I was lucky enough to pick up a very cheap copy of Bruce Duffy's book many weeks ago at a Borders going-out-of-business sale, and immediately lent it to my friend D.J., knowing that he was anxious to read it. (Coincidentally, I received Jamie James very recently published Rimbaud in Java: The Lost Voyage in the mail today; its beautiful design brings to mind an antique adventure-book.) For D.J.'s review I tried to select images that Rimbaud aficionados haven't already seen hundreds of times (with perhaps two exceptions).
D.J. Carlile is a poet, playwright, critic, and translator of Rimbaud: The Works. He lives in a thousand gallon tank in Los Angeles where he is kept alive by a respirator that's powered by hundreds of tiny goldfish and a dozen vegetarian piranhas who keep the goldfish working hard.
A novel on the life of poet Arthur Rimbaud— a life that already reads like a novel— is not a novel idea. Richard Hell has updated it in Godlike (2005) and James Ramsey Ullman set The Day On Fire in 1971. But this time, with Disaster Was My God (2011), Bruce Duffy has accomplished it with something like the hallucinatory brilliance of the subject's best work. It is not a biographical study. It is, after all, fiction; the facts are altered, tweaked a bit here, broadly embellished there, and woven into a tapestry of dysfunction, desire, derangement and destiny.
It begins at the end, with the opening of the poet's grave by his mother for a re-interment. And it ends, some 400 pages later, with a series of funerals, Rimbaud's, Verlaine's, and finally the mother's in 1907. For the body of the main narrative, we are whiplashed between Africa and Europe in alternating episodes: the child Rimbaud, the precocious scholar, vis-a-vis the gaunt African trader in hides, coffee, guns and gold... A.R. the drug-dissheveled, poetic demon-teen versus A.R. the crippled invalid borne across the desert to the sea in the company of armed Yemeni and Somali— and burdened with a banished British missionary, his wife and kids, along the way. And then there's Paul Verlaine, the lover, the spoiled and spoiling alcoholic, the cracked lyric genius, who is unsentimentally portrayed in the gaps between.
Hovering over all is the spirit— and presence— of La Mother, "The Mouth of Darkness," Madame R, the widow Rimbaud, the poet's notoriously harsh and hard-edged mother.
The four D's mentioned earlier here might seem to be alliteratively overstating the case, but they are the strands of Duffy's tapestry that make for a tightly-woven tale. They effect the design around which all the action turns and is embroidered.
Most of the characters in the book (as in their actual lives) are seriously dysfunctional in some way, that is, impaired or abnormal in their dealings with each other or the world. Rimbaud, a gifted youth, good-looking, educated, eloquent, stops bathing or washing, collects vermin, drinks and does drugs to excess at age 16, assuming an uncouth, surly manner to keep people at a distance. This dysfunction is, of course, part of his plan for "deregulating all the senses." Verlaine, despite his literary elegance and sensitivity, is a closet queer, a violent drunk and a wife-beater, and he follows the younger poet in his plan to "change life."
Both Rimbaud and Verlaine came from dysfunctional families— father gone, an overbearing, ever-present mother— and even the fictional British missionaries, the MacDonalds, are askew, with a gormless dad, a feisty mom and two spooked children. Djami, Rimbaud's Ethiopian factotum, is portrayed as having been an orphan, a streetboy, when he is hired. Likewise, Tigist, Rimbaud's Abyssinian mistress, is a jealous and temperamental teen whose demands and desires eventually lead to her dismissal.
All these characters, including the poet's sister, even La Mother herself, are survivors or victims of a family dynamic severely impaired or shattered. Verlaine's child-bride Mathilde is the pampered princess of a snobbish upbringing, as spoiled and willful as her erratic husband.
The desires (aside from the purely sexual) that drive these characters are all for a makeover, some sort of change, manipulation, or a refashioning. Rimbaud wants to make another self— even in Africa— (the famous Je est un autre, "I is somebody else"); he wants to change the world with his poetry, to re-invent love. Verlaine wants to make poetry to noise with his boyfriend; Mathilde wants to make herself the perfect wife to the perfect poet. The mothers want a "successful" boy, via coddling on the part of Mme. Verlaine, via tougher-than-tough love with Mme. Rimbaud. The MacDonalds just want to start over with their lives. Djami— and Tigist too— want more trust and commitment than Rimbaud is capable of giving. And all these desires revolve in some way around the "love" that Rimbaud insists must be re-invented.
The Abyssinian tribesmen, "the skinny men," who stealthily follow the invalid's caravan have but one desire. "Men hard as fire sticks carrying long gut-stirring spears," they want to massacre the Euro interlopers. They strike by night, killing off the men of Rimbaud's bodyguard one at a time, hacking off their genitalia for trophies.
Derangement is the most vivid strand in the tapestry, set off as it is by dysfunction and desire. The teenage Rimbaud, acting upon his credo of "a long, immense and reasoned derangement of all the senses," disassembles Verlaine's marriage, turning the older poet's desires into sexual submission and deranging his passions with physical abuse. Verlaine is complicit in these activities... all for a new kind of poetry, to "achieve the level of dream and fracture."
The mothers are just plain crazed in their own peculiar ways. Madame Verlaine keeps the miscarried fetuses of Paul's two brothers and a sister in jars of alcohol on her dresser like an altar. She prays before them every night and talks to them as if they were able to hear. As an adult, in a drunken rage, Paul will smash these jars. Madame Rimbaud hoards money, hoards her affections; she physically and verbally assaults her children for the least inattention to chores, treating them like workers under her iron rule. Her experiences with a drunken father, wastrel brothers and an absent husband have poisoned her relations with all men, even God whom she perceives as male through and through. As the novel progresses, she is presented with some compassion, for all her hardness of heart.
The MacDonalds are uprooted, displaced, impoverished— on the wrong continent at the wrong time in the wrong vocation. Mrs. MacDonald castigates the crippled Rimbaud (to whom she is in fact beholden) for the violence that keeps "the skinny men" at bay; she is like a soft-focus version of La Mother, disapproving, confrontational. In the case of Isabelle, the poet's younger sister, her life is deranged (or re-arranged) in a positive way when she becomes his nurse and caretaker. This allows her to assert herself at last, to get out from under her mother's thumb, to become her own woman. From the repressed quasi-servant she turns into a strong female mirror-image of the latter-day Verlaine— icon-maker, devotee and flamekeeper of the idolized Poet-brother-lover. Another sort of derangement, yes, but certainly an improvement over crushing servitude (in Isabelle's case) or slavery to alcohol and sex (Verlaine).
So: The destiny of poets, the fate of those who put their lives on the line, the word, the syllable, to be idolized or excoriated, is to disappear as a living body into the body of work. Likewise, the destiny of all the characters in this novel, both factual and fictional, is to be subsumed into Le Mythe de Rimbaud.
Early on there is a scene where the invalid Rimbaud, his knee swollen to more than twice its normal size, waits on his stretcher in the fly-infested heat of Harar, waiting to depart, "...when he looked across the white desert, blazing like freedom, free freedom..." And as he waits his mind wanders.
"Seeing again, that's it— seeing, such as he hasn't seen in years.... Days of light and storm when, high above, clouds coiled and spoke and limbs crashed and leaves blew.... Cold and darkness coming. Then coldest of all, that windy, hair-raising excitement, the sudden zero of writing. Writing— you, my willed and willing disaster, my storm....
"Bitten-down nails. Moving lips. When he wrote— that is, when life yanked him hard by the hair— he always moved his lips, mumbling and murmuring to himself. Trees shook and shone like ice. Leaves struck his nose and electricity seized his hair, until he felt like a candle, a very blown-down candle, to the point that he forgot his own hunger as the wind commanded, Write more. So, opening a rusty penknife, he whittled his already whittled-down pencil stub. Then, trembling, moved it over the dirty paper, then covered it with his body as the rain splattered down, walloping hot pellets that lashed his back and ran down his nose. And camped over himself, over words like hot food, he pushed and pushed the pencil, until suddenly it stopped: literally stopped, and he dared not look or speak.
" 'Monsieur!' comes the voice that breaks him from this reverie. It's Djami. Shading his eyes, Djami is pointing across the street. 'Monsieur, don't you see? Look. It is Monsieur Bardey! All the frangis. See? They come to see you go.' "
Indeed, we all come to see him go, the man with his heels to the wind.
The title page and dust jacket of this book read, "A novel of the outlaw life of Arthur Rimbaud." Duffy capably delivers exactly that— exactly that and more: a meditation on family and failed expectations, on the vagaries of self-image, idealism and art, on the ecstasies and execrations of love.
Oh yes, many details are bent, are non-factual, outright blue-sky fabricated. But the little lies convey the larger truth. These people actually seem to live and breathe, eat, love, starve and defecate. If you choose to read this "more allegorical than historical" tale, prepare to be yanked hard by the hair, moving your lips as you read.
Horrific, harrowing, sad and hilarious, it holds its own against the most "accurate" of biographies— whether Steinmetz, White, Robb or Starkie. Here is how Duffy conjures Verlaine:
"Paul Verlaine, arise then! ... Sing to us of unquenchable angers— of literature as a blood sport, a criminal enterprise, and war by other means. Sing, heartbroken even now, of the teenage Pied Piper who wrecked your marriage, destroyed your reputation, spent the better part of your inheritance, then led you, a grown man, into the whirlwind, beyond which lay the portals of immortality.
"Sing, great shade, of the monsters together."