A Gallic literary legend

 

BIOGRAPHY: Rimbaud: The Double Life of a RebelBy Edmund White Atlantic Books, 192pp. £16.99 JUST AS THE life of Arthur Rimbaud is untidy, some of his best poems are full of a strange order. His life is a gift to biographers, his personality alarming, mysterious, dramatic, packed with contradictions, hidden depths and many shallows, writes Colm Tóibín

His poems also have been a real challenge to English translators because their tone is so deeply connected to the rhythm in the original French, the obscurities and indeed the sense of a controlled poetic diction fundamental to the boldness of the overall effect.

In the 1930s, Samuel Beckett, for example, did a translation of one of Rimbaud's most famous poems, The Drunken Boat, a poem about a sea journey written when the poet was 17 and had never seen the sea; Beckett did not bother with most of the rhymes. Robert Lowell did another in his Imitations, using an iambic pentameter line to replace Rimbaud's alexandrines; Lowell left out 10 of the stanzas. Many of the other translations seem wooden and plodding.

In 2007, Sylph Editions in Paris published Alan Jenkins's translation of The Drunken Boat, which Edmund White believes to be the best translation to date, in which something of the sheer energy, the manic beauty and the control of form in the original poem is ingeniously captured:

As I nosed down the placid river I could feel

The towropes slacken - screaming redskins

had made off

With the boatmen and nailed them naked

hand and heel,

To painted stakes for target practice. The

trade-off

Was, I no longer gave a toss for them, that

gang

Who'd loaded me with Flemish wheat or

English twill.

When they were done with, like the song the

redskins sang,

The river let me make my own way down,

at will.

"As every schoolboy knows," Jenkins writes in his introduction, "Arthur Rimbaud had reinvented poetry by the time he was twenty, at which point he gave it up." Rimbaud was born in 1854 in small town in the Ardennes near the Belgian border. When he was six, his father, a soldier, abandoned the family who never saw him again. His mother, known for her iron will, understood something of Arthur's unusual talent and hired a private tutor for him through whom he discovered Greek, Latin and French poetry. He published his first poem when he was 16.

Although the image we have of Rimbaud is that of a scamp, a rude young genius half-savage in his style, it is important to remember how deeply affected he was by his education in poetry and how much he had absorbed and how widely read he was by the time he began to write. In some of his work he was both highly sensitive to form and poetic tradition and utterly rebellious and original in how he handled what he had inherited. In the rest of his work, the rebellion took over, often with brilliant results.

He was, it seems, a pleasure to look at. His friend Ernest Delahaye wrote that his blue eyes were "the loveliest I've seen . . . in which the zones, darker and lighter, got bigger or blended in moments of revery and when thinking intensely. When he searched or saw into the unknown . . . the eyelids drew closer in a feline way. The long silky eyelashes trembled lightly, while the head retained an attentive immobility". His "childish sweetness", Delahaye added, was "exquisite when he laughed".

He was clearly not destined for life in a French village; thus as soon as he could he made his way to Paris. His notoriety - for sneering, rudeness, badness, dirt, lice, blasphemy, sexual promiscuity, lack of respect for his elders, among many other things - has something rather peculiarly French about it. It was as though French society was forming a glorious crust around itself, using elaborate systems of manners and morals and a sense of highly-wrought public decorum, and this meant that anyone who broke the codes in these or subsequent years - figures such as Rimbaud, Cocteau, Genet, Houellebecq - did so with considerable insouciance and style, fondling the codes by breaking them so publicly and totally, and thus almost became national heroes.

This is a world the novelist Edmund White has come to know and love. Indeed, the America of White's fiction is a thinly-disguised version of France. Systems such as the family are undermined by White with relish and a wonderful lightness; rebellion is rendered both serious and stylish in his work in ways so deeply unearnest that they could not have been easily developed in North America.

White has managed both to shock America and become one of its most treasured sons. He has a French mind in an American body. He has become, with Henry James, Edith Wharton, James Baldwin and Paul Auster, an American writer deeply engaged with French life and letters.

White has already, for example, written the definitive biography of Genet and a short book on Proust. His masterpiece, in my opinion, is his novel The Married Man, which deals with the life of an American in Paris. Rimbaud, the genius poet, the sexual rebel, the beautiful youth, was clearly coming in White's direction; it was obvious that they would both swerve to meet one another head-on.

IN PARIS, once he arrived there, Rimbaud fell in love with the poet Paul Verlaine, recently married and awaiting his first child, and with radical politics. Rimbaud's antics with Verlaine in Paris, Brussels, London and points in between are recounted in great detail by White, as are the efforts on the part of Verlaine's mother and wife and Rimbaud's mother to get the couple to start seeing sense and stop seeing each other. This is not, however, a simple story. White quotes Graham Robb who points out how often in his years as a mad young poet Rimbaud went home to his mother with whom, for example, he rarely missed Christmas. "To those who cherish the image of the blaspheming vagrant who deliberately wrecked his career prospects, this is the unacceptable face of Arthur Rimbaud: an ambitious young writer who repeatedly returned to live with his mother and often induced her to interfere with his life."

Rimbaud perhaps pulled a masterstroke when he decided to abandon poetry and Paris at an early age. In his absence he was admired and became deeply influential in a way that might not have occurred had he stuck around. As George Bataille put it, describing Rimbaud's years of silence with a superbly gnomic Gallic wisdom: "The refusal to communicate is a means of communication more hostile, yet more powerful, than any other."

"Rimbaud looked back at his years of creativity (from age fifteen to nineteen)," Edmund White writes, "as shameful, a time of drunkenness, a period of homosexual scandal, or arrogance and rebellion that led to nothing . . . [he] longed for the sort of respectability and financial gain that his mother would admire." The poet devoted the rest of his life to trade, travelling in Africa, drifting. He died in 1891 at the age of 37.

"Rimbaud's legend has been amazingly long-lasting, self-contradictory, and widespread," White concludes. His own short, elegant book on the poet's life is a testament to the endurance of the legend, an example of the interest in Rimbaud in English now. It can be usefully read with other work on the poet which has appeared over the past decade such as Graham Robb's biography, Charles Nicholl's Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa: 1880-91and Selected Poems and Letters, translated and introduced by Jeremy Harding and John Sturrock.

Colm Tóibín's novel Brooklynwill be published in May