For readers who have been drawn to The Paris Wife or Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Black Venus captures the artistic scene in the great French city decades earlier, when the likes of Dumas and Balzac argued literature in the cafes of the Left Bank. Amongst the bohemians the young Charles Baudelaire stood out—dressed impeccably thanks to an inheritance that was quickly vanishing. Still at work on the poems which he hoped would make his name, he spent his nights enjoying the alcohol, opium, and women who filled the seedy streets of the city.
One woman would catch his eye—a beautiful Haitian cabaret singer named Jeanne Duval. Their lives would remain forever intertwined thereafter, and their romance would inspire his most infamous poems—leading to the banning of his masterwork Les Fleurs du Mal and a scandalous public trial for obscenity.
Black Venus recreates the classic Parisian literary world in vivid detail, complete with not just an affecting portrait of the famous poet but also his often misunderstood, much-maligned muse.
When I read the synopsis for Black Venus, it immediately grabbed my attention, with its mentions of Paris, artists, and bohemians, I immediately thought Toulouse-Lautrec and the Moulin Rouge. It turns out I was thinking a couple of decades too late, as Baudelaire lived from 1821 until 1867 and Toulouse-Lautrec was only born in 1864, but the spark of interest had been lit. The subject matter of Charles Baudelaire and his muse Jeanne Duval would suggest a romantic story; however, James MacManus gives us anything but a conventional romance in his latest novel Black Venus. Instead he gives us a strange blend of fiction and history book, which while fascinating left me feeling largely unconnected to its protagonists.
This disconnect was increased by the fact that neither Baudelaire nor Duval is portrayed as very sympathetic. I never really got a sense of why these two had fallen in love or even if they had in fact fallen in love, rather than in lust. What we do see is a portrait of a toxic relationship without equal, where two people bring each other to the brink and even if neither of them actually took up a weapon and killed the other, it is their mutual obsession and their addiction to drugs and alcohol that kills them in the end. MacManus portrays the relationship without judgement and without choosing sides, rather choosing to keep emotion at a remove and so give an objective – or as objective as possible – account of events. Only towards the end of the novel once they have lost everything, have left each other and are both ill and dying, do they become a little more sympathetic, Jeanne more so than Baudelaire. But in some ways it’s too little, too late and there is the sense that those around them had similar feelings.
MacManus’ love of Paris practically drips from the book’s pages; his Paris is well-described and when he takes his characters for a walk I could almost follow along, especially once I got out my Paris A-Z book (and yes, yes I did, don’t judge me!) He captures Paris in one of its most dynamic times building-wise, when the city moves from the medieval city to the large avenue-ed, quarry-stone built metropolis we know and love today. It was startling to realise that this uniform building style and layout of the city was so relatively recent. The book runs from the time Baudelaire and Duval meet in around 1842 until just before Jeanne’s death in 1862. MacManus covers this time by taking large jumps in time in short descriptive passages. There are also quite a lot of history lessons in the book. In other books I’d call them info-dumps, here they seem to be part of the writing style, which seems more formal – though, I hasten to say, by no means dry – for example, Baudelaire, Duval and many of the secondary characters are mainly referred to by their last names instead of their first names. While the large amount of expositional passages did look like part of the writing style, at times there was a ‘look at all the stuff I discovered’-vibe about some of the details, especially the descriptions of some of the restaurants and hotels. Being somewhat of a history geek, I didn’t really mind this, but I could see this being a problem for the casual historical fiction reader.
While I found the book interesting, Black Venus never really connected emotionally or ignited my initial spark of interest into a flame of passion for the story, which is rather strange for a book about one of the most passionate love affairs of bohemian Paris. Still, if you enjoy a well-researched tale and don’t mind the strange mixture of fiction and non-fiction, then you might well enjoy Black Venus very much. For me though the book never got beyond its setting, I’ll remember MacManus’ Paris far more than his Baudelaire or Duval.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.
As part of my blog tour stop, in addition to my review, I’ll also have a short Q&A with the author up later today. Don’t forget to check back to catch it!