A Graphic Novel by Yslaire
I will come clean with the fact that prior to reading this, I was largely unaware of the works and life of acclaimed French poet, Charles Baudelaire. Truthfully, I am not a big poetry reader, so while I’ve seen his name, I can’t say if I’ve ever read a word he’s ever written. This is a fact I really should rectify! I see that he was a big fan of Edgar Allan Poe, and if his poems are in any way influenced, I may have to check out his works. So how has this man, dead many moons ago, come across my mind? That is thanks to the new biographical graphic novel Mademoiselle Baudelaire by Yslaire, a new book from Europe Comics. This graphic novel mostly focuses on Baudelaire’s tumultuous relationship with a young Haitian actress and dancer named Jeanne Duval. Duval was an enigmatic figure in history, as many can’t even pinpoint exactly when she passed away, much less how she felt about various people that this book talks about. Yslaire does his best to use what known facts about the couple are out there and recreate this time period in history to the best of his ability. Granted, much more is known about Charles than his creole mistress, so one can assume most of the dialogue and situations are created with some sort of artistic liberty.
“Baudelaire: poète maudit, enfant terrible, lyric genius, crippling perfectionist. Bereft of a father at age five, he spent his days squandering the former’s fortune on prostitutes and paintings, opium and alcohol, finery and laundry bills for his impeccably white dandy’s collars. He loved a woman and gave her syphilis. This is her story. Muse, mulatto, mistress, mystery… little was known of Jeanne in her day, and even less remembered since. Yslaire pays tribute to a brimstone-and-hellfire affair from the annals of literature, two misunderstood souls who in their mutual misunderstanding afforded each other what little solace they found in life.”
The book is done in an epistolary novel style, using letters written from Duvall to Charles’ mother upon his death trying to make a case for why she is claiming part of his inheritance, and to let the mother in on details of their relationship. Perhaps this is the only real fault I can find in this book, as it doesn’t make much sense as to why she would recount his childhood to somebody that knows better than she, or intimate details of their sex life to a man’s own mother. Through this motif, however, we also see much of the writer’s aforementioned past, his sad upbringing and his tendency towards the macabre that made him who he was. Baudelaire seemed, if this account is historical, to not value women too much – simply seeing them as pieces of meat to be fondled. We see his interactions with many “ladies of the night” wherein he is borderline abusive to them with his words, but frequents their establishment often. It seems the only woman he is truly smitten with is Duval, whom he seems to have an almost unhealthy attraction to, seemingly more of a fetish than anything else.
If you have not already gathered, this book is not intended for younger readers, and contains multiple scenes of an explicit sexual nature. At this time, it seems like most self-described “bohemians” apparently did much else but frequent houses of ill repute and smoke opium, so we get a lot of that here. To me, it never crossed the line into being gratuitous seeing that most of the images were done in an artistic manner, many were stylized, and others held visual allusions and metaphors within the frames rather than overt depictions of intercourse. If you are rather prudish, or do not want to experience anything of an erotic nature, I’d recommend sitting this one out. All of the passion soon ends in the story as they both become sick with “Cupid’s Disease”.
I think I was most taken aback by how much syphilis ravaged both Charles and Jeanne throughout the later part of the story. At one point, we see an aged Charles talking to one of his friends, to which he remarks “you’re 40 now…” when he clearly looks much much older. As somebody just shy of that age mark, it made me sit there and think of my own mortality a bit, seeing a man so clearly on death’s door and somewhat young. Left untreated, the ailment destroyed both of them, making them have trouble walking, experience delirium, and even have suicidal thoughts. Yes, Charles starts taking things like Mercury and Laudanum, but neither of which cures in any way. Both blame the other for being the progenitor of their predicament, and it causes them to drift farther and farther away until they live a life of embittered resentment towards each other. Charles even becomes religious, but drifts into an odd version Satanism to try to soothe his soul.
All-in-all, I enjoyed Mademoiselle Baudelaire by Yslaire quite a bit, and it has intrigued me on the writings of Charles Baudelaire as a whole. It’s not a very happy story, and at times the characters can be fairly unlikeable, but its a great way to get into the minds of members of the French artists of the mid nineteenth century, so for that I will give it props. I’m used to getting various volumes of shorter works from Europe Comics, so being able to sink my teeth into a full-on graphic novel was a nice change of pace. If you are a fan of history, or learning about French social life in that time period you can not find a better comic to get into, even if it’s separated a bit from reality, the story is still very good.
If you are interested in this book, please click HERE
NOTE: I received a free preliminary, and likely unedited copy of this book from Netgalley for the purposes of providing an honest, unbiased review of the material. Thank you to all involved.
[…] art and literature biographies as of late, and I’m all for it. Much like with a similar book, Mademoiselle Baudelaire, the format of a graphic novel takes a name from an art history book, a stuffy footnote at best, […]