Patti Smith shoplifted a volume of his poems and found revelation. Jim Morrison earnestly corresponded with his English translator. On first reading the work, Bob Dylan reports that “bells went off.” Throw in Salinger, Dylan Thomas, and most of the Beats, and you’ve got a good idea of Arthur Rimbaud’s enduring fan base: rebels besotted with language. That all of these rockers and writers fell in love with the author when they were adolescents or just a little older is no surprise—the French Symbolist wrote all of his legendary poems before turning twenty-one. But Rimbaud’s heroic stature has always posed a problem to the young and the restless. While he revolutionized poetry—if not an entire cultural sensibility—at a tender age, he then retreated from the bohemian barricades to spend the rest of his life as colonialist merchant, indeed something of a gun runner, whose pen only found work in a ledger book of accounts received. In short, the Orphic blasphemer and sexual renegade became the worst kind of businessman.
In Disaster Was My God, Bruce Duffy takes a novelist’s liberties with biographical fact to offer a psychologically attuned account of Rimbaud’s bifurcated life, vexatious family, and radical art. Although the novel’s chronology shifts between the poet’s last weeks in Ethiopia, his childhood in rural Charleville, and his adolescent years in Paris, all the familiar high points are given their due: the prodigy who amazes teachers by reciting two hundred lines of Homer in Greek; the seventeen-year-old who arrives in the capital with a sheaf of poems including “First Communion,” in which a young girl experiences “the touch of Jesus’ putrid lips”; the poet being shot by Verlaine, his drunken and rejected lover, in Brussels (“It was amazing,” Duffy writes. “Arthur Rimbaud bereft of words, without comeback, sneer, or answer”). Less familiar figures fill out the bulk of the tale: the young poet’s sister Isabelle; Verlaine’s wife, Mathilde; Djami Wadaï, an Ethiopian servant boy; and Rimbaud’s mother, Vitalie, a tyrannical religious zealot who surely—as Duffy makes hilariously clear—spurred the youngster’s appetite for sacrilege.
Duffy knows the drill: His last novel, The World as I Found It (1987), did much the same thing for the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (indeed, both books are prefaced with similar disclaimers about factual reliability). That book, as perhaps befitting its subject, proceeds discursively, as measured ruminations on Bloomsbury, Jewish identity, and sexuality are threaded through meticulously evoked relationships with George Moore and Bertrand Russell. While Disaster’s overall tone is decidedly more casual and in places downright exclamatory (befitting a Gallic rather than Germanic sensibility), the novel likewise brings its protagonist into focus via two other characters, in this case Vitalie and Verlaine. If the conversational style sometimes feels too much so (storytelling tags like “our boy,” “our Arthur,” and “what the kid was up against” jar rather than reassure), Duffy is wise to have avoided any pass at nineteenth-century diction.
Rimbaud is described as a monstre sacré; Vitalie is depicted as a mere monster, albeit one who’s the victim of hard circumstance. Having lost her own mother at five, she raises “two useless brothers” and serves quite literarily as a wife to her father. Married, she gives birth to four children in quick succession only to have her husband flee. Her devout Catholicism, then, is colored with a rabid, vengeful tone. The same is true about her fervent belief in young Arthur’s genius; he’s “not only a bona fide miracle, but her miracle.” Duffy presents her as a comic grotesque, one whose grandiosity and emotional excesses are inherited and amplified by her wayward boy. Visiting Chartres, she enters the confessional seeking advice about her son who’s gone to live in Paris with a man. At the priest who counsels her to keep her faith, she hisses, “I have broken my knees for God. . . . Why, a woman would make a better priest any day.” And if mother disdains her betters and finds in Christ a substitute for a husband, Rimbaud can expand and innovate on the theme. When boarding with Verlaine, he taunts his friend’s bourgeois wife by flagrantly stealing her crucifix: “With malice, he picked it up. He stuffed it down his pants, the cold metal tingling on the tip of his penis.”
Such scenes—for instance, when psychological speculation about doting mothers and artistic sons can be made to dovetail with events—are just what conventional biographers long for but rarely find, or at least not so neatly packaged. They are also disinclined to imagine their subjects’ lives at Duffy’s close range: “The elder poet was on his knees, and here, above him, like a young god, fingers locked on his throat, was his muse and master. Joy incarnate as Verlaine opened his bearded lips—well-versed lips that expertly covered his teeth, stroking and tonguing, gumming and humming to a tom-tom beat. Mama’s boys together.” Duffy’s invention is probably on the money and, as such, feels perfunctory—even if the sentences do dance alliteratively, aptly rendering the spirit of this most poetic coupling. The details the novelist can invent may not always be what needs inventing—most of us know what fellatio looks like. On surer ground, having diligently done his research, Duffy spies out a scene not so readily conjured, one he couches as the more treacherous exchange—the Parnassians reading each other’s work: “‘I know you have great things in you,’ offers the boy at last. . . . ‘But I am obliged to tell you: this is shit—shit. You must never again write in this way,’” Verlaine curses, but can’t help but realize the teenager is right. And then the coup de grâce: Rimbaud produces from his back pocket something ridiculously titled “The Drunken Boat.” Duffy takes the opportunity to ventriloquize Verlaine’s reaction and thus capture that sense of fresh, palpable revelation so familiar to Rimbaud’s readers: “Even if he didn’t yet understand, he knew what he knew. Knew physically. Knew from the heat, the shock, the pure animal strangeness.”
At its best, the novel takes the form of a kind of hybrid literary criticism, wherein Duffy breathes vigorous life into and around extant texts. He includes the letter Rimbaud wrote to a former teacher declaring himself a seer, calling for a “derangement of all the senses,” and making his most famous utterance: “Je est un autre” (I is someone else). Duffy posits an ordinary origin of this extraordinary notion, one springing from school days when Rimbaud created an imaginary boy who said “Present” during roll call. The real Rimbaud “was in fact absent” while “his double did the prize boy’s grind work . . . he was two: the one who wrote it and the one who unwrote it, refuted it, then gave it away, another bastard left on a church stoop.” There’s also a credible gloss on Rimbaud’s dismaying about-face—how the teenager who scrawled MERDE A DIEU on his village’s walls became a middle-aged gold-and gun-clutching mercenary: “About poetry he was consumed by the three D’s—doubt, dread, and disgust. He had his integrity, and he was increasingly horrified by the cynicism, the selfishness, and the rampant irresponsibility of writing, of creating these vain word creatures.” Certainly such sentiments can be gleaned from Rimbaud’s final work, Season in Hell, what Duffy calls his “signed confession,” but the novelist smartly complicates his own assessment. As Rimbaud prepares to depart Ethiopia, an English merchant, a lover of verse, quizzes him about the meaning of the notoriously intractable “Vowels.” “Today I do not write poetry,” he replies. “In any case, I don’t think any artist can rightfully explain what he did. And anyhow—well, so what?” The offhand, borderline inarticulateness of the response constitutes a metacommentary on Duffy’s or anyone’s smoothly turned analyses of art.
There’s something undeniably exciting about this kind of free-form close reading; life and art mixing provocatively in Duffy’s conjectures. Preceding him in this rarefied endeavor, a few novels about real poets have appeared recently—last year, John Clare took the stage in Adam Foulds’s The Quickening Maze, and in 2008, in Fall of Frost, Brian Hall examined Robert Frost’s life. These books, too, animate the archives by cannily deploying invention and incident. Just how exciting, though, any reader unfamiliar with the work of, say, Clare or Rimbaud might find these tales, it’s hard to say. But the problem isn’t confined to poets—most biographical novels, whether about Edison, Catherine of Aragon, or Nixon, engage knowledgeable readers more readily because they are willing to credit the protagonist as worth their interest from the start. In Disaster Was My God, the author begins with one of literature’s most enigmatic and compelling figures. The writers and rockers, the teenage malcontents (at one point, Duffy dubs Rimbaud the “great ur-punk”) and tenured professors—Duffy will have many of them at hello. Strongly flavored with the urgent rhythm of the poems themselves, the novel matches the poet’s intellectual intensity and inclination to observe, condense, and vivify. Those who’ve gone “down impassive Rivers” and felt themselves no longer “guided by haulers” will find much to enjoy. And for the uninitiated, the novel may prove an invitation to read Rimbaud even as they brood along with Duffy on the myth: the boy genius whose poems killed the poet in him.
Albert Mobilio's book of poems Touch Wood was recently published by Brooklyn Rail/Black Square Editions.