Fictional biography is a strange sort of genre. In subtracting a scholar’s strict fidelity to the truth, it would seem to take away a biography’s very raison d’être. What is gained, so goes the argument, is the opportunity for an expert writer to delve far deeper into the minds of famous, real-life individuals than would ever be possible by sticking to the historical record. The classic case is, of course, In Cold Blood, wherein Truman Capote used his authorial license to turn the true-life murderer Perry Smith into one of the most compelling literary characters of the 20th century.
Novelist Bruce Duffy is no stranger to this genre, having in 1987 published The World as I Found It, an acclaimed three-way fictional biography of Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and G. E. Moore. Just last October the book was re-published in the prestigious NYRB Classics line of books, an impressive recommendation. Now, over two decades later, Duffy has returned to fictional biography with Disaster Was My God, this time trying out the great French poet Arthur Rimbaud as his subject.
Rimbaud does not merely offer space for the kind of fictionalized biography that Duffy employs–he in fact gives acres upon acres of real estate for a creative author to assert himself. For one thing, Rimbaud was notably reticent about the meaning of his poetry, which to this day remains new and enigmatic (even recently inspiring an English translation by that noted eminence of American poetry, John Ashbery). Moreover, Rimbaud’s elusive, epigrammatic sayings (most famously, “I is another”) retain a provocative freshness, leaving plenty of room for an author to dive into their psychological depths. And if textual readings aren’t your métier, Rimbaud’s life is packed with unaccountable decisions that lend themselves to elucidation: to run off at seventeen with the reigning monarch of French poetry, Paul Verlaine; to break the heart of a love-besotted Verlaine just as abruptly two years later; to renounce poetry and disavow his former work at twenty; to take up a bandit’s life as a gun-runner in a very deadly and wild Africa; to give that life up suddenly to return home to France.
So there is quite a lot to go into with Rimbaud, and to his credit Duffy pretty much tries to take it all on. The book gets started with a brief prelude involving Rimbaud’s mother digging up the grave of her son. From here Duffy leaps to a weather-beaten former poet preparing to extract himself from Africa with a left leg the size of a barrel and nearly 10 pounds of gold wrapped around his waist. The narrative of Rimbaud’s return to France is intercut with that of the teenage poet growing into the terrible infant of French letters. Throughout the book Duffy works these two narrative tracks, effortlessly slaloming between the young Rimbaud and the old.
At nearly 400 pages Disaster Was My God is hardly a slim book, yet one still feels this robust effort labor under the weight that Duffy asks it to bear. With a cast that includes Rimbaud, his family, and his lover, plus his African business associates, enemies, and would-be wife–and a few more sundry folks–there is a whole lot of characterization to be done in this book. And while Duffy does a strong job of it, with so many people competing for attention one feels that it’s entirely possible to get lost in the crowd.
Likewise, while Duffy’s treatment of the frequently interesting interactions each of these people have with Rimbaud is never less than accomplished, the overall effect is one of superficiality, as though Duffy is spreading his talents too thinly. The problem stems in part from the fact that Rimbaud was such a larger-than-life figure: with so many outrageous incidents to consider, Duffy’s book seems unable to decide between the realistic and the cartoonish. Duffy never lingers long enough over any single moment to let it accumulate more than a weak gravity, instead giving us something like a chain of spectacle. We see so many different sides of Rimbaud–the abused son, the hell-bent rebel, the embittered criminal, the burnt-out husk–that none ever matures into a full-fledged portrait.
The result is that, as great of a subject as Rimbaud is, you wonder just what Duffy wants with him. One possible answer–as a springboard into what remains some of the most difficult, obscure poetry of the long 20th century–turns out not to be the case. Though the poetry is quoted liberally throughout the book, Duffy never gives a compelling reading of it, instead repeatedly battering us with the fact of its newness, its modernity. This may be true enough, but the ferocity with which Duffy repeatedly asserts Rimbaud’s status as the first modern poet comes to diminish him, as though he were some cheap product whose single virtue a salesman extols ad nauseam. What’s more, other than the clichéd explanation of a seriously difficult mother, we get precious little insight into what might have made a boy of 16 become so disaffected from the world that he would decide to dedicate his life to poetry that would revolutionize it–to say nothing of his choice to run away from home and traipse around Europe with a man twice his age. Rimbaud inspired a century’s worth of James Dean-like rebels without a cause, we are told, but we never feel that Duffy really cares how or why.
At length, it seems that what Duffy wants from Rimbaud is a good old story. It is perhaps not the most inspiring literary artifact that might be gleaned from the life of the poet, but it is an enjoyable enough tale and Duffy an able teller. There are many fine touches here–my favorite are the three miscarried “siblings” of the great French poet and one-time lover of Rimbaud, Verlaine, which Verlaine’s mother has suspended in jars of alcohol and labeled the “Wee Ones.” Due credit must also be given to Duffy for the faculty with which he can turn a phrase. For instance, a dwarf that the ever-amorously ambitious Rimbaud knows biblically is described as “an intimate of Tom Thumb’s and une fille aux pieds, so-called, with her almost prehensile, penis-plying feet. Succulent perfection, with just a hint of crud in the petal-like moons of her toenails.” And lastly, though the book’s psychology tends forward the brief and superficial, Duffy can set a scene and use it to draw out what his psychologizing can’t. His savaging of a feckless Verlaine for sending his pregnant wife out scavenging for coal during the communist siege of Paris is spot-on, as is Verlaine’s later chagrin when he realizes the size of his error in inviting the reckless and troll-like teenage Rimbaud into the bourgeois propriety of his parents-in-law’s house.
In the end, Disaster Was My God turns out to be a fine middlebrow summer beach read. It’s a pleasant first acquaintance with a poet who still remains great, as well as a worthwhile instigation to discover the poems for yourself. With the NYRB Classics’ seal of approval, plus Joyce Carol Oates’ plaudits given to his first book, one imagines that Duffy has better things in him. Perhaps in time we’ll see what those are.