Charles Baudelaire had a love/hate relationship with his mother. Simone De Beauvoir rejected her mother’s overbearing Christianity, identifying as an atheist from the age of 14 and Samuel Becket moved to Paris after he fell out with his mother. I’m calling this piece’s theme, “Thanks Mums!”.
It is virtually impossible to be a Francophile without at least having heard of Baudelaire. My first exposure to this iconic figure was when Uncle Monty from the cult film Withnail and I talked about “butter dripping from crumpets” onto his books of poetry, but what do we know about him? He wrote Les Fleurs du Mal, his most famous book of poetry. What were his poems about though? We know they were romantic because Rimbaud and Verlaine and Proust and Bob Dylan said so. We know he used high language and debauched themes because he always has a glass in his hand and holds his audience captive when we imagine the cliché of him, but did you know that if his mother and stepfather had had their way, he might have been a lawyer or a diplomat? Dare we imagine a world without Baudelaire the poet in it? Who would have “rejuvenated romanticism” (according to Gustave Flaubert)? To whom would we attribute the term‘modernity’?
Who would have rendered the themes of sex and death and lesbianism sacred and profane love, metamorphosis, melancholy, the corruption of the city, lost innocence, the oppressiveness of living, and wine topics for artistic consideration, let alone discovery?
Who would have translated the works of Edgar Allen Poe into French?
Who would have championed the art of Eugène Delacroix, whose museum is a Parisian must-see for the seasoned art lover, or the music of Richard Wagner?
Baudelaire was a dandy for sure and had he not enjoyed the debauched pleasures of this wonderful existence of ours, he would never have been able to write his invaluable poetry. Thus, by the arbiters of morality of his time he was excoriated and his family limited his funding lest he drink and drug himself to death. This was, despite his detractors, a feat he eventually managed and as Richards Burton and Harris have nobly shown us, there is simply no better way to go.
Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir led a storied life in which she met and influenced amazing people, so she wrote about her experiences and changed the world, more than once spearheading the feminist movement and obtaining abortion rights for women. Her affairs of the heart and body were often scandalous and much talked about, so she told her own story in her books. She talked about her intellectual friends as well as her male and female lovers, some of whom were shocked and sued her while others loved the spotlight such as her lifelong partner Jean-Paul Sartre beside whom she is buried and with whom she shared a number of lovers.
All this whilst remaining a leading light in the intellectual and philosophical movements of her time and a lifelong editor of books and the magazine Les Temps Modernes which she founded alongside Sartre. De Beauvoir also ardently eschewed traditional female roles, refusing to marry throughout her whole life. Her father is quoted as saying of her as a child that “she thinks like a man”. I like to think she thought only of herself as thinking, thus rejecting any notions of patriarchy. Feminism has been discussed a lot recently by eminent women, with legislation regarding the autonomy of the female body. Simone De Beauvoir was way ahead of her time in this regard.
I think it no coincidence his portrait photographs so intensely depict the brooding genius, given that Samuel Beckett had his own personal photographer at one stage. From his craggy face to his soaring coiffure, his image is instantly recognisable. His work though is renowned for its impenetrability. Waiting for Godot being his best-known and most successful play, he purposely wrote in French he said to avoid having a writing style. He is, nonetheless, considered one of the last modernists (thank you, Mr Baudelaire for the term) and a precursor of post-modernism. Sartre was an admirer and he and Simone De Beauvoir published one of his works in Les Temps Modernes.
He played down his role in WWII as a member of the French Resistance calling it, “boy scout stuff” and yet was awarded the Croix De Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance. Further testament to his ruggedness and love of understatement, not only did he drop the charges against a notorious pimp called ‘Prudent’ (I’m not making this up) after he stabbed him in the chest and nearly killed him, he went on to befriend Prudent having asked him his motive for the attack and having received the reply, “I don’t know, sir. I’m sorry”. How come Hemingway gets all the plaudits for literary tough guy?!