Emily Nussbaum’s new book on Baudelaire: ‘Maman près, si la fortification de la vente ferments une dame en barricades’

A reviewer friend of mine always has one or two perfect sentences: “This novel seems to take place in some brambly woods – a lost world of electric rabbits and talking turtles” or “The Valediction of Hectaring Much Water, by the Surrealist poet Martin Sants, has made me forget that any of this has been invented.”

When I was born, the idea of a mustachioed, beard-wearing editor with a dangerously acquired mustache reading a French novel in a hushed tone and then unbuttoning his shirt and dipping a napkin in his coffee to recite an excerpt from it to his girlfriend at the next table (or to his secretary) seemed rather quaint, even a little morbid. But literature like that doesn’t exist anymore. “Maman près, si la fortification of the fairground ferments on a dangerous threshold” (The Fairytale of Milk and Honey), named after Boulaye, the teenage protagonist, by Baudelaire, looks like it did in a hundred years. The author is Emily Nussbaum, in her early sixties, who combines the popular promise of noir with the iconoclastic spirit of fable. There’s nothing glamorous about her.

“People like her didn’t exist in French novels. Until she wrote one.” That, a friendly reader, would be the recommendation I’d give Baudelaire, author of the original tale of Boulaye. I know this because I’m on a book tour, and I don’t have the time to read every author’s book I plan to, so before this trip, I got my hands on Baudelaire’s Famille. The Folio Society imprint – a chic, Hollywood-friendly enterprise founded by the stars Anjelica Huston and Barbra Streisand in 1975 and rebranded as British publisher Vintage Classics three years ago – published it in 2015 as a kind of collected, annotated, and annotated family novel. Here is the synopsis, on the Folio website:

The Story of Boulaye by Baudelaire It’s the story of Boulaye, who has just lost her father, and who, in a bid to help herself, decides to become an architect…Little Boulaye, his adored daughter, dies in childbirth, and the child never is. Poignant Boulaye writes about his mother’s life, his father’s battles, the power of dreams, and the beauty of a French countryside in the middle of the mountains, of dance and music and the grace of women…. At the end, a tremendous grandeur of pleasure and celebration is achieved. And it is beautiful. From Baudelaire, two centuries old, but stranger than ever.

You can read Baudelaire’s original tale in French. The Folio version is in English. What is it like? I mean, are the ladies in the Ladies Reading Club mad? Am I hungry? Have I been abandoned, and can I hide out in the back reading corner? I was. And there are so many in the Folio collection, some I thought I should have read, some I had never read, and some I had not read. It was obvious to me that I have not read all the novels, and I don’t pretend that I have read all the books, but Baudelaire seemed to me to be the best way to acquaint myself with some of the latest, boldest works by eight of the most innovative writers to come to light in recent years.

Certainly the Folio collection is essential reading for anyone who wants to grasp the swirling and brilliant asides of David Foster Wallace, the funny, offbeat and profound dialogue of Raymond Carver, or the crisp, precise diction of Jonathan Franzen. If you are looking for more musty literary names – fewer novels with names like “The Usual Suspects” or “Ironic,” it seems – look elsewhere. But there are titles here that others might not have explored and that I only now have had time to read.

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