Born in Uruguay, Jules Laforgue was sent at the age of six to a boarding school in Tarbes, France, where he remained until he was fifteen. Laforgue felt isolated and persecuted at school; he left an account of his childhood and adolescence in the autobiographical novel Stéphane Vassiliew (1946). His family returned from Uruguay in his sixteenth year, and the eleven children and two parents crowded into an apartment in Paris. That spring, his mother died after a twelfth pregnancy; she was thirty-seven. In “Avertissement,” Laforgue wrote that he hardly knew his mother, but his awareness of her situation may be glimpsed in “Complainte du fœtus de poète,” in which an unsympathetic and egotistic voice describes his birth, blithely unconcerned with any feelings but his own.
Laforgue attended the Lycée Fontanes (now Condorcet) but twice failed his oral examination for the baccalauréat. A paralyzing fear of failure afflicts many of Laforgue’s poetic alter egos. After failing his examinations, Laforgue continued to study independently, reading omnivorously and attending lectures on the philosophy of art by the determinist Hippolyte Taine, whose assertions that art is completely determined by milieu, race, and historical moment Laforgue rejected.
In 1880, the twenty-year-old Laforgue met several influential men whose friendship helped launch his career. Gustave Kahn became a good friend, confidant, and literary editor. Kahn introduced Laforgue to the regular Tuesday readings by Stéphane Mallarmé and also to Charles Henry, an intellectual equally brilliant on scientific and literary topics. That same year, Laforgue also met the literary critic Paul Bourget, who generously criticized his writing and who arranged a job for Laforgue assisting the art critic Charles Ephrussi. He introduced Laforgue to the paintings of the Impressionists, and evidence from Laforgue’s poems and essays indicates that the Impressionist aesthetic reflected his conviction that art aims at fusing a sensual and intellectual apprehension of life.
Late in 1881, Laforgue’s father, who was dying from tuberculosis, moved the rest of the family to Tarbes, leaving Laforgue behind. Although he took a cheap room to remain in Paris,...
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