Fiction from a Complex Life

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 16, 2012 | Go to article overview

Fiction from a Complex Life


Byline: Corinna Lothar, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

A t 15, he was considered a genius, model-meek and compliant - eerily so. At 17, his poetry shocked and dazzled the French

literary world; at 21, he had stopped writing; at 37, he was dead. Every French-speaking student studies the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud and is familiar with his scandalous love affair with fellow poet Paul Verlaine.

Rimbaud may well be the enfant terrible of French literature, but his poetry became the inspiration for a future generation of poets and the forerunner of contemporary verse. As Bruce Duffy puts it in Disaster Was My God (a quote from Rimbaud's passionate prose poem A Season in Hell ) Arthur Rimbaud had anticipated, and exceeded, Dada and Surrealism, had checkmated and rewritten fifty or sixty years of future poetry, had barged headlong into the twentieth century.

Mr. Duffy has taken Rimbaud's short, complex life and turned it into a fascinating novel, a tour de force that vibrates with language that sometimes shocks, sometimes thrills, much as Rimbaud's poetry itself shocked the poets of 19th-century France. There is a beguiling freshness and vitality to the novel. Mr. Duffy uses the facts of Rimbaud's life as the skeleton of Disaster Was My God, fleshing them out with artfully crafted words, thoughts and emotions. But he reminds us that he has written a novel about the kid, not a biography.

Rimbaud was born in 1854 on his family's farm, Roche, in Charleville in the Ardennes, near the Belgian border in northwestern France, the second of four children. His father, a captain in the French army, deserted the family when Arthur was 6. His mother, the Vampire, was a controlling harridan engaged in a love-hate relationship with her talented son.

The novel begins with Rimbaud, incapacitated on a stretcher with a throbbing knee, being carried back from a decade in Africa. He left behind the beautiful native girl with whom he had lived for a couple of years, and a devoted servant. The journey is a nightmare of danger, thirst and fear of ambush by hostile natives and wild beasts. To Rimbaud, the hyenas are almost mythological, terrible raging sphinxes. Half creatures, with big heads and powerful chests. And yet absurdly propelled by puny, withered legs - chicken legs, almost. Beware the hyena's stare. Yellowy eyes. Hypnotic, never veering, locked on her quarry.

Details of the journey are interspersed with events of his life, beginning with his years as a scholar in Charleville. [B]y his teens, at his height, the boy had rid himself of the florid, bowdlerizing earnestness of his time, with its pieties and fripperies and oddities of punctuation. In fact, with one shrug, he pretty much had freed himself from the prevailing notion of poetry, which, however artfully, finally was written in the language of common sense. .. He was elliptical and irrational Dissonant. Obscurantic. Crazy. Throw in scatological, too. And so he was alone. Out of his mind with his mind.

Rimbaud ran away from the farm several times in his midteens, only to return, penniless, often on foot, walking for hundreds of miles. …

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