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For most English readers, Baudelaire is the poet of Les Fleurs du Mal, and perhaps of little else. Some of the more lurid details of the life are well known: the early death of his father; his stepfather's putting him on a ship to Calcutta when he was 20, from which he jumped and returned to France; the exhaustion of his inheritance in a torrent of dissipation; the strokes and paralysis, probably resulting from syphilis; and finally the early death in 1867 aged 46.  He was a herald of that decadence which achieved its highest, gamiest flavours in Huysmans and Rimbaud.

Yet when Baudelaire embarked on his literary career he wanted to make his mark not in poetry but in prose. In 1847 he informed his mother that he was going to commit himself to achieving commercial success in the newly dominant literary form of the novel:

From the beginning of next year, I'm turning to a new trade — by which I mean the creation of works of pure imagination — the Novel. I do not need to demonstrate to you here how grave, beautiful, and infinite this particular art is. As we are discussing material matters, all you need to know is that good or bad, everything can be sold: it's just a question of assiduity.

Not for Baudelaire, however, the kind of assiduity we associate with Zola — the laborious compilations of fact and observation from which a novel would emerge — or even the scholarly immersion of a Flaubert about to write Salammbô. Baudelaire's prose fiction is short, astringent, and shaped by a feline literary taste which shunned as cardinal sins both realism and sentimentalism.

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