The title of this review was Verlaine's description of Rimbaud.
I came to this book not by way of Arthur Rimbaud but by way of Graham Robb. Having read his biographies of Balzac and Hugo, and his recent `Discovery of France', I was so impressed by his distinctively humorous and no-nonsense style and by his clear and fresh approach to his subjects that I thought it worthwhile to read his biography of Rimbaud too. I came to this book with very little knowledge of its subject beyond the supposed scandal of his affair with Paul Verlaine; I had not consciously read Rimbaud's poetry before, save for the selection of `Illuminations' that Benjamin Britten had transformed into a marvellously evocative song-cycle for his lover Peter Pears to sing. By referring to Rimbaud in the first sentence of his introduction as "one of the most destructive and liberating influences on twentieth-century culture", Robb immediately aroused my curiosity.
Robb has always been a fan of Rimbaud: "for many readers (including this one), the revelation of Rimbaud's poetry is one of the decisive events of adolescence." Robb's biography is, then, clearly a labour of love: "My only regret is that it did not take twice as long." Robb seeks to get to the heart of his subject by pulling away the web of myth in which his subject's life has been shrouded: "One of the starting-points of this biography was the discovery that Rimbaud's image is still a faint reflection of the evidence"; and by following Rimbaud's detailed European travels with an equally detailed description of those in the Horn of Africa, Robb has "tried at least to allow Rimbaud to grow up". He seems to have rescued Rimbaud from the disgust of the prudish and the horror of the Christian moralist, from the clutches of the Marxists and those of the anarchists. He questions received interpretations, noting often how sheer biographical conveniences make these scenarios "deeply suspect."
Robb's refusal to acquiesce in Rimbaud's mythological status is soon evident, for instance in refusing to see anything macabre in Rimbaud's mother having "herself lowered into the family vault to ensure that the niche for her corpse had been properly constructed": this, argues Robb with a twinkling eye, "does not necessarily denote a grim, suspicious personality. It may simply indicate previous experience of Charleville stonemasons." Yet, it is not so many pages later that Robb's description of her is in terms of "the intimidating grey tower known to literary history as the mother of Arthur Rimbaud." What I also learned from this work is that with friends like Rimbaud, who needs enemies? The poet does not come across as even a friend worth betraying: his treatment of Cabaner, for instance, was shocking. How many of his admirers (Robb included) would remain so if they had to live with him for a year, a month, a day, even an hour? As Robb notes later in the book, Rimbaud had the nasty habit of "burning his bridges with people still on them".
After debunking many of the legends surrounding this adolescent's adolescence - for instance, the circumstances surrounding the shooting by Verlaine in Brussels, about which Robb has clearly done splendid homework by referring to the original police notes - the lauding of Rimbaud is not wholly excised. Robb claims that if the bullet is ever found, it "will probably become one of the holiest relics in literature." Maybe.
Whilst Robb persuades me that Rimbaud's life is worth narrating, he does not persuade me of the worth of his poetry. Sure, each line may have charm within its limited view, but the poems do not convince qua poems. They remind me of modern art, of modern music. Robb says of `Memoire' that "no simple narrative fits the poem", the biographer prefaces the remark with a "Happily". Of the `Etudes Neantes', Robb treats them as "a kind of photographic realism ... Rimbaud was claiming a vast new domain for poetry: the mind's full range of alternative realities. The unnerving spaciousness of the poems allows a sense of possibilities to invade the mind ..." And Rimbaud's `Saison en Enfer' is "one of the first modern works of literature to show that experiments with language are also investigations into the self."
With all of this I cannot disagree. Rimbaud himself wrote that "I accustomed myself to simple hallucination." And there's the rub: hallucination is a solitary experience. Robb focuses (perhaps unconsciously) on this problem when he states that, "Rimbaud's view of himself as a realist places him in a small minority among Rimbaud critics." Of course, the poems Rimbaud wrote were real - but real only to Rimbaud! (The result is that today I quickly passes over without a second glance those modern poems that appear in the London Review of Books.) I've often glimpsed eternity but my experience is beyond description - poetic or otherwise - to almost anybody but myself. So whilst Constable Lombard of the Brussels police might have described his charge's poetry as "incomprehensible and repulsive", the latter may no longer be the case, but the former probably still is.
Robb splits his biography into four parts. The first takes us up to the month before Rimbaud's seventeenth birthday and his departure for the French capital: "the little village world of Parisian literature was about to have its fond illusions shattered beyond repair." Whereas part one covered over sixteen years in nine chapters, part two covers only three years in thirteen. Parts three - "the relative sludge of adulthood" - and four - the African adventure - cover six and eleven years in five and thirteen chapters respectively. The end of part three sees Rimbaud leave home, friends, and Europe for good. Aged 25, and maturing after his lengthy adolescence, he turns his back on poetry too.
This final part fills out Rimbaud's portrait fully to the frame, for, as Robb points out, "many of Rimbaud's admirers find it `indecent' to follow him into the badlands of his post-poetic career and [instead] proceed directly ... to his death bed, where the `angel in exile' lies like a handicapped child." One wonders whether Robb followed in Rimbaud's footsteps in the Horn. What is plain is how successful had become the ex-poet's prosaic accounting and arms-dealing, his trading often turning over a handsome profit. Robb notes how the image of Rimbaud here becomes that of "a contented misanthrope".
The book comes complete with some very useful appendices. As well as a family tree, and a list of poems published in his lifetime, there is an outline of historical events and maps of Abyssinia and the Horn of Africa. (Perhaps one of Paris and north-eastern France would also have been of assistance.) But Robb has also included over sixteen pages the French texts of poems quoted in English in his biography as "an encouragement to acquire a copy of Rimbaud's poems". (It didn't work for me.) Thirty-seven pages of notes are then followed by eighteen impressive pages of bibliography.
As usual, the book is replete with Robbisms, stylistic ways with words that both pleasantly surprise and concisely elucidate, diamonds of inventive conception whose reflection glitters in the mind of the reader. Here are a few examples: the uncle who was "a part-time labourer and a full-time embarrassment"; of Rimbaud using Cros's poems as toilet paper, Robb calls it a "concise example of practical criticism"; "Britain led the world in labour-saving devices: bathroom appliances and factory children"; `Hell' was usually a metaphor for the big city and its population of heartless businessmen, prostitutes and book reviewers" [ouch!]; "If poetry had been an intoxication, this was a diet of a recovering alcoholic";
Robb also has an equal facility for elegant metaphor and simile, for example Rimbaud's `Communard' songs "are beautifully constructed barricades in which the elegant furniture of conventional verse is jammed up against the cheap rubbish of the vernacular"; or "... the meaning is swamped by the huge, comical rhymes that spatter the rectilinear stanzas like petrol-bombs in the city streets"; or "the story of Rimbaud's life is an aerial pursuit over dense vegetation. The reconnaissance photographs sometimes reveal the image of a moving figure".
Ultimately, though, however much I might be disappointed by the worth of Rimbaud's work, I should at least be grateful for his impact on the life of Graham Robb, for without it, I doubt that Robb's marvellous prose would be as poetic and animated and humorous a pleasure to read. When I ordered this biography, those nice guys at Amazon recommended a collection of Rimbaud's poems to my list of future purchases. I thought I might dive in, but soon after starting Robb's biography I knew that I would not: life is too short! But I did come to admire both Rimbaud and Robb in the end, both for their dogged determination, the former for finding meaning in life, and the latter for finding meaning in the life.
on 10 October 2000
The legend of Rimbaud is simple and compelling. Brilliant young scholar and poet escapes provincial background and goes to Paris. Meets up with Verlaine. They have anumber of years of tempestuous life, during which Rimbaud writes all of the poetry which survives and makes his name decades later. After a tragic final violent episode where Verlaine shoots him, they part and, soon after Rimbaud gives up poetry forever. The rest of his life is naturally a failure, if colourful, and he returns to France to die; indifferent to his growing fame.
Very many tedious biographies have told this story. After two or three retellings Rimbaud the man becomes so unpleasant and insubstantial that we are left only with the poetry which seems inexplicable in such a context.
Graham Robb has decided to do more than just "print the legend", he has done a great deal of research and, even more important, he has thought himself through to a more rational view of the man. The poetic episode becomes an interlude in a life, not the justification of the life. Once we see his life whole and realise that he was a successful trader with a growing reputation; And that his life was cut short not because of his denial of his gifts, but because of bad luck with bone cancer, it becomes easier to accept that he might have been right to give up literature for the active life. His life was certainly more fulfilling than that of Verlaine. I highly recommend this book for its methodical reseearch, its insights and the wit of its writing. The only reason I do not give it five stars is that it is extremely light on interpreting the poetry and does not really enter into teh peotic part of the relationship between the two poets. Highly recommended as a good read and one which might make you look again at some of your prejudices
on 26 February 2014
This whizzes into my Top ten Best Ever Biography (you don't get that in High Fidelity) because Robb manages to write sublime caustic prose that corrects both the record and the myth that surrounds Rimbaud. Robb knows his stuff and writes beautiful lyrical prose whilst also being alive to the obsfuscations and mistakes made by earlier writers. We see Rimbaud as an enfant terrible writing poetry that both harked back to the remnants of romanticism but also looked forward to modernism and beyond. We see his relationship with Verlaine and the self destructive tendencies of both- his relationships with family- an absent father, a controlling mother. His endless restless wandering and a search for meaning or an abandonment of that search as meaningless. Nihilism, solipsism, dalliances with homosexuality and the search for an income as his reputation fizzed and fizzled. The duality of his life is clearer in the final sections in Africa, where Rimbaud writes home in a downbeat, constantly negative voice, whilst being recognized by those around him as a jolly fellow, ferociously efficient at his job, be it gun-running, storage hire or the like. It served Rimbaud well to present different facets to different people (as we all do) but he seems to have abandoned poetry whilst keeping an eye on a growing cult reputation in France. Robb reignites the debate about his complicity in slavery seeing his job as being impossible with out it- nothing could be done in the region he was in without using slave labour of some sort. Robb sees his way to correct other unforced or lazy research- some previous writers have had no knowledge at all of the geography of the areas Rimbaud worked in. A sad ending to his life- leg amputation and the furious last illness, counterpointed by the myth that was built around him and the growing spread of his poetry.
I sometimes read biography because of a curiosity about the biographer as well as the subject. I had heard alot about Graham Robb and this biography confirms the blurb on the front of the book from Will Self - "the best (biographer) of his generation". I suspect its hard to argue with that. This Rimbaud biography is...... something else..
on 15 February 2013
We know for certain that Athena sprang from the head of Zeus fully armored. But from where did Rimbaud spring? His mom was authoritarian and did her best to stifle his quest for knowledge (although, alone, she fed, clothed and housed him, as well as sending him to school); his dad, an officer, left the family when the boy was six, leaving behind enough writings to suggest a man of intelligence. His school counted on HIM for honors and prizes, the first in its mediocre existence. Photos of the boy range from drop-dead gorgeous to a girlish slut. He was said to be `a vile, vicious, disgusting, smutty little schoolboy,' who had left, as a parting gift, a turd on the pillow of a friend. His lover was an old man of whom he said he `'f----- me all night long, and now I can't keep my sh--in. He wants me to practice on him but he's far too filthy.''
Since the beginning of the world one of the hallmarks of boys is that they often make disastrous decisions, thanks to which we have skydivers, a legless boy who runs in the Olympics and world records of all kinds constantly shattered. Who knows why Rimbaud decided to go to Abyssinia, a land of murder, slavery, war, pestilence and famine, about which he wrote, `'I'm forced to speak their gibberish, to eat their filthy food and suffer a thousand aggravations caused by their idleness, treachery and stupidity.' He went as an arms salesman and made it back home rich, to die from the same hereditary disease that killed his sister. Graham Robb's RIMBAUD is beautifully written, the poems beautifully translated (I'm French), and so interesting that I read through it in just 3 days (at 550 pages, it's rather big). Because I'm personally incapable of judging Rimbaud's poetry, you'll have to arbitrate his historical impact. My own books can be found on Amazon under Michael Hone.
on 4 January 2001
A fascinating insight into the life of possibly the world's first adolescent, and a stark reminder of the short period in which the poems were written. Where Robb succeeds, is in placing the idea of Rimbaud as poet, in the context of Rimbaud as the man, explorer, trader and polymath. However, the use of short quotes form the poems is a little irritating at times, particularly when they are used to reflect parts of Rimbaud's life but are not contemporary. The author seems to have made a conscious decision not to quote poems at length or to analyse poems at any great depth, but this was a weakness of the book for me