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Thursday, May 23, 2013

"Black Venus" by James MacManus~Baudelaire in Love

A vivid novel of Charles Baudelaire and his lover Jeanne Duval, the Haitian cabaret singer who inspired his most famous and controversial poems, set in nineteenth-century Paris.
For readers who have been drawn to The Paris Wife, 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. Among the bohemians, the young Charles Baudelaire stood out—dressed impeccably thanks to an inheritance that was quickly vanishing. Still at work on the poems that 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.
James MacManus's Black Venus re-creates 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.

Published by:  Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press
Pages:  352
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Author:  James MacManus
Find out more on his website:  James MacManus


James MacManus was born in London in 1943, educated at Westminster School and graduated from St Andrews University in 1966.He broke his Guardian reading parents’ hearts when he joined the Daily Express in Manchester as a trainee reporter that year. He redeemed himself when he moved to The Guardian in 1972, working first as a reporter in the London office and then as a foreign correspondent in France, Africa and the Middle East for twelve years. The bulk of this time was spent in what was then Rhodesia where he was based as the Guardian’s Africa correspondent from 1974-80. In 1985 he joined the Diplomatic staff of the Daily Telegraph in London.

He joined the Times in November 1992 as Assistant Editor (Home) and took over as Managing Editor of The Times in September 1996.
He became Managing Director of The Times Supplements in April 1997, a company that published the Times Educational Supplement, the Times Higher Education Supplement and the Times Literary Supplement (TLS).

Following heart surgery in 2009 James relinquished many of his Corporate Affairs duties to concentrate on speech writing and managing the TLS.
In 2006 after a gestation of almost 20 years a film script James had written finally made it to the screen under the title The Children of Huang Shi. The film takes place at the height of the Sino-Japanese war in the 1940s and tells the story of 65 Chinese school children who were recued from certain death by George Hogg, a young Englishman who had been caught up in the conflict. To escape the advancing Japanese forces in the bitter winter of 1944 Hogg took the children in a convoy of mule carts over the highest mountains in China to Shandan in the remote North West. There he died in 1945 of tetanus aged 30. MacManus heard about Hogg’s brief and heroic life while working in Beijing as a reporter in 1985 and his subsequent news story in a London paper attracted the attention of Hollywood. The film starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and directed by Roger Spottiswoode was released in 2006. James MacManus has also written a book about Hogg’s life called ‘Ocean Devil’ which was published in March 2008.

In 2010 James’s first novel was published by Harper Collins in |London. On the Broken Shore won critical acclaim and is to be published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St Martins Press in New York. The book will be re-titled the Language of the Sea. Thomas Dunne is a senior and widely respected publisher in the US and he said of On The Broken Shore: "What an odd, brilliant, shocking, moving, clever, perceptive book."

James MacManus has been married twice and has three children. He is currently separated from his second wife.


"Charles Baudelaire wrote the finest poetry in the French language, the first modern poetry in any language and helped shape the literature of the 21st century. His reputation rests on a slim volume of poems Les Fleurs du Mal several of which were banned after an obscenity trial. For most of his adult life he lived with, and was obsessed by, a woman to whom he dedicated his poetry, who inspired his every artistic endeavour and who was loathed by his family, friends and his publisher. He called her his Black Venus. Jeanne Duval was a striking Creole from Haiti, with a voluptuous figure, an addiction to alcohol and opium and, being barely literate, scant regard for her lover's poetry. Although Baudelaire's muse and mistress, she took her own lovers and became infamous in a decidedly decadent society. As a result rising artists such as Manet and indeed Baudelaire himself, painted her portrait.
This book tells the true story of a relationship that puzzled Paris society in the mid 19th century has pre-occupied critics ever since:
What secret lay at the heart of Charles Baudelaire's obsessive love for a muse that destroyed him.? Jeanne Duval betrayed Baudelaire in every way. Her extravagance drove him into debt, she turned him into an opium addict and slept with his friends. Yet without her he could not write a word. Towards the end of his life Baudelaire said :"I only have had only two responsibilities in my life. To my art and to my Black Venus.""

James MacManus



This is one of those books I was dying to love. Baudelaire is my favorite French poet. I adore his poems, his intensity, his ardent way of expressing life and love. I was hoping for so much in this story of his muse, Jeanne Duval. Sadly, it was only a lukewarm representation of what must have been a very hot obsession. I was disappointed from the get-go.
While details of their lives, surroundings and relationship were set within the novel at the correct times and places, it was such that I felt I was reading a text book that had been "fancied up;" or made more palatable with warm icing. The book lacked heart and real substance. It felt flat. The characters were not well-defined or alive. While I wanted to care about them, I found I couldn't. They were without life and too devoid of definition to become captivating. Both Baudelaire and Jeanne Duval were not at all as charming as one would hope.
The surroundings and descriptive details that might have made Paris come alive were weak. There was very little atmosphere. I never really got a sense of place although the characters went to some exotic locations that would have been fun to have experienced vicariously! It felt as if the author was so stuck in detailing the history, he lacked imagination.
As far as a historical perspective of Baudelaire and his beautiful, irreverent muse Jeanne Duval goes, this is a book that did answer some questions about their relationship and what drove his genius and madness. It was a book that filled in the gaps on what their lives might have been like and how society might have reacted to them as a couple. The research seemed strong, in essence.
What disappointed was that it was not a captivating work of historical fiction. It did not flow in story form. There was a lack of description on all counts. The characters, as I've said, were virtually one dimensional. Dialog was stilted. And, the book on whole was not compelling or exciting.
Beautiful cover, fantastic idea...but no follow through on this one. A missed opportunity... I'm sad.
3 stars for a fair story Deborah/TheBookishDame


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