Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Review: Rimbaud by Edmund White

Edmund White

Published by Atlantic Books

Reviewed by Giuseppe Albano

Edmund White’s latest biography is an intelligent meditation on a brilliant adolescent poet and horrible adolescent. If Rimbaud frequently aspired to genius in his brief period of poetic output, he occasionally sank into something resembling evil in the cruelty he inflicted on others. White is far too sophisticated to rely on either the G or the E word to explain this most complex of characters, though his Rimbaud often seems like a troubled boy-version of Madame Bovary, seeking out new interests to occupy his time but finding fulfilment in none bar poetry (for a while) and hurting people, thus lending weight to Kierkegaard’s notion that boredom is a root of evil.

At any rate, Rimbaud’s nastiness pretty much speaks for itself and in order to display his subject’s talent, White takes the standard literary-biographical approach of weaving fragments of textual analysis into an otherwise sequential account of the writer’s life. The critical passages are, as one would expect from so seasoned an intellectual as White, highly astute. His grudging acknowledgement of critics’ claims that Rimbaud was always a closet Catholic poet, despite ‘the essential impiety of the title [Une saison en enfer], which suggests that hell is finite and not eternal’, is a little odd, though. Had not Dante, the greatest Catholic poet of all, visited hell as a stage of a journey to somewhere else?

White is spot on when he flirts with political invective, reminding readers that leftwing politics cannot be counted on as a friend to sexual dissidents, who are often deemed to be by-products of bourgeois capitalism. Thus Rimbaud took a knock when he tried to align himself with modish leftwing movements. As White puts it, ‘Just as radicals in Europe and America during the 1960s would reject homosexuals, the Communards and anarchists drew the line short of “inversion” or “pederasty” or “sodomy”’.

White also shows he’s not immune to scholarly stilettoism, dragging the sharpest of heels across Enid Starkie’s theory, based on a ‘Freudian’ reading of Rimbaud’s poem ‘Le Coeur Supplicié’, that the poet was not only raped in Paris, but that he ‘enjoyed’ it. He quotes Starkie as saying that the ‘experience was probably the most significant ever in Rimbaud’s life’, which is not the same thing as saying he actually enjoyed it. Experiences can be significant in all sorts of ways, not least traumatic ones, and, regardless of whether Rimbaud had or had not been attacked against his will, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that something had happened around that time which drastically altered the young man’s understanding of sexuality. Some chapters later White ticks Starkie off again for having ‘cooked up’ the idea that Rimbaud was a slave trader during his time in Africa. Fair enough; but he does not chastise Graham Robb – whom he lauds, quite reasonably, as Rimbaud’s best Anglophone biographer – for supposing Rimbaud’s motive for tracking down Verlaine in Brussels to be blackmail and defamation. It’s true that Rimbaud threatened to play this twisted card later when their affair had soured beyond salvage, but the reason he’d sailed to Belgium might simply have been that he missed his lover.

The fact is that so much of Rimbaud’s short life remains enigmatic and courts biographers’ speculation and supposition. White doesn’t partake much in these things, which is why this book has such a chilly sparseness about it. As an introduction to Rimbaud, though, it does the job superbly. And if anyone thinks its subtitle – The Double Life of a Rebel – oozes blandness, they should just be grateful that its author didn’t stick with the working title of Rimbaud: Teen Top.



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