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Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel

By Edmund White
Atlas & Co., 2008

They’re two famous figures in the annals of French poetry, and yet one: Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud.

Verlaine was older: an unhappily married man, a poet of renown, an established if erratic figure in the literary firmament. Rimbaud was much younger (he was 8 when Verlaine got his bachelor’s degree, and he was only 17 when the two of them met, on Rimbaud’s initiative and at Verlaine’s urging, in Paris in 1871), a meteoric genius astonishing the world of French poetry from the moment Verlaine introduced him to it.

The narrative of their tempestuous relationship yields to a series of unsatisfying climaxes: Rimbaud’s scandalous assertions of Verlaine’s sexual passivity; their squalid living situations (some variation of ‘squalor’ clings to every contemporary account of Rimbaud –a noteworthy though noxious distinction in the malodorous setting of 19th-century France); their titanic drinking bouts; their wanderings; Verlaine shooting Rimbaud in the wrist, getting arrested and imprisoned for 18 months for that act (and a quasi-medical determination of his homosexuality), finding God and the Catholic faith, getting released, and immediately returning to Paris to moon after the boy who caused his imprisonment; Rimbaud eventually drifting to Ethiopia, turning his back forever on poetry, living as a trader until his bitter, disappointed (and, of course, squalid) return to France, dying six years before Verlaine, who would remain loyal to his erstwhile lover’s reputation (and the money it could bring in) and even try his hand at writing a Rimbaud biography.

It’s not a properly satisfying Victorian double-narrative; Balzac would have tidied it up quite a bit and no doubt provided at least some kind of appeasing ending. Instead, what do we have? A poet of great talent is already three-quarters bad at living his life; he meets and falls in love with a much younger poet of genius, eventually tries to kill him, and never stops weeping about any of it. The younger poet survives his wounding but walks away from poetry altogether, leading for nearly twenty years a life that not only has nothing to do with the arts but that can’t in any way be twisted into a metaphor for them. He dies, and a little while later the older poet dies too. Nothing is learned by either man even though both manage to regret everything they ever did, separately or together. They meet, they destroy each other’s lives almost accidentally, then they part. C’est tout?

Of course the element missing from such a summary is the only essential part of it all: the poetry. Throughout all these sordid goings-on, both Verlaine and Rimbaud were writing some of the finest French verse ever crafted. That is the thing that separates them from the innumerable garret-dwellers whose antics are identical to theirs. That is why we have many editions of their collected works, and that is why every season will have its new Rimbaud biography.

The one by American novelist Edmund White now appears in the series of ‘brief lives’ commissioned by James Atlas under the imprint Atlas & Co. White’s double status as a writer and a homosexual seems calculated to prompt at least some comparisons with Rimbaud (or Verlaine, for related but interestingly different reasons, as we shall see), and he deals with these comparisons early in the book, in an introductory chapter of startling honesty and immediacy. White is as unassuming an author as Rimbaud was an arrogant one, but they share a certain quality of garrulous charm:

… as a desperate, self-hating homosexual, as an aspiring writer, as a sissy-rebel. I, too, wanted to reach out to the older writers in New York and have them extend a welcoming hand, as Verlaine had welcomed an unknown Rimbaud (and sent him the money for a train ticket to Paris). I, too, wanted to escape the ennui of my petit-bourgeois world, and to embrace bohemia. I, too, wanted to forego years of apprenticeship and shoot to the artistic top as a prodigy, not a drudge. I, too, wanted to make men leave their wives and run off with me.

White achieved success as perhaps the finest gay novelist of the latter 20th century (starting with such works as Forgetting Elena and Nocturnes for the King of Naples and his gigantically successful breakout novel A Boy’s Own Story, a tattered, much-read copy of which has at one point or other been in the secret possession of every gay young man in the entire Western world), but his acclaim first came to him when he was in his thirties, an age at which Rimbaud had already been gone from the writing life for well over a decade.

Indeed, if White bears comparison with any figure in this tawdry tale, it is Verlaine – both are no longer teenagers, both are solidly respected artists, and both are clearly besotted with Arthur Rimbaud.

It’s hard not to be, if you have even a trace of either homosexuality or poetry in you. Here is Rousseau’s myth of the noble savage, transposed to the world of literature; this gawky, gangly boy from the backwoods of Charleville in the Ardennes, living with his mother and sisters, working on the harvests during the day, writing verses at night (“The Drunken Boat” and other assorted little things) that would forever change the boundaries of French poetry. He comes to Paris at the behest of a well-respected poet, is “discovered” by the so-called “new Parnassians” and hailed as a prodigy, but all the while he himself is deriding them, calling for the intentional derangement of the senses, mocking the strictures of traditional verse-making and making a mockery of the traditional moralities that informed that art. What rebellious young person doesn’t dream of doing all that, being all that? What young poet of even moderate talent hasn’t at some point adopted an intentionally churlish, vaguely “non-conformist” mannerism? Who hasn’t dreamt of being a firebrand, of spitting in the eye (or, in Rimbaud’s case, ejaculating in the milk) of darlings of the literary establishment?

There are those – both inside and outside the tight-knit poetry community – who, if pressed, could make a convincing case that Rimbaud’s artistic ability is as overrated as his impact on French letters … that his reputation rests squarely on his antics, on the notoriety of his life, not on the worth of his craft. These are the people who point out that Rimbaud was only a poet for some four years, that “The Drunken Boat” is only some 200 lines long, that the whole total of Rimbaud’s output is only a little more than 1000 lines. Verlaine scoffed at such disbelievers when he was first introducing his “little fair-haired pussycat” to the salons and cafes of Paris, and although Edmund White is too polite to scoff, he makes it clear in his very intelligent, very enjoyable little book on Rimbaud (very much the best short introduction to the poet’s life and times, in English or French) that in this, as in many other things, he agrees with Verlaine. Although his tossed-off descriptions are often fringed with Americanisms (he refers to one early Rimbaud poem as “a piece of soft-core kiddie porn posing as Hugo-style social bathos”), he relishes the phenomenon that was the 17-year-old poet descending on poor Verlaine and his respectably conservative wife and in-laws:

Into this snug, middle-class world Rimbaud entered like an invited catastrophe. He arrived with what would prove to be his greatest poem, the 200-line “The Drunken Boat,” a poem to the sea by someone who had never seen it.

Verlaine’s wife, Mathilde, detested Rimbaud even before she encountered evidence of his relationship with her husband; she hated his boorish behavior, his extravagant rudeness, his wastrel ways. She was already ruefully familiar with Verlaine’s tendency to get drunk and abusive, and she was immediately aware that Rimbaud was a spark to that kindling. Verlaine’s life was very nearly out of his own control even before he met Rimbaud. He often quarreled and fought with friends, and his behavior toward his own kin was atrocious. His mother, for instance, who kept her miscarried fetuses preserved in jars of alcohol (what to add? It was a melancholy family), once refused a drunken Verlaine’s demands for more money – at which point he shattered the jars and mashed up all the tiny bodies on the floor. The last thing this man needed in his life was an imperious hayseed with a knack for indecency.

There’s a certain genius in the pairing of such an imp as Rimbaud and such a concierge as White, and this little book shivers deliciously between their contrasts. Rimbaud flashed into prominence as a teenager, spewing half-formed verses in all directions, turning his jagged focus on such things as lice, shit, and masturbation. White grew steadily in the regard of the literary public by producing calm, Jamesian works of increasing beauty. The one quality that saves Rimbaud’s work from the rubbish heap is the same quality entirely absent from White’s work: reckless passion. Rimbaud would not have considered him worth seducing; Verlaine would not have considered him worth shooting; fortunately for the modern reader, however, he is well worth reading.

The primary motive in enlisting a novelist to write a biography is to achieve the vividness so often missing from the writing of trained historians. White’s little book bustles with such picaresque details, as in this tossed-off glimpse of Germain Nouveau, a young Provencal poet Rimbaud befriended in 1873:

Nouveau was an unstable man with a visionary turn of mind. In later years he met Verlaine, who converted him to Catholicism. Nouveau subsequently had such profound mystical experiences that he had to be hospitalized more than once (alcoholism also played its deleterious role in his “visions”); he eventually died from overzealous fasting during Lent.

A novelist will also take every opportunity to make his book’s locations breathe and shine, the better to capture and hold the attention of the reader (trained biographers often tend to assume their readers will just naturally be interested, as silly as that assumption is). White’s own novels always excel in such physical descriptions, and he brings that talent to bear in this book as well, as in picturing the London that Rimbaud and Verlaine encountered when they aimlessly wandered there in search of employment:

The stink of feet in crowded theaters, the screech of street vendors, the cheekiness of beggars and mudlarks fishing for coins in the Thames, the rachitic thinness of so much of the population, the weird contrast of prudish laws and sluttish excess, the near universal public drunkenness, the huge parks where arrogant aristocrats paraded past beggars on horseback or in their carriages – all these contrasts and ghastly excesses fascinated the two Frenchmen, who walked for miles every day, observing the shape of the future, for they regarded London as both a warning and a promise of things to come.

But the narrative always comes around to Rimbaud and Verlaine, one of history’s oddest, most evocative couples. White throughout acknowledges the previous books in whose long shadows he toils; he rightly praises such Rimbaud writers as Starkie and Robb, but he tells all the old stories with a clarity and vigor all his own, sifting through what we know in search of what we might infer. As we might expect from so acoustic a novelist, White’s inferences are always thought-provoking:

Perhaps that was Rimbaud’s goal (the lover’s ultimate ambition): to destroy Verlaine’s marriage and friendships so that the older man would be entirely dependent on him. Rimbaud saw himself as an archangel descended to earth to liberate Verlaine from his bourgeois temptations as a man and the tendencies toward prettiness in his poetry. It was Rimbaud who made Verlaine reread the technically brilliant poems of Musset and Leconte de Lisle. It was Rimbaud who convinced him to write in ten-syllable lines (instead of the flowing, automatically eloquent twelve syllables of French tradition or the eight syllables of ballads). And it was Rimbaud who tried to banish human anecdotes, realistic sketches, and sentimental portraits form Verlaine’s work. Whereas Verlaine’s poetry was all about the past (personal or historical), Rimbaud was one of the rare poets of any epoch who was turned toward the future, and a fairly abstract one at that.

He’s equally good at quickly dissecting the poetry both these men wrote during their whirlwind interaction, as in this adept summary of “The Drunken Boat”:

Equally remarkable is what the poem is not. He has banished from it all of his earlier puerilities. He no longer is parodying other poets nor attacking the church in sacrilegious exaggeration nor defaming women through sexual innuendo. His love of the obscene and the revolting (feces, filth, fleas, diarrhea) has been tempered. All this adolescent tomfoolery has given way to the description of a voyage that is both an actual odyssey and a spiritual saga.

Unlike in many Rimbaud biographies (especially ones this brief), Verlaine is given his due share of critical appraisal as a poet. White quite rightly refers to his “Songs without Words” (Romances Sans Paroles) as “some of the purest, most heartfelt lyrical poems in the language,” and again he keeps watch for the amusing little detail, which he finds in Verlaine’s reaction to Mathilde’s burning of Rimbaud’s poem La Chasse Spirituelle (“The Spiritual Hunt”): “In his overevaluation of this lost text, Verlaine seems clearly to have been what we might now call a drama queen; he couldn’t remember a singe line from it later, or even its title.”

But the book is a short one, and so in relatively few pages the dark course of the familiar story begins to take shape: the tension growing between the two lovers, the arguments, the grinding poverty, the increasing hostility of Verlaine’s wife and in-laws, the desperate excesses of melodrama all around. In the grip of such melodrama, Verlaine shoots Rimbaud in the wrist; Rimbaud alerts a policeman, and even though he almost instantly regrets doing so, it’s too late – Verlaine is arrested, examined, and imprisoned, and Rimbaud is left to his own devices, hurriedly finishing “A Season in Hell,” which he was perceptive enough to know was probably his last hope (his mother helped pay to have the book printed, and Rimbaud told an acquaintance, “My fate depends on this book”). To his dismay, however, he found himself reaping what he’d sown:

The important poets he’d met through Verlaine now shunned him, holding him responsible for the terrible fate that had befallen Verlaine. People saw Rimbaud as a hooligan and a pervert who had ruined a talented and previously upstanding married man. Certainly no one wanted to advance the career of such an enemy of art.

Repulsed as much by this enmity as by the failure of “A Season in Hell,” Rimbaud retreated to Charleville and rethought his life. His abandonment of poetry was every bit as abrupt and dramatic as his embracing of it, and White is there to tell his readers all about the drastic fluctuations of re-invention Rimbaud puts himself through. Again, those readers are well-served by the biographer’s talent for telling stories:

Tired of science and the piano [he’d flirted with the serious study of both], Rimbaud now turned to Russian. He had a scheme to visit Russia, and in order to master its language he locked himself away in an armoire, without food or drink, sometimes for twenty-four hours at a stretch as he perused a Russian dictionary. He who had once been so violently anticlerical now toyed with the idea of becoming a missionary so that he could be sent free to distant climes. He actually set off for Russia but only made it as far as Vienna, where he was robbed and beaten by a coachman and sent limping home to his mother.

Throughout all of these tortured attempts at transformation (and through various health problems and the death of one of his sisters), White’s Rimbaud is generally ill-tempered and peremptory, always ready with a hearty “Leave me the Hell alone!” (as White renders it) for an uncomprehending world. When the young poet decides to stop being a poet and instead become a merchant, gun-runner, and ivory-dealer in Ethopia, he does so without a backward glance, never writing another word of verse, hardly even alluding to those around him of the past life he once led. In acting this way, Rimbaud was unknowingly feeding his posthumous legend (“unknowingly” because one really gets the impression all he wanted to do in Africa was disappear, even from himself), and White opens his book by confessing to us how deeply he was affected by that legend. His book is at its best when he’s trying to explicate it:

Perhaps obscure poets (and Rimbaud invented obscurity) become more renowned than transparent ones since only the obscure need interpretation – that is their lasting appeal both to scholarly exegetes and adolescent mystics. In Rimbaud’s case he also had his reputation as a teen rebel going for him – his outrageous arrogance, his photogenic looks, his extreme impertinence, his aberrant sexuality, his definitive renunciation of art at age eighteen and his sudden, bold departure for Africa.

We may never know the exact alchemy by which Rimbaud obtained the immortality that is so undeniably his. Perhaps White is right: perhaps the combination of precocity, good looks, and a willingness to walk away from the shabby chaos of the so-called civilized world is what makes Rimbaud speak to readers young and old even today. Whatever the reason, White’s book is open to the enthusiasms of such readers; it’s the perfect little companion for them, on the way to deeper waters.

____
Gaston Frontenac
is a native Parisian freelancer of intermittent productivity. Despite the fact that he is slim, untidy, and gay, he feels no special affinity for Rimbaud. This is his first publication in English.

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