by Keith Taylor
Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Patti Smith--all of these important popular musicians have worshipped the example of Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), the young nineteenth-century French poet and iconic poete maudit who confronted the limits of bourgeois morality and the then-accepted limitations of the imagination. Even before his work had found its audience, he gave it up in disgust; at age twenty-one he went off to the Horn of Africa to work as a colonial trader. He died of a painful and lingering cancer at thirty-seven, hearing vague rumors that the things he'd written as an adolescent were reshaping and expanding the range of French literature. He wished he'd burned them all.
Much of this story is well known and has become part of the formative myth of modern literature. Now Bruce Duffy has taken this material to make his most recent novel, Disaster Was My God. Duffy has written biographical fiction before: his wonderfully smart The World As I Found It told of the life of Ludwig Wittgenstein and along the way became a useful introduction to that difficult and elusive philosopher. It seems likely that this new novel, equally ambitious in its engagement with difficult material, might do the same thing for new readers of Rimbaud's poetry.
Duffy tells his story like a mosaic, letting the life build up in fragments, yet always returning to the last few months of Rimbaud's life, when he was sick, seldom lucid, and spending a good deal of the fortune he'd acquired in Africa having himself carried out to the coast and then shipped back to France, where his leg was amputated, and where he ended up under the care of his harshly conservative mother, the person he'd spent much of his life trying to escape. Duffy uses flashbacks to reconstruct the young life of the adolescent rebel who kept running away from home and walking through northern France writing poems. Duffy's particularly good on that tempestuous period when Rimbaud first arrived in
Paris, sixteen years old and assaulting all conventions. The older poet Paul Verlaine fell deeply in love with the brilliant boy, abandoning his wife and child to take off with Rimbaud and go through a series of cities and adventures until finally, taunted by his young lover beyond anything he could bear, Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the arm. (Jailed, Verlaine then wrote the best poetry of his life.) Rimbaud, meanwhile, "was increasingly horrified," in Duffy's words, "by the cynicism, the selfishness, and the rampant irresponsibility of writing, of creating these vain word creatures, these scoops of Adam dust given demonic breath--to do what? To what end? Why, when the world was no better and never would be?" Duffy doesn't presume to answer Rimbaud's question, but he makes it live more vividly than any biography ever could.
Bruce Duffy reads from Disaster Was My God at UMMA's Stern Auditorium on Thursday, March 22.
[Originally published in March, 2012.]