Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Grime and punishment

Better late than never !

The Sunday Times
December 31, 2006

Books on Trial from Madame Bovary to Lolita
by Elisabeth Ladenson
Cornell Univ Press £16.95 pp304

Review by Christopher Hart

Sex for us may have begun in 1963, but for the Victorians it began in 1857. So suggests Elisabeth Ladenson in this witty and elegant study, written with an exceptional sensitivity to the multiple ironies regarding sex and censorship in literature. 1857 was the annus mirabilis, or horribilis, that saw the publication and then prosecution of Madame Bovary and Les Fleurs du Mal, as well as the passage of the Obscene Publications Act in England.

Madame Bovary was defended successfully, while Les Fleurs du Mal came out in modified form. But Baudelaire does tend to strike us now as part of that slightly silly late Romantic/fin de siècle movement that, having no real grasp of “evil”, decided it must be something exotic and thrilling with which to épater le bourgeois.

A century or more later, we have some rather more concrete examples of evil to reflect upon, and very unglamorous and aesthetically unappealing they look too, in all their sickness and squalor and banality. Toying with some astract idea of “Mal” as an aesthetic credo seems both childish and repellent, and Ladenson’s description of Baudelaire as “The Florist of Evil” is appropriately withering.

Full review: here