Book Quote:

“Newcomers are free to condemn their ancestors. We are at home and we have the time.” ~ Arthur Rimbaud

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns (OCT 13, 2011)

I was in my late thirties when the poet Arthur Rimbaud first crossed my horizon. It was Jim Harrison, the American writer, who brought him to my attention. In his memoir Off to the Side, Harrison writes, “I think that I was nineteen when Rimbaud’s ‘Everything we are taught is false’ became my modus operandi.” Harrison continues, “…Rimbaud’s defiance of society was vaguely criminal and at nineteen you try to determine what you are by what you are against.” I admire Harrison a great deal. If he liked Rimbaud, if Rimbaud was the man, then I needed to know more. I discovered that the poet had influenced a good bit of the music of the ‘60s and 1970s, that Morrison and Dylan and a host of others had cited his authority. Of this time, Patty Smith writes in her recent memoir, Just Kids: “’When I was sixteen, working in a non-union factory in a small South Jersey town,” she writes, “my salvation and respite from my dismal surroundings was a battered copy of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations, which I kept in my back pocket.” His work, she concludes, “became the bible of my life.”

Further, I discovered that the term infant terrible was essentially coined to describe him and that, not only the writing, but the life lived was breathtaking.

I bought Rimbaud and dug in. But try as I might, he was lost on me. There was no fire there. The revolution was dead. I’d come too late to the poet. To Harrison’s point, to Patty’s point, Rimbaud was a young person’s game. To the mature reader, discovering him for the first time, his genius, well, it is obvious, particularly in the context of history; but he does not speak intimately to the older reader, does not influence to the degree of life changing, at least not to this reader. That the right book must find the reader at the right time, was never more true.

Louis Menand has written that a feature of modernity is that “the reproduction of custom is no longer understood to be one of the chief purposes of existence.” Like all ground-breaking endeavors, a visionary must come along and shatter tradition, setting a new standard and creating something that did not exist previously. In the modern tradition, the past is defined against the new, not incorporated into it. In the arts, in particular, the visionary becomes the genius-hero, an immortal. (“What you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am by myself,” said Beethoven. “There are and will be a thousand princes; there is only one Beethoven.”) Though he did not touch me in a visceral way, Rimbaud nonetheless did not fail to impress. That the poet visionary-genius Rimbaud was a child prodigy, almost unheard of in literature, makes for good copy. (“He was,” writes Mr. Duffy, “that rarest of rarities and oddest of oddities–a prodigy of letters.”) That after producing his art and while still a young man, he renounced his genius and broke with society, fleeing to the African desert, some say running guns, seems a more likely creation of Hollywood than history. But it is history, and a rich history at that. That is the vein Mr. Duffy so deftly mines.

“I called to my executioners to let me bite the ends of their guns, as I died. I called to all plagues to stifle me with sand and blood.
Disaster was my god.”

Disaster was my God is a fictionalized biography of the poet Arthur Rimbaud’s life. The literature resulting from that early life is here too, not as exegesis, but rather as a compliment, an illuminating accent. In a note to the reader, Mr. Duffy explains his intent: “In a life as enigmatic and contradictory as Rimbaud’s, the more I considered the facts, and the many missing facts–and the more I studied his blazingly prescient writings and poems–the more I found it necessary to bend his life in order to see it, much as a prism bends light to release its hidden colors.” The poet’s life lends itself well to this technique. It is a vivid rainbow. Mr. Duffy’s technique succeeds wonderfully.

The outline of his life is nothing short of remarkable. Rimbaud created his ground-breaking art in a five year period, while in his late teens. (Victor Hugo called him “an infant Shakespeare.”) At age sixteen or seventeen, at perhaps the height of his powers, he left his village of Charleville, his middle-class upbringing, his sister and mother, and traveled to Paris, at the invitation of Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine. “Come, dear great soul,” wrote Verlaine. “We await you; we desire you.” The older Verlaine, married and a father, fell under the boy’s spell and the two began a torrid and public affair that scandalized Paris. (It is unclear whether Rimbaud was homosexual, or simply a provocateur–likely the latter.) Eventually the two separated, driving Verlaine to wit’s end, shooting Rimbaud. The young poet is slightly wounded and Verlaine consequently spent two years in prison.

Leaving Paris, Rimbaud began a life of adventure, traveling widely, giving up–even renouncing–his writing. He undertook the life of a businessman and explorer, ending up in sub-Saharan Africa. He was 24 when he settled in Harar, Ethiopia, working as a merchant. In 1891 he developed a problem in his leg which would ultimately force him out of the desert. He was carried across the desert on a gurney, his savings strapped to his chest in a special vest, shotgun at his side, surrounded by hired mercenaries. The leg was amputated in Marseille but the cancer soon spread and he died, in the company of his sister Isabelle, in Marseille at age 37.

“I say that one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessences. This is an unspeakable torture during which he needs all his faith and superhuman strength, and during which he becomes the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed – and the great learned one! – among men.”

Mr. Duffy has rich material here and he makes the most of it. He builds his narrative on the premise that Rimbaud and his mother Vitalie had a love-hate relationship, a dynamic that spurred in Rimbaud both his creative life and his peripatetic life. Indeed, the letters of Rimbaud to his mother include many suggestions that a great tension did exist. For instance, Rimbaud writes to his mother in December 1882 from Aden, Yemen: “I just sent you a list of books to send me here. Please don’t tell me to go to hell! I am about to reembark into the African continent for several years; and without these books, I will be without a heap of essential information. I will be like a blind man…” Subsequent letters find him pleading with his mother for supplies and support. Mr. Duffy’s premise is largely successful–”It was you, Mother,” he has Rimbaud’s sister say, “you who made him a foreigner in his own home.” The mother opens the book and ends it; she is the impetus, even the muse, of genius–though it is lost on her completely, in Mr. Duffy’s iteration.

Early on, Mr. Duffy asks, “…how a poet prodigy of almost unfathomable abilities could willfully forget how to write. How could such a man disable a style and unlearn ageless rhythms–stubbornly resist, as one might food and water, words and their phantom secrets…..in short, could a poet of genius systematically erase his own life–unwrite it? How? To what conceivable end?” It is a question that cannot be answered. The subject is gone, the analyst’s couch can never reveal the answer. This is where the novelist’s art comes in. Drawing on the life, the history, the writing and a good deal of imagination, Mr. Duffy fills in the gaps. He does it with much enthusiasm and verve. One gets the impression that he truly loves his subject, that he wants in a bad way to reveal a profound secret of this genius. But of course the secrets have all gone to the grave. Hence the art.

Late in the novel, Mr. Duffy puts these words into the mouth of Verlaine: “When Rimbaud was a child, or still a young man, he could believe in his dreams, could pretend, could be seduced by his own make believe. And remember, as Rimbaud saw it, and naive as this might sound, he had not been sent to earth merely to write poems but to change the world–quite literally. He actually thought that, he really did, and for while I suppose I did, too.” They say that a society has no culture until the poets show up. Rimbaud showed up and set culture on it’s ear, creating a new culture out of whole cloth. He did, indeed, change the world. He set a generation upon a new path–and does still. That is the job of the immortals.

“I want to be a poet, and I am working to make myself a seer; you will not understand this, and I don’t know how to explain it to you. It is a question of reaching the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. The sufferings are enormous, but one has to be strong, one has to be born a poet, and I know I am a poet…”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 5 readers
PUBLISHER: Doubleday (July 19, 2011)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on  Bruce Duffy
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:


October 13, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Africa, Facing History, France

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