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La Folie Baudelaire by Roberto Calasso, translated by Alastair McEwan; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 337 pages, with color illustrations ($35). What a rare and special book this is, from its opening paragraph: ”Baudelaire used to suggest to his mother, Caroline, that they meet surreptitiously at the Louvre. ‘There isn’t a place in Paris where you can have a better chat; it’s beautiful, you can wait for someone without getting bored, and what’s more it’s the most respectable meeting place for a woman.’ The fear of the cold, the terror of boredom, the mother treated like a lover, surreptitiousness and decency conjoined in the place of art: only Baudelaire could combine those elements almost without noticing, as if it were fully natural. It is an irresistible invitation, extended to anyone who reads it. And anyone can respond to it by roaming through Baudelaire as in one of the salons he wrote about – or even in a Universal Exposition: finding all kinds of things, the memorable and the ephemeral, the sublime and the trash: and moving constantly from one room to another.”

But then what a rare writer is the prolific, post-Calvino Italian master Roberto Calasso – 72-year-old scholar, translator, author of film scripts, radio and television adaptations, operatic librettos and seemingly most other viable prose forms in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The quantity of Calasso has never deterred a soul from understanding the wildly idiosyncratic but remarkable nature (the genius, some say) of those books that have made it into English, starting with the unique “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony” and now giving us “La Folie Baudelaire,” about the great French poet, art critic and nerve center of early modernism.

What Calasso is constructing here with beautifully illustrated and irresistible elegance is a “Folie” – an 18th century garden pavilion of delight – for Baudelaire’s time, full of the poet/critic’s poems, subjects, contemporaries and near-contemporaries. That means everything from Ingres and Delacroix to Chopin to Manet to Rimbaud (“He is merciless with the old people who frequented the town library. They are ugly and their principal defect is that they remain seated.”) An ideal introduction in English to one of the most urbane and readable of living masters.

– Jeff Simon