So19 talks with BOB VAN LAERHOVEN

Charles Baudelaire is three years dead by the time Flemish author Bob van Laerhoven’s Baudelaire’s Revenge begins, but the life, art, and personality of the fabled French poet are felt on every page of the novel. Amid the tumult of 1870 Paris, someone is killing those who opposed Baudelaire and leaving lines from his iconic Les Fleurs du Mal on their bodies. The quotations are written in handwriting that exactly matches Baudelaire’s, raising speculation about whether the notorious member of the Decadent movement is dead at all—and if so, how and why the crimes are being committed. As the melancholy Commissioner Lefèvre and his autodidact subordinate, Inspector Bouveroux, attempt to unravel the mystery, their lives intersect with Baudelaire’s in ways that neither they nor the reader could predict. Published in Flemish in 2007 and French in 2013, the book’s English edition, translated from the Dutch by Brian Doyle, appeared in 2014 from Pegasus Books. Baudelaire’s Revenge has earned van Laerhoven the Hercule Poirot Prize for best suspense novel of 2007; the USA Best Book Award 2014 in the category mystery/suspense; widespread critical and popular praise; and myriad new readers beyond his home in Belgium. Though its candid treatments of sexual issues may not suit every reader, Baudelaire’s Revenge is not merely startling, much less sensationalist; from its darkest themes to its moments of dry wit, it is richly imagined, intricately plotted, carefully researched, and undeniably distinctive. The author of over thirty books, Van Laerhoven’s freelance writing and work for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) International has brought him to myriad places of conflict including Somalia, Liberia, Sudan, Gaza, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar, and the besieged city of Sarajevo. You can find out more about van Laerhoven and his work on his website and keep abreast of his news on Facebook and Twitter. You can also find a longer version of this interview in PDF form here. Society Nineteen is pleased to interview its first Flemish author, and to speak with Bob van Laerhoven about the strange cruelties of love, the equally strange mind of Charles Baudelaire, the requirements and risks of novel-writing, and the many contradictions of the 19th century.—SF

So19:  The text on the back cover of your new short story collection, Dangerous Obsessions (Anaphora Literary Press, 2015), notes the theme as “warped love as the source of violence.” Similarly, a character in Baudelaire’s Revenge says that “some loves are inexplicable and cruel” and “our shortcomings, after all, breed our most powerful desires.” So this seems to be a theme that you return to?

BvL:  You have a very sharp eye. Love’s ambiguousness is simultaneously a mystery and a challenge to me. Why? I confess, I don’t really know.

Novelists usually like nice endings. After many pages of conflict, sadness, anger, violence, double-crossing, etc., the reader wants an ending that soothes her or him. But I think that life isn’t soothing, except for fleeting moments, and that even our purest forms of love —from parent to child, from a human to a beloved animal—is tainted in some way. Humans are a very complicated and contradictory species. I try to capture these conflicts in our beings. I want to capture in language the fluidity of who we are and what we consider as right or wrong. I want to understand the depths of our desires—that mysterious point where Eros and Thanatos meet, are enemies and allies, and both love and hate each other.

So19:  As noted in the introduction above, though he dies three years before it begins, Charles Baudelaire is vividly present in the novel. His work, his legacy, his family, his philosophy, his inner demons all come roaring to life. What inspired you to write a novel with him at its center?

BvL:  Baudelaire’s verses fascinated me even before I was able to understand the brilliant depth of his poetry. I was eighteen then, and lived in a small Flemish village very close to the Dutch border. There was no reading culture, no books in my parents’ house. They were hard-working people, striving to provide their four sons a better future. There was a small but well-stocked library in the village, though, and the librarian noticed my hunger for reading. Eventually, he advised me to read De Bloemen Van den Booze, the Dutch translation of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal.

I was so flabbergasted by the mysterious language, the elegant phrases, and the mystical depth I sensed behind the metaphors, that in my free time I learned enough French to be able to read the original version of the poems. The rhythm of those words was intoxicating. In short:  Baudelaire’s ghost had me in its grip.

I vowed that I would become an author and that I would write about this mysterious poet, so sensitive yet so brutal, so pure yet so depraved. The chances of my being able to fulfill that promise seemed slim. But against all odds, I kept my vow. I’ve published more than 30 books in Holland and Belgium, but I was 52 before I could sit down with enough confidence to write Baudelaire’s Revenge, the book I always had wanted to write.

So19:  Though you clearly made extensive use of the historical Baudelaire, you also built a complex secret around him. Where did the inspiration for this invented story come from—was there a particular starting point or “seed”?
BvL:  During his life, the French nobility and bourgeoisie frowned upon Charles Baudelaire. Among other things, he was called a pervert, a decadent, and a sadomasochist. The French government censored his poetry and threw him in jail when Les Fleurs du Mal appeared, and the literary establishment despised him. Nevertheless, with his extravagant clothing and daring opinions about life, death and sex, he was a role model for many young and stylish Parisians.

Baudelaire was something of what we would today call a drama queen. Everyone in the artistic salons of that time knew some tragic story about the “doomed poet.” Even during his life, rumors abounded, in part because Baudelaire himself liked to tell outrageous stories about himself, his family, and his travels.

Allegedly, one of those stories was that he was doomed to lead a dramatic and wretched life because he had a twin sister, misshapen at birth, who was (in the custom of that time) whisked away to a convent and who died early. When his entourage asked for details, Baudelaire remained vague, alluding to the fact that his taste for “evil” had its roots in the fact that he possessed a “damaged soul.” The reason for that was the loss of his twin sister. Finding this concept of a damaged soul fascinating, I knew I wanted to use it in the novel. From there on, the story came to me, as if it had waited for that starting point.

So19:  Your novel describes the cultural, political, literary and other aspects of Paris at an incredibly tense, complex time in its history. Can you talk about the process you used to research the details you use to evoke it so richly?

BvL: It’s easy to talk about that process:  I don’t really know how it happens. You could call it the “following the subterranean gold wire” Hermann Hesse wrote about in his famous novel Steppenwolf. I’m doing nothing, idling away, and then suddenly I’m aware of its glow. I only have to follow it, jumping as it were from fact to fact.

It can be a strange feeling. I read a text about my subject; I see a word, or an expression, a fact, that seems to jump out of the page; and those I research further. I’m guided. I don’t know precisely how it works, but it’s an organic process. I don’t want to analyze it too much. Why should I damage a precious gift for which I’m deeply grateful?

So19:  Sexual desire and behavior are consistent themes in Baudelaire’s Revenge, with a number of scenes treating them quite explicitly. In this way, your novel is quite different from the many books that portray this era as prudish or even sexless. Those novels seem to portray people of the period as they wished to seem, where you reveal how they actually behaved! Was the emphasis on themes of sexuality your intention from the start, or did it develop as you crafted the story and “world” of the book?

BvL:  Ah, at last! At last someone in the States who asks this question, for which I’m deeply grateful. But it’s also a complicated question that made me scratch my head!

The emphasis on sexual themes was there partly from the start, and partly influenced by my research. In 19th-century France, the bourgeoisie and the nobility expressed their sexual needs rather freely, often even with more self-confidence than people do now. The great courtesans were admired, even revered. Fashionable nobility and artists sought reputations as being a bit perverse; a bent for the exotic, sexual and otherwise, added luster to a reputation. Marriage existed for practical reasons while a blooming sexual industry, embellished upon and viewed as an art (and designed around the needs of men, of course) existed by its side.

All these elements spurred me on, and I wanted to be as true as possible to my subject. Therefore, my novel had to mirror the sadomasochistic tendencies of Baudelaire, who was a great poet but a wreck of a man. I also wanted to show that under the glittering, glamorized surface of the sex industry, there was a much harsher reality—particularly for women and young girls.

So19:  Can you talk a bit about the choices you made as to how you would handle those themes?

BvL:  Sometimes, when I read a historical book, the author’s research shimmers through. For me, that hampers the story’s atmosphere. So in Baudelaire’s Revenge, I decided to write the sexual scenes from the point of view of someone who lived in that time and was familiar with then-fashionable sexual practices.

Being the author, I couldn’t directly intervene by conveying my opinion about these scenes. I had to do that more subtly, so I tried to use an elegant, literary and detached language when it came to writing these episodes. The situations may be perverse, but the language isn’t. This is meant as a sign that I, as a human being, don’t condone such acts. In Europe, I was understood, because my novel has roots in a literary tradition. I wasn’t always understood in the States. Don’t get me wrong: I understand and acknowledge that fact. The American culture is different from ours. Many Americans are not familiar with the different backgrounds of our past or our literature. Similarly, we don’t fully know yours. In any case, I made my choice; I think it’s a valuable choice; and I stick with it.

So19:  Commissioner Lefèvre and his subordinate, Inspector Bouveroux, are a study in contrasts. It would be great if you’d talk a bit about how you developed their characters and “assigned” their particular talents, capacities, and stories.

BvL:  It’s said that in love and friendship we’re seeking kindred souls. But often, that’s not the reality. I’ve observed a lot of couples who seem to have opposing characters, but share a certain vibe that becomes the emotional glue between them. We know so little of ourselves that co-existing with a similar partner can be irksome. We recognize something, a character trait or attitude, in him or her that we ourselves share, but in that “other” we find it offensive or irritating.

With that in mind, I decided to give Lefèvre and Bouveroux the same background—the Algerian war that has welded them together—but very different personalities. In this way, they form a good team and gave me the opportunity to describe the mystery from both sides.

So19:  Your website talks about the way your writing is grounded in personal experience. Can you talk about how your own experiences in Algiers helped shape that aspect of the novel?

BvL:  I have been a travel writer in mostly war-torn countries from 1990 until the end of 2003. I was fifty then, and by that point I felt that part of my life was over. My last journeys, among them to Gaza, Iran, and the region of the Wa-rebels in Myanmar (Burma), had taught me that I had become too jumpy. Something was closing in. I simply knew that I had to stop before destiny struck. But I remained fascinated by the things humans do in warfare and by the question of where all that violence stems from.

Some—not all—of my books are influenced by those thirteen years. But you know how writers are: they try to transcend the personal, translate it into the general. Therefore, I mix things up, even replace them in time (I wasn’t in Algiers in the nineteenth century, of course), and try to make them universal.

The atrocities I describe in Baudelaire’s Revenge are raw and shocking, but let’s not pretend that our age is more civilized. When the monster of war takes possession of people’s hearts and minds, they will reverse to a state worse than bestial. To give you just one example: during the Bosnian war in the nineties, I was in besieged Sarajevo. The greatest threat was not the 24/7 shelling of the town by the Serbian cannons on the top of the hills that surrounded the city; worse were the snipers who transformed many city intersections into deadly traps. They killed defenseless women who risked their lives to be able to nourish their children, to give them something to drink…so don’t tell me my books are harsh. They are nothing more than a reflection of a reality that still exists and slowly is even becoming stronger.

So19:  In what ways is this book most similar to your other works? In what ways is it most different?

BvL:  I try to adapt my style to the subject of each novel. When I was younger, I worried about not having a single, consistent style. I thought it was a flaw, but since then I’ve noticed that there are authors who have one color on their style-palette and others who use more. I am one of the latter.

My admiration for some stylists is fathomless. The great Italian author Curzio Malaparte is one of them. In English, the diaries of John Cheever are marvels of stylistic brilliance. The diaries of the Goncourt brothers, who are referenced in various ways in Baudelaire’s Revenge, are also examples of wonderful and ironic prose style.

I may be a crossover writer between literature and the suspense novel, but style remains the most important tool a writer must develop and refine his whole life. I’m almost 62, but I’m only starting to see in a far distance style’s full powers…

So19:  What are you working on now? Do you have any plans to return to the 19th century in upcoming work?

BvL:  After Baudelaire’s Revenge, I’ve published three more or less contemporary novels:  Return to Hiroshima, set in 1995; Black Water, set in 2012; and Alejandro’s Lie, set in 1983. So you see I’m not always a writer of historical novels.

But I have returned to the genre in my current work in progress. I’m working on The Shadow of the Mole, a novel that takes place primarily in the Argonne region of France in 1916, but also “visits” Vienna and Paris in other time periods. It’s not so much a novel about World War I as it is a story about a search for the borders of reality and delusion that uses the war as a background. I have the feeling it will be my last historical novel. The research devours energy, and—I don’t know why precisely—I think I’ve said enough of the past.

Maybe I’ll end my writing days with a novel about the future. Who knows? During the cocaine wars between the drug cartels and the Columbian government in 1990, I rounded a corner in nighttime Bogotá, and was very nearly shot by a drunk soldier because I didn’t immediately understand his guttural Spanish. I learned that, quite literally, you can round a corner and your life can turn upside down.

Étienne Carjat, Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, circa 1862