Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel

March 5, 2009

Edmund White first encountered Rimbaud's work in the toilets of his boarding school, which is, indubitably, the place to appreciate the one who celebrated cool, creative latrinal space in The Seven-Year-Old Poets. White begins his biography autobiographically, limning his adolescent rapport with the young poet: their shared bookishness, their longing for aesthetic and sexual freedom, their dream of adventure in the metropolis, and their aggravated pursuit of genius.

Rimbaud-romping through untitled chapters that give a sense of the permeabilities and resonances across the poet's life, White sign-posts the formative phases: the dullsville that was Charleville; the inspirational Izambard; Paris during the Franco-Prussian war; problems with mothers and mores, poverty and pariahdom; the scorching achievements that are A Season in Hell and Illuminations (the latter constrainingly referred to as "icy" and "futuristic"); the harshness of the African interlude; the physical agony and the exasperation of the final months.

Central to this biography is the explosive relationship with Verlaine. White pays particular attention to the problematics of reading sexuality in Rimbaud, its straight and its gay reversals in life as in art. Here there are numerous incisive moments. White deconstructs the discourse of Enid Starkie's 1937 biography, exposing its (more than) latent homophobia and the dangers of a Freudian over-reading. Powerful, particularly for the British reader, is the comparison White draws between the anal violation inflicted on Verlaine (under arrest for shooting Rimbaud) by the medico-legal authorities, in 1873, and the pseudo-scientific methods responsible for the 1987 "child abuse" scandal in the North of England. White's discussion of Rimbaud in terms of today's performance art is fresh and persuasive; other analogies are less effective. Thus, to describe The Frightened Ones as an example of "soft-core kiddie porn" is to put a distorting contemporary spin on what is, at most, the comic sentimentalism of the 17-year-old poet.

The biography weaves attested fact, interpretation and a keen sense of the particular, with sprightly translations. White reprises the conventions and the cliches that surround Rimbaud, but he also dares to prise new angles: so, the young poet resembles "a fallen angel", but the shop-worn cliche is dislodged by the ekphrastic coupling of Rimbaud and James Dean.

Biographers have had a prodigious appetite for Rimbaud, and White's contribution, coming in the wake of Graham Robb's outstanding study of the poet in 2001, is a rapidly executed portrait; it is no less enjoyable and deeply felt for that. Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel sidesteps the scholarly culture of index and endnotes, although an afterword on its sources imparts to the neophyte a sense of the biographical hyperactivity around Rimbaud (and Verlaine) while bypassing the research industry.

White writes fast and vividly, outpacing his editor. This decalage is sometimes irritating, and often humorous. The birth sequence of the Rimbaud siblings reveals that "first came Arthur's older brother, Frederic". An unusual vision of social mobility greeted Rimbaud and Verlaine in London's "huge parks where aristocrats paraded past beggars on horseback or in their carriages". Discombobulated syntax apart, there is disquieting news for the architects of Canary Wharf: "(they found a room in Howland Street) not far from Tottenham Court Road (since demolished and now the site of the Post Office Tower, the tallest structure in London)".

Immersing himself in the poetry-in-the-life, White offers lively glosses of difficult texts for those new to Rimbaud's writing. The gold-embossed lettering of the book jacket and its incandescent cover image of Rimbaud make the pitch at the general reader keen to get quickly acquainted with this most compelling of modernism's enfants terribles.

Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel

By Edmund White. Atlantic Books, 208pp, £16.99. ISBN 9781843549710. Published 1 January 2009

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