, and nor, for that matter, the other poets associated with him: Verlaine, Mallarmé and Rimbaud. If you asked me for the French modernes I most enjoyed, and felt affected by, I would jump to the early Twentieth Century and say Apollinaire and Cendrars.
I wonder if this is a general problem. Not that Baudelaire is forgotten, but rather that he is seen more as a symbol, or a progenitor, than as a creative force himself. I’ll bet there’s plenty of people who know him more through reading Walter Benjamin, or as the theorist and archetype of the flanêur, or simply for the line “Hypocrite lecteur—mon semblable—mon frère”, rather than as a poet. As I’ve grown as a reader, I’ve tried to read Fleurs du Mal – I’ve got it here on the desk in front of me, in its proper bilingual glory – but it just doesn’t speak to me, whereas the prose non-fiction of The Painter of Modern Life certainly does.
So I turned to Fanfarlo with a certain amount of hope and trepidation. The good news is that it’s an arch and amusing piece. In its treatment of a four-way love affair and how the private passions within it play out and intersect with the wider social world it reminded me of Oscar Wilde. Perhaps it’s how Wilde would have rewritten Les Liaisons Dangereuses. But the book:
Fanfarlo is the name of a much-desired Parisian burlesque dancer and courtesan, who has become the mistress of a Monsieur de Cosmelly. We come in to the narrative however via another route – the hero of the tale is the Samuel Cramer of the opening line, a somewhat affected poet very much modelled on the author, who comes across Madame Cosmelly in the Jardin de Luxembourg, looking all lost and forlorn. He had known her before she was married, when she was “young, quick-witted, playful and thinner”, and on hearing her story of woe and betrayal, decides what he should do is to seduce the exotic Fanfarlo away from Monsieur de Cosmelly, in the hope that the wife, in her gratitude to having her husband returned to her, will take him as a lover.
Which, even as I type it, makes me chuckle at its sheer ludicrousness. Despite his autobiographical dimension, Charles is treated satirically in the story. He is a “neophyte scoundrel”; his poetry isn’t very good; and he has the kind of self-regarding self-blindness that is easy to recognise – in others, if not always in oneself.
Samuel, as can be seen, was entering the category of absorbing people—unbearable and impassioned men, whose trade is to ruin conversations.
One of Samuel’s most natural flaws was to consider himself the equal of those he had admired; after passionately reading a fine book, his involuntary conclusion was ‘now there’s something beautiful enough to be by me’ – and from there to thinking: ‘so it is by me!’ – is only the space of a dash.
Which is brilliant. So brilliant, in fact, that… yes. Anyway.
And any book which describes “the life of the English […] the life of clubs and circles” as “the death of the heart” is always going to appeal to a well-bred and well-read Englishman.
There are, in fact, dozens of wonderful lines in the book, which takes a rather strange approach to its narrative, introducing us first to Charles, then to Mme de Cosmelly, then allowing her to tell her story, and then moving on to find Charles seducing and then, inevitably, falling in love with Fanfarlo.
This element, too, is autobiographical, mirroring the relationship between Baudelaire and Jeanne Duval, the dancer with whom he was infatuated, and whose presence haunts many of the poems of Les Fleurs du Mal. But it’s here, really, that my interest stops. The dance of text and author is one I have an ambivalent relationship to – s/he may be dead, but by god s/he haunts the text, the book, the experience of reading – but in this case I feel justified in not wanting to know more. The Art of the Novella implies that there is a form, that exists apart from the author, and can be considered without reference to them. Fanfarlo is certainly amusing, but needs a second reading to see if the future Baudelaire—the prophet of modernity—is truly visible in its lineaments.
Next on my pile, by the way, simply because I spotted a Willa Cather reading week on Twitter, will be Alexander’s Bridge.
Jonathan Gibbs is the author of Randall, or The Painted Grape, published by Galley Beggar Press, and lectures in Creative and Professional Writing at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He tweets as @Tiny_Camels and blogs at Tiny Camels.