Disaster Was My God: A Novel of the Outlaw Life of Arthur Rimbaudby Bruce Duffy
Arthur Rimbaud, the enfant terrible of French letters, more than holds his own with Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde in terms of bold writing and salacious interest. In the space of/i>/b>/i>
The author of the critically acclaimed novel The World as I Found It brilliantly reimagines the scandalous life of the pioneering, proto-punk poet Arthur Rimbaud.
Arthur Rimbaud, the enfant terrible of French letters, more than holds his own with Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde in terms of bold writing and salacious interest. In the space of one year—1871—with a handful of startling poems he transformed himself from a teenaged bumpkin into the literary sensation of Paris. He was taken up, then taken in, by the older and married poet Paul Verlaine in a passionate affair. When Rimbaud sought to end it, Verlaine, in a jealous rage, shot him. Shortly thereafter, Rimbaud—just shy of his twentieth birthday—declared himself finished with literature. His resignation notice was his immortal prose poem A Season in Hell. In time, Rimbaud wound up a prosperous trader and arms dealer in Ethiopia. But a cancerous leg forced him to return to France, to the family farm, with his sister and loving but overbearing mother. He died at thirty-seven.
Bruce Duffy takes the bare facts of Rimbaud’s fascinating existence and brings them vividly to life in a story rich with people, places, and paradox. In this unprecedented work of fictional biography, Duffy conveys, as few ever have, the inner turmoil of this calculating genius of outrage, whose work and untidy life essentially anticipated and created the twentieth century’s culture of rebellion. It helps us see why such protean rock figures as Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, and Patti Smith adopted Rimbaud as their idol.
From the Hardcover edition.
“Astonishing. . . . Exquisite. . . . Breathlessly absorbing.” —The Boston Globe
“Duffy has found a subject whose ability to fascinate rivals that of Wittgenstein’s, and the literary results, once again, are impressive.” –San Francisco Chronicle
“Entertaining. . . . [Duffy’s] raucous, bawdy and ultimately worshipful take on the infamous poete maudit—as in cursed poet—offers histrionic scenes of pain, degredation, sheer madness and intermittent danger.” —All Things Considered, NPR
“A fiery mosaic of brilliantly conceived and written pieces. . . . The adorned texture of Duffy’s writing becomes addictive. . . . Among other things, Disaster is the rare example of a page-turner whose pages are richly weighted.” —The Boston Globe
“Disaster Was My God is a demanding book…but these difficulties are not only compensated, they are essential to the novel’s success. The book’s chaos is true to the mental and emotional chaos of the elusive man who inhabits its center, a man whose ultimate unknowability is perhaps the most modern thing about him.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Equally rumbustious [as The World as I Found It]. . . . A wonderful story with a vitality that can’t be suppressed. . . . A story bursting to be told, and how right that it should be taken up by such a master storyteller.” —The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
“There’s quite enough in [Rimbaud’s] short life for most novelists to work with, and Bruce Duffy does it up big. . . . Duffy carries the reader beyond the usual ventriloquism of a realistic rendering of the material to a playful level above and beyond it.” —All Things Considered, NPR
“Duffy manages the difficult feat of bringing a larger-than-life figure to life, with nothing more—or less—than language. . . . An audaciously constructed, powerfully composed work that manages to create for the reader not simply the facts of Rimbaud’s life, but rather, the driving, almost insensate force that made those facts so alarming, so alluring.” —Bookotron.com
“Using poetic techniques—sound effects, synaesthesia and weird juxtapositions—Duffy attempts the impossible: to imagine what it was like to have Rimbaud’s brain. . . . Rimbaud has been remade for a whole new audience.” —The Independent (UK)
“Drawing on the life, the history, the writing and a good deal of imagination, Mr. Duffy fills in the gaps [of Rimbaud’s life]. He does it with much enthusiasm and verve. One gets the impression that he truly loves his subject, that he wants in a bad way to reveal a profound secret of this genius.” —MostlyFiction Book Reviews
“Duffy makes this melange of fact and fiction, of 19th, 20th, and 21st century language hang together in an ambitious work, whose copious layers of detail demonstrate wit, panache and page-turning invention throughout.” —The Telegraph (UK)
Based on the life of the 19th-centuryenfant terribleof French symbolist poetry, Arthur Rimbaud, Duffy's story opens up the poet's psychological depths, emotional torments and sexual proclivities.
The author alternates his narrative between vignettes of Rimbaud's early life—growing up in the French provinces with a domineering and monstrous mother—and the last year of his life, ill and traveling back to France from Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) to get treatment for his cancerous leg. The novelist introduces us to Rimbaud's early verse, received in enlightened and avant garde circles with both astonishment and éclat. We then learn of his move to Paris to meet (and for a while, live with) Paul Verlaine, whose 17-year-old wife on Rimbaud's arrival is about eight months pregnant. The two poets begin a tempestuous and scandalous affair that flies in the face of conventional morality. While there's plenty of dissipation to go around, Verlaine emerges as an even more debauched character than the younger poet, largely living on absinthe, wine, bitterness and envy. Their relationship climaxes in Verlaine's wounding of Rimbaud, and the latter's decision to give up poetry at the age of 20. The final journey Duffy chronicles is sad beyond belief, with the 37-year-old poet seeming about two decades older than his age, agonizingly making his way from Africa to France, hoping to reunite with his mother (who'll have none of it) and with a younger sister who doesn't even know he's a writer.
Because Duffy quotes Rimbaud's poetry generously, this novel serves as a good introduction to his life and work.
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Read an Excerpt
1: The Bastard’s Last Day
Every morning at dawn they emerge from the desert, black women with earthen red jugs, tall, thirsty jugs atop their heads, their hard-calloused bare black feet squeaking as they pound down the long, broken road, through the floury red dust.
See them in the pulverizing sun. Wrapped in shawls of white cotton, two long and tremulous forms start up the mountain, their tall jugs making them look like giants in the distance. Miles they will walk up this mountain, then miles back through the volcanic desert, and all for one jug emptied upon arrival by begging children and fiery, wooly-haired men in raw cotton tunics carrying long black spears and heavy daggers--white-eyed warriors who snatch and gulp their fill.
But today it is not just the water that brings the women out of the desert. It is the news, the gossip, which is juicy, like a burst mango, especially on this, the Bastard’s last day. If it is his last day, that is.
On this point there is much debate, competing rumors, the biggest being that the Spice Woman, the very girl the Bastard dishonored, will at last confront him. Avenge herself. Humiliate him in some way. No one wants to miss that, the humiliation of the frangi, the foreigner.
“Look at the sun,” says the taller of the two, a quick, sharp girl, pretty, with a wide gap between her front teeth. She slaps a vicious fly. “Come on. If we don’t hurry, he will slip away.”
Then at the next pass, a third joins, then a fourth, then a fifth, this one carrying a basket piled high with juicy dates--dates with pits they spit, pthu, when they speak about him.
“This is the day,” insists the date woman, bossy and a big talker but often right about such matters. “A woman from the caravan told me. Five men pulling twelve camels--twelve.” Her eyes grow wide with irritation. “Don’t you understand? The Bastard needs four camels just for his gold.”
“Just once,” says the youngest, staring at the sky, “just once I want to see his face. Frangi devil.”
“No,” squeals the oldest, a very beautiful woman, a real looker. Scared of the devils and jinns, she wears on her chest an ornate silver cylinder containing a message written by the sheik himself, abjuring any who might cast doubt upon her virtue with the evil eye. “I will not look! Never, at those eyes of his--of that blue. But please, if an evil urge makes me look, promise! Seize me hard by the hair!”
Then everything changes. With just a few feet more of elevation, suddenly all is green and cool, jungle palms, date and banana trees and, on the ground, a small clan of the long-faced gelada baboons, several with babies clinging to their backs. Then, round the next bend, a bad omen. Hunkered atop a white-boned tree, four enormous vultures can be seen, slouching black heaps with absurdly tiny heads--white, like centipedes. Then the young woman squeals, ducks as they hear:
The great shadow swoops. Seizing the jug upon her head, she looks up, to see him silhouetted against the sun. Amazing, the creature is almost the size of a man, an angel with two pumping swells of wing. And higher, circling in the clouds, wings cutting like scimitars through the blue sky, dozens more of these magnificent birds can be seen--the great kites of Harar, godlike birds, rulers of all the sky, the kings!
Beware, butcher. Turn even for one second and the swooping, spade-tailed kite with his hand-sized claws, he will snatch your meat, then perch nearby mocking you, tearing it with claw and beak. And way up there, high on the bluff, there is where the kites live, on the walls of what looks like a great mud ship; there it is beached on the great massif from which one can see for a hundred miles. This is the ancient mud-walled city of Harar, a place of some 12,000 souls, thousands of goats, and innumerable dogs. And now, as the women see, it is a city suddenly blocked. No reason. What reason? The gate is blocked, as always, by the sheer arbitrariness of life in this part of the world.
As the sentries push people back, it’s chaos, what with the market-day crowds bumping and buzzing and shouting. Men with goats slung over their shoulders. Bawling camels piled impossibly high with firewood and bananas and hempen bags. Donkey carts with wobbling wooden wheels tall as doors. And people bringing strange birds and boys holding dik-diks, tasty antelopes the size of rabbits, their long legs bound like sticks with leather thongs. And blocking them, at the head of the great gate, in their old white uniforms stand the impassive Egyptians--now mercenaries, their cohorts driven out some years before by the vengeance of the great Menelik, Menelik the Merciless, the capturing king. Holdover former occupiers from the north, the Egyptians stand with their rusted rifles and purple fezzes tightly wound in white cloths to combat the sun. Going You and You. Or Not you, if they do not like your looks--out.
“Look at this mess!” The date woman spits. “Late. I told you.”
The other shades her eyes. “And today it is the day? Are you sure?”
“Silly girl. Was sure ever sure?”
But five minutes later, pushing through this river of people and animals, mud and husks and rinds, they arrive at the Feres Magala, one of the town’s two squares, and there at the well must be fifty women, all waiting to catch a glimpse of the Bastard, otherwise known as our luckless hero, Arthur Rimbaud. Alas, Rimbaud is hastily concluding his self-exile in this African Elba. Hiding behind those arched green shutters. Treed!
“Yes, it is true!” shouts the date woman, holding her wares over the crowd. “Today he goes, the Bastard! Look, dates, fresh dates!”
“But no, you are wrong,” dismisses her rival, another date seller. “They say tomorrow he goes--pthu. Away, the thief.”
“But how?” asks the youngest, pressing her shawl against her face, poor girl, as if to ward off some dreaded contagion. “But how can he go when his leg is so fat and sick? He cannot ride.”
“Ride!” sneers another. “With his money he will buy a golden leg! Two! The devil, he will find a way.”
Out is the way, and hastily, too. For even now, upturned on sweaty backs or balanced atop heads, the last dregs of A. Rimbaud Ltd. are being rapidly disgorged into the street: desks, crates, hempen bags, tusks--yours, at a fraction of their wholesale cost.
Two stories above this scene, the besieged proprietor peers out--well back from the peeling, rickety louvers, his face striped with bars of sun and shade. Ah, but not back far enough. For just then the rising sun illuminates his silhouette--exposed! With that an ululating cry can be heard. It is the chorusing, cicadalike cry of fifty female tongues clucking.
Unfortunately, our hero has lost the element of surprise. For although it is not the actual day of his departure, it is the last full day of his tenure at this torrid, misruled school. And a downcast day it is, too.
How sad to be misunderstood, when for years, in his missionary way, he has tried to be good. Not great, he would hasten to add, but merely good--good enough, living a modest, human-scale existence that might be characterized, if not by faith, exactly, then by its very simplicity and decency. Good works. Even charity. Well, of a kind . . . if he could manage even that, hang it.
And indeed, until only very recently in these parts was there any stain on his otherwise faultless reputation for actually good goods, for fair dealing and sure delivery within days or weeks, as opposed to months. A. Rimbaud, known as far as Cairo and Nairobi as a steady man. A handshake man. A man who honored his word, paid his debts, didn’t whine, and ran a tight ship--rare in this land of fugitive oddballs and crooks. But look. Even now as a woman, keening Ayeeeeeeee and suffering some kind of spasm, is gesturing horribly at him.
The crutch groans. As he turns away, it spins like a peg on the rough wooden floor, his one crutch and his one good foot--the left. It’s his right leg that is now the problem, specifically the knee, now swollen to enormous size. Merde . . . les varices! Varicose veins! This continues to be his stubborn diagnosis, and even now, incredibly, he remains wedded to the idea against considerable medical and commonsense evidence to the contrary. Why, even as recently as a week ago, obstinately he had marched on the bad leg. Stamped on it. Rode with it until it was numb. Varicose veins: this remained his steely reply when people presumed to inquire or insisted on staring.
And when at last, to relieve the swelling, he was forced to tear open the knee of his trousers--well, fine. Indeed, the knee was purple, but a commanding man, a deliberate man, he does not change his answer. Never, even as he dispatched his poor mother to scour Charleville, their town, and even Paris if necessary to find a special sock. A medical, elastic stocking he had seen in some months-old newspaper. Just the thing to compress the veins. Pressure. For him, this is always the answer: pressure.
Alas, when said sock arrived ten weeks later in a mildewed package mauled beyond recognition, the sock did not work, hang it! In fact, just as his mother had predicted, the sock only worsened the condition. And then last week came the final blow--a crutch.
It was the leg that had started this nonsense with the women. Arrogant frangi! This was not just bad fortune. To them, it was God’s retribution for his having chucked the girl out three months before. Because the girl could not give him a child, not even a girl child, let alone a male child, the frangi, the foreigner, he had thrown her out, but see then how Allah punished him! As anyone could tell you in Harar, the backed-up man poisons, the poisons from his bad seed, they had seeped down his leg. Allah, who sees all, Allah the Just had turned his leg to stone, his business had failed, the girl had triumphed, and every day now female justice waits outside his window, praise be to Him--al-hamdu lil-lah!
Oh, it’s bad, quite bad, and he knows it. But it’s not just the leg, it’s his whole life, even the state of his room. Papers strewn. Drawers hanging out. Bags half packed. It’s life with the stuffing pulled out--evicted. For yes, admittedly, he had done--
Or rather, it had so happened--
Fine then, he had let happen a rather stupid thing. A rash thing. An obstinate thing. And, perhaps most unforgivably for his European colleagues, a rash and unnecessary thing, ejecting the girl. “Good heavens, man,” as one English bloke had put it. “What are you thinking? Have you a positive wish to die?”
The girl also had a family, and a large one, so throw in “impolitic,” too. And yet, having found the girl, this flower sprung in the mud of the bazaar--well, for once in his life, Rimbaud had done the brave and honest thing and followed his heart. And yes, it was regrettable, but certainly he had made copious amends to the girl and her family. Hecatombs of amends--God! People had no idea what he had paid to her people--for months--in his vain efforts to hush it all up. And all too characteristically he had thought, I can fix this. Set her up fresh--in Egypt, perhaps. Find some wealthy man. Une belle situation. A governess or mistress position, perhaps. I’ll fix it.
Pack of dogs! Bandits! And after all his generosity to the town, too.
Anonymous, most of it. Oh, they didn’t know the half of it, ignorant savages. The leper colony, for example. Had he not donated bandages, then even frocks to his friend Father Lambert and the little children in the school adjacent to the quarantined “hot” compound? Quite beautiful healthy children, too, even as their parents, earless, noseless, fingerless, boiled in their own skins. The children! Among whom he would sit, as if among wild monkeys, when he was feeling low. Voices raised in song--remember? On his birthday? How they had sung to him so beautifully!
But it wasn’t just the orphans to whom he had been so kind. Thanks to him, ten, twenty, probably thirty men had been inoculated--alive merely because they worked for him. And the food! Piles of food he had given away during the famines, why, openly in the streets, stopping the wildfire of hunger before mobs sacked his store, or worse. Could they, could any of them, appreciate his generosity, his sacrifice?
No more. Tomorrow, after long years of comings and goings in the region, he will leave it, all of it, the reputation he wants and manly competence as he knows it, and all in the hope that his mother and Roche, even France--that this time it will be good, or at least better than it was before. For a man with the pride of Lucifer, it is a point of particular pride that he himself has organized his rescue, himself and his gold, kilos of the gold protected by a dozen gunmen, wild Yemenis and Somalis, mostly, bound to him through a local chief whom he had long supplied. Ruthless, efficient men. Blooded horsemen personally armed by Rimbaud himself--five of them with the Remington lever-action repeater rifles so prized--he loves to point out--by the American cowboys. Rimbaud was proud indeed that he could procure such weapons. And tomorrow at dawn they will come for him, a dozen men with guns and spears and bandoliers of ammunition. A trotting armory, each man carrying, athwart his hip, the long Danakil dagger, a heavy, J-shaped rip of steel that curves like a sideways smile. Reaper men. And reliable men. Or so he hopes, carrying all his gold.
Before dawn, they will be off, with him leading the caravan. And not walking or on horseback but carried--carried on a stretcher. This will be his ordeal, broiling in the trackless desert under the unending sun. Twelve days later, ten if they are very lucky, they will arrive in Zelia by the cobalt blue sea. Then away he will go--away on the first steamer smoking back to France. Away from these vulturous women keening, “Ayyyyyeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
BRUCE DUFFY is the author of The World as I Found It, a fictional life of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Last Comes the Egg. His first novel has been released in the New York Review of Books Classics series. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland.
From the Hardcover edition.
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