Historical Background: Charles Baudelaire
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) was a French poet, essayist and translator who introduced to France the work of Edgar Allen Poe.
His most famous work, Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), was praised by friends and denounced by critics for its ground-breaking decadence. The newspaper Le Figaro said of it: ‘Everything which is not hideous is incomprehensible, everything one understands is putrid.’
The book was seized by the authorities, and Baudelaire, his publisher and his printer were all found guilty of an offence against public morals. Six of the poems remained censored for almost a century.
Many of the poems were inspired by his relationships with women, particularly with his on- off half-Creole mistress, Jeanne Duval, and with Apollonie Sabatier, a female acquaintance to whom he sent a number of his poems anonymously. They have been dubbed the Vénus Noire and the Vénus Blanche.
I have made my own translations of half a dozen of Baudelaire’s poems, extracts of which are used in BELIEVE ME. The longer versions are below.
I have more memories than if I had lived a thousand years.
An old desk full of dead ideas –
Abandoned poems, old receipts and bills,
Dusty locks of hair and long-forgotten wills –
Is not more full of secrets than my aching head.
I’m a necropolis; a mass grave where the dead –
Those bodies I once loved – are tumbled willy-nilly,
Prodded and nudged incessantly
By morbid reveries, like worms.
I’m a cemetery shunned by the moon,
A bedroom filled with withered bloom,
Where cupboards full of wedding clothes
Are slowly chewed to dust by moths.
The days go on forever. Boredom and ennui
Are in themselves a kind of immortality.
Slowly, I become the opposite of flesh:
Antimatter, darkness, life’s antithesis,
Like some old statue of a half-forgotten god,
Abandoned in the desert, starved of blood,
Whose enigmatic, weather-beaten frown
Lights up, just for a moment, as the sun goes down.
To One Who Is Too Cheerful
Your face, your gestures, and your manner
Are as pretty as the countryside.
Laughter blows across your face
Like a breeze across a sky.
Every passer-by, however glum,
Can’t but be charmed by the glow of health
That radiates like sunlight
From your bare shoulders and your arms.
The dazzling riot of colours
You favour for your dresses
Would make a poet think
Of a chorus-line of flowers.
Those vibrant, crazy dresses are the emblem
Of your multi-coloured nature.
Mad woman who I’m mad about!
I love and hate you all at once.
Sometimes in a pretty garden
To which I’ve dragged my apathy,
I’ve felt the sunshine like a pain,
As though its brilliance mocked me.
Springtime and renewal
So mortify my savage heart
That sometimes I punish flowers
Simply for daring to bloom.
So, too, I should like –
Some dark, pleasurable night –
To creep like a thief
Towards the treasures of your flesh;
To strike and whip your joyous limbs
And bruise your yielding breasts;
To slice, quick and sudden, down your flank
A savage, gaping wound,
And – vertiginous sweetness! –
Through those new lips,
So bright and glistening,
Infuse my venom, oh my sister!
Drawing of an unknown master
The girl lies naked, sensuously sprawled,
Her limbs spread wide to curious eyes;
Her secret places shamelessly exposed,
A glimpse of pink between her amber thighs.
Only a candle, burning bright,
Its still flame undisturbed by breath,
Betrays that she is not asleep:
The cold compliancy of death.
Only a crimson swathe of blood,
Encircling the severed head,
Reveals that she is perfect now,
As all are perfect who are dead.
Tell me, cold beauty, did your intimate in death –
Whose lusts you could not, living, sate –
On your inert, voluptuous corpse
His monstrous passions consummate?
And did he, all his passions spent,
Take in his hands your icy head,
And press his warm and breathing mouth
Against those lips no longer red?
No matter where that man goes now,
He cannot hope to hide or flee,
For he has tasted death’s sweet fruit,
And loves for all eternity.
Let us now be tranquil, O my sad and restless soul.
You wanted evening; see, now it is here.
Dusk has engulfed us in its dark embrace,
Which brings some people peace, but others, fear.
Now, as the vile multitude strip bare
And squeal as Pleasure’s whips strike home –
Numbing their feelings of sorrow or despair –
Come, take my hand; let us stand back and watch.
Let us stand back: above us in the sky,
Ghosts will watch with us in the fading light,
Dressed in the costumes of a time gone by.
Let us stand back, and watch day lose its fight.
The weakened sun slips out of sight:
Death, triumphant, sweeps in from the sea.
Listen, my love, listen to the sweet approach of night.
The Death of Lovers
There is a bed, with pale sweet-smelling sheets,
Cushions soft as earth within a tomb,
Exotic flowers on the window ledge
That block the daylight from this quiet room.
And – like two logs that smoulder in a grate,
Which, knocked together, suddenly relight,
Catching and roaring in a burst of flame –
So our hearts, pressed together now, ignite.
A cold mysterious fire engulfs us both,
A sudden flash of incandescent white;
A heat that burns and does not burn,
But fills the mirrors with its ghostly light.
When, in some future age, these doors are broached,
They shall find only this: an empty bed,
Some charred and blackened bones, a film of ash,
The mirrors broken, and the fire long dead.
My darling was naked, and knowing my desires,
Had kept on only her tinkling jewels.
They gave her the air of a conqueror’s favourite;
The plaything of some Moorish khan.
With every gesture they rattled and chimed,
A blazing shimmer of metal and stone
That bore me away to another world;
Sound and light ecstatically joined.
Lying down, she let herself be loved,
Watching with contented eyes
As I rocked inside her with an ocean’s beat:
A rising tide that battered her like a cliff.
Now a tigress, now languid, now offering new positions –
But always lubricious, always without shame –
She reinvents herself moment by moment,
Giving new meaning to love’s old metamorphoses.
She’s like some new, undiscovered creature,
Whose swivelling, gyrating pelvis
Yokes a boy’s slim torso to an Amazon’s rump.
On her dark skin her adornments are superb.
Her arm and her leg, her thighs and her sex,
Shining with oil, sinuous as a swan,
Pass dizzily before my eyes:
Belly and breasts, fruits of my vine –
Like an evil angel, I shall never escape you.
My soul with you shall never know peace.
The lamp is dead, and the fire soon dying.
The quiet hissing of the last few logs
Floods her amber skin with blood.
To a Passer-by
The noisy street around me howled,
And in that din a woman passed –
Magnificent, slim, with sorrow in her eyes,
Dressed in mourning, hurrying on. But her hand
Flicked up her hem to show, just
For a moment, her shapely foot…
I stopped, and caught her eye.
A kind of shock went through me,
A glance in which a hurricane might be born.
Elusive beauty, whose look brought me alive,
Shall I ever see you again?
I know nothing of you, nor you of me,
And yet, on another occasion, we might have met,
Perhaps for all eternity…
O you who I would have loved; O you who sensed it too.
Come lie with me, you cruel unfeeling soul;
Adored tigress, monster with the lazy air,
So I can rake my trembling fingers
Through the thickness of your mane,
Or bury my aching, fevered head
In the aromas of your skirts,
Inhaling, as if from some dried flower,
The musty sweetness of our lovemaking.
I want to sleep! – To sleep instead of live;
And in a slumber soft as death
To lavish a thousand ruthless kisses
Upon your glowing, copper skin.
No ocean, no abyss can match
The oblivion of your bed:
I taste Lethe’s waters on your lips,
Stupefied with every kiss.
This is my fate – in which I glory,
Knowing I never had a choice;
Like some docile, naive martyr,
Whose piety inflames a torturer even more:
Thus will I suck, to ease my pain,
Hemlock and opium
From the tips of these beautiful breasts
That have never imprisoned a heart.
Like an angel with bright monstrous eyes,
I shall come to where you sleep,
Gliding towards you silently
In the shadows of the night.
And I will give you, my dark beauty
Kisses cold as moonbeams,
Caresses soft as the touch of snakes
That crawl around a grave.
When morning comes, as livid as a bruise,
They will find nothing here:
Just a cold and empty bed.
As some might woo with tenderness
Your vivacity and youth,
I mean to reign over you with fear.
To the Reader (extract)
Some men like to bite and kiss
The sucked-out breasts of anorexic whores,
Extracting every drop of bliss
As if they squeezed an orange of its juice.
For others, it’s like maggots in the brain:
They’re eaten through with unfulfilled desires,
While others still pump death into a vein,
Or suck it deep into their poisoned lungs.
And if you’re one of those moralising snobs
Who claim destruction, porn and rape
Only appeal to self-indulgent yobs,
I say: you simply haven’t got the guts.
And yet, in this menagerie of the perverse –
Libertines, addicts, fantasists and prudes –
There’s one exhibit even worse,
A creature more depraved than any of these.
He does not have the loudest cry;
His cage is often quiet and still.
Yet he’d destroy creation with a sigh,
Or crunch up in his yawning jaws the world.
He weeps with boredom – and dreams of death.
He smokes his hookah – and kills with every breath.
Who is this monster? My friend, you know him too.
My twin, my double – hypocrite reader! – It is you.
More about this book: Believe Me
Extract from The Decoy
Believe Me is based on an earlier book of mine, The Decoy. Rather than republish it as it was first written, I took the opportunity to tell the story from a completely new perspective. Inevitably, that meant throwing out whole sections that didn’t fit into the new plan, but which I was sometimes sorry to see go all the same. This is an extract from a lengthy section in which we meet Glenn, a character who appears in Believe Me only briefly.
Harold J. Hopkins, proprietor and director of the Crossways Funeral Parlor, looks at the young man in front of him and says, “Where else have you worked, Glenn?”
Glenn Furmann says politely, “Well sir, you’ll see from my resume that since I qualified as a licensed mortuary technician I’ve worked in Houston, San Antonio and New York City. I’ve also worked in several establishments in Europe. I didn’t put them on the resume because I figured that wasn’t relevant professional experience.”
“They do things different over there, I guess.”
“In the mainly Protestant countries, yes they do sir. They don’t have a tradition of embalming, or indeed of cosmetology. As you’ll see from my resume, cosmetology is my major area of professional interest.”
“Right,” Harold says. He likes this young man. He likes the way he speaks seriously, in a low voice. He likes the way he’s worn his funeral suit to this interview. He likes the way he calls Harold ‘sir’. In Harold’s view a young man who shows the proper respect for an employer will probably show the proper respect for the deceased.
Harold thinks briefly of his own son, not much older than the young man in front of him. Showing respect had not been Mervyn’s forte. In retrospect, it might have been a good thing that Mervyn had refused to follow his father into the family business. It might only have been storing up trouble for the future.
He drags his attention back to the young man.
“I’d be happy to work a trial period, sir, if that would help you decide between myself and the other applicants.”
“Oh, well. Matter of fact, there aren’t any other applicants. I just posted that job notice last Friday, and you’re the first person to reply. So I guess the early bird catches the worm. How soon could you begin?”
The young man allows a brief smile to touch his lips. “I just need a couple of days to sort out somewhere to live. And thank you, Mr Hopkins, sir. You won’t regret this decision. I believe that I will be useful to you and I hope to learn a great deal from watching an experienced professional like yourself at work, sir.”
Harold Hopkins waves away the compliments, faintly embarrassed. “Nonsense. It’s you who’ll be teaching an old practitioner like me the latest ways of doing things. And there’s no need to call me sir, either. ‘Harold’ will do just fine.”
Two days after his interview, Glenn Furmann reports to the Crossways funeral parlour. Harold gives him a tour of the facilities, and introduces him to Joel, Harold’s business partner, as well as to Harold’s wife Ellen, and their daughter Alicia, who also works for the business. On all of them he makes a good impression. But it’s in the prep room that he and Harold linger the longest.
“Adjustable cot, aspirator pump, embalming machine,” Harold says, indicating the room’s various features. “Ventilation in the table. The hearse can back right up to those doors.”
Glenn compliments him on the efficient set-up and Harold makes a self-deprecating gesture. “We may look like a hokey operation, Glenn, but that’s an impression we work hard to foster. Folks prefer it that way. We actually have over a dozen clients a week pass through here.”
Glenn nods, clearly impressed. “Which embalming solution do you use?”
“Formalin. Low index, usually, to keep down the odour. Why?”
“A lot of people are switching to Sorbent. We used it in Houston. It’s less toxic than Formalin.”
“Sorbent. I think I read something about that.”
“I could get some in, if you liked,” the young man suggests.
“That’s a good idea. Why don’t you do that?”
“Not that I meant to imply there’s anything wrong with formaldehyde-based solutions, you understand. The last thing you want is some young hothead coming in here and telling you to change everything.”
“No, Glenn, don’t apologise.” Harold Hopkins looks kindly on his new employee. “There’s going to be a lot of stuff I need to catch up on. You see anything round here could do with updating, I’d like to know what you think.”
That afternoon Harold and his new assistant ride out to a local retirement home to pick up the body of one of the residents. Retirement home calls are one of the hardest duties a mortician has to perform, and Harold keeps a close eye on his new employee to see how he handles this one.
He’s glad to note that Glenn doesn’t say much on the ride out. Harold knows many morticians like to laugh and joke on the drive over and then suddenly switch on the serious faces when they get to work. He’s even heard it said that a mortician needs to be light-hearted sometimes around cadavers, as a way of letting off steam. But he doesn’t agree with that, and he’s glad Glenn Furmann doesn’t seem to operate that way either. That was why Harold had gotten so mad at Mervyn, for taking the hearse into the McDonalds drive-thru that time. That the vehicle was empty wasn’t the point. The point was that people expect the highest standards from those who handle them after they’ve departed.
He’s glad to note, too, that Glenn doesn’t immediately turn the hearse around and back it into the retirement home gates when they arrive. As Harold used to say to Mervyn, morticians aren’t refuse collectors. Drive in frontways, and we’ll see about loading the client when the time comes.
The retirement home’s Director, a capable lady called Margot Wingate, is waiting for them by the front door. Harold introduces Glenn to her, then the two men follow her to the room of the deceased resident. This was the main reason retirement home calls were hard. You basically had a lot of elderly people who all knew why you were here – those that still had their faculties – and were probably wondering if they’d be next to go. Harold always likes to find time to talk to any of the elderly folks who want to come and chat as he makes his way to the deceased’s room. Sometimes they’ll just want to make a joke about it not being their turn yet, but sometimes they want to be serious and talk about the deceased, particularly if he or she was a friend. You had to strike a balance between getting to the room quickly, without making a big fuss about your presence, and being polite. Once again he’s pleased to see that Glenn Furmann has been well trained, and talks to the residents in the same polite but solemn manner that Harold does himself.
The client is an old lady, still lying peacefully in the bed where she passed away. “I’ve taken off her catheter,” Margot says. “She’s ready to go.”
Harold looks at the space between the bed and the door. “I think there should be ample room for our cot in here, Glenn.”
While Glenn goes back to the hearse for the trolley Margot says: “He’s new, isn’t he?”
“Today is his first day. But he’s had a great deal of experience. And he seems to me to have the correct attitude.”
“How’d you find him?”
“On the internet, as a matter of fact. There’s a sort of bulletin board just started, for vacant jobs. I thought I’d give it a try.”
“He’ll do well,” Margot says. “The old folks like him, anyway.”
“Yes.” Harold smiles at her. “So many outsiders don’t realise. Being a mortician is a people business.”
The young man returns with the cot, and together the two men lift the body of the old lady into the zippered sleeve. Glenn starts to do it up but Harold stops him.
“Now this is perhaps an instance where I might give you some advice, Glenn. Although we’d normally remove a body with the zipper done up, in a retirement home we sometimes do it a little differently. You see, some of these old folks may be too infirm to come to the funeral, so we like to give those that want it the opportunity to come and say their goodbyes as we proceed to the hearse.”
Glenn nods thoughtfully. “That’s a wonderful thought, Mr Hopkins, and I sure am glad you shared that with me.”
“Harold, please,” Harold says, arranging the zippered bag so that it frames the old lady’s face attractively.