Black Venus by James MacManus

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Black Venus by James MacManus

Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: Scott Kemp
Reviewed by Scott Kemp
Summary: James MacManus's Black Venus is a disappointing read. The dynamic between the central characters is flat, and there are far too many cringeworthy moments.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 354 Date: February 2014
Publisher: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0715647424

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Anyone familiar with the numerous biographies of Charles Baudelaire will know there is an absence in the middle of his life: Jeanne Duval. The facts about this mysterious woman are rather sparse, although it is commonly agreed that she was a Haitian cabaret singer - and Baudelaire's perennial muse. And it is Baudelaire's fascination with Duval that continues to haunt the books published by his critics and admirers alike: just what, they ask themselves, was the great man's obsession with the woman he dubbed his Black Venus? But if there's little more to say on the biographical front, what about in the realms of fiction? What about using the scattered facts to build a three-dimensional Duval, one with a backstory, hopes, and feelings? If you think this is a bad idea, then you're too late, because this is the 'eureka!' moment that spawned James MacManus's exasperating new novel, Black Venus.

In his 'Historical Note', MacManus rebuts the previous portrayals of Duval as 'an illiterate drug addict who wrecked the life of a great poet'. Fair enough. Why, then, does he consistently show Duval manipulating our poor versifier with her inexhaustible supply of laudanum? If MacManus wishes to rewrite history, or prove that Duval wasn't 'a gold digger' who 'wormed her way' into Baudelaire's soul for cash, why does he persistently show her spending his inheritance on sybaritic whims? But we should have known what was coming, because the book's 'Prologue' had already set the tone for Duval's characterisation. In it, her eyes are described as 'hypnotic', 'cold and implacable', 'dark, deep, and unfathomable'. She even has 'a wild, pealing laugh', which, as you can imagine, makes her very 'dangerous' indeed.

And that's it, really, except for a reimagining of Duval's Haitian past, which plays upon the country's revolution, her mixed parentage, and an escape to France on a boat. MacManus also makes Duval a killer, albeit in self-defence. But what about Baudelaire? Well, MacManus turns him into an action hero, a decadent who has a sword in his cane and isn't afraid to use it. And it's in this daredevil guise that Baudelaire does all sorts of reckless things, such as pulling the Emergency Stop cord on a train, even when it's moving: very naughty. One laughable scene sees the poet strutting around the barricades of 1848 with a 'rifle in one hand and a bandolier of ammunition around his waist'. Despite this being true, the 'bandolier of ammunition' sounds more like Rambo than Baudelaire. To balance it all out, though, MacManus gives us a grumpy Baudelaire, a 'caricature of a morose misanthrope' who, like a stroppy teenager, whinges when he doesn't get his way. Now, Baudelaire was clearly a difficult character, but you can't have an apathetic dandy one minute and a Chuck Norris wannabe the next: it doesn't work.

MacManus's 'Author's Note' states that, despite the book being a 'work of fiction', the narrative is 'grounded...in fact as much as possible'. He says that apart from his 'own research' (which is what, exactly?) he has stayed true to the biographies. But this isn't the case, and MacManus takes some bizarre and wrong-headed liberties with the real historical record. He admits that Duval 'was not a witness' in the obscenity trial that followed the publication of Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857, so why put her there in the novel? It's a pointless endeavour, and adds nothing whatsoever to the drama. Furthermore, as a historical novelist, MacManus repeatedly dives headfirst into the genre's one true cesspit, i.e. cramming in too many facts, even when they have no relevance to the plot or context. Do we need to have a short history on the stethoscope when one of the main characters (Duval) is being diagnosed with tuberculosis and terminal cancer? No. It is annoying and unnecessary, and carries a whiff of Wikipedia.

So MacManus may not be very good at characters, or dialogue, but he is rather good at cityscapes, rooms, and clothing. He repositions Baudelaire as an embryonic psychogeographer, trundling the Parisian pavements, taking note of the 'contrasting squalor and opulence'. That Baudelaire revelled in the city's decadence and hypocrisy is in little doubt, for it was this quality that made him an urban 'prophet of doom and damnation, an endless dabbler in the dark side of men's souls'. And it was this transition - this post-Romantic migration from the idyllic meadows to the humdrum metropolis - that fuelled Baudelaire's 'modern...and dangerous' verse. As T S Eliot said, it was Baudelaire's 'elevation of such [everyday] imagery to the first intensity ' that made him a true revolutionary, and one who happily trampled on Wordsworth's daffodils with his gang of deadbeats and dandies. To be fair, MacManus covers all of these angles well, but this is a novel and not literary criticism.

To conclude, then, Black Venus is a disappointing read. The dynamic between the central characters is flat, and there are far too many cringeworthy moments. In fact, the book should have been a monograph, because MacManus has a lot of interesting things to say about Baudelaire, just not in a fictional framework. (It'd also be good to know what his sleuthing managed to uncover in the archives.) If he released a non-fiction book on Baudelaire, I'd read it, but this novel adds nothing to our understanding of the great poet or his muse. It is pure speculation, and poorly executed speculation at that. It does, however, have an elegant cover, so it's not all bad.

For a superb example of historical fiction, try out Hilary Mantel's Booker prize-winning Wolf Hall.

Buy Black Venus by James MacManus at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Black Venus by James MacManus at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Black Venus by James MacManus at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Black Venus by James MacManus at Amazon.com.


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