The time I was introduced to French 19th century poet Arthur Rimbaud was the time I was introducing myself to my future wife. We soon discovered we both liked Jim Morrison and The Doors. So, of course, I read up on everything Doors related, watched The Doors movie with her and so on --- so I would seem very knowledgeable about this area as to impress her. Jim Morrison, I learned, was influenced by a young boy poet named Arthur Rimbaud. "Hmm..." I thought to myself, "if Jim Morrison liked him, he must be great." So, of course, I read Arthur Rimbaud's poetry. I discovered that I, too, liked Arthur Rimbaud and have been enjoying his work ever since.
Now, after the Leonardo DiCaprio movie Total Eclipse (where he plays the young Rimbaud quite well), and Rimbaud's words have been printed and reprinted, a biography has been published. Graham Robb's RIMBAUD: A Biography is the definitive life study of the great Arthur Rimbaud and is quite possibly the best biography out this year.
Who was Arthur Rimbaud? He is certainly an enigma of sorts. He was a saint, a sinner, a madman, a lover, a tyrant, a browbeaten son, an explorer, a gunrunner, a romantic, and, of course, a poet. But why did he stop writing poetry in his early 20s? Where did he go when he dropped out of French poetry circles and his torrid love affair with the married middle-aged poet Paul Verlaine? Why did he leave Europe for remote Africa? Was he a slave trader? Did he earn a fortune? How was he brought up? Who was his family? Did he ever write again after moving to Africa? Graham Robb, author of the biographies of Balzac and Victor Hugo, certainly answers all these questions and more.
Rimbaud was born in the small French village of Charleville, the son of a middle class soldier who ran off when Arthur was a child, and a demanding, oppressive mother. He was a gifted student through his schooling, always wanting to push the envelope, always wanting to see how far his intelligence and wit could take him. It took him to Paris where he fell in with the French poetry elite. There, he shook it up and violently. His words always inspired other poets, yet his antics made them shake their heads, wondering who was this mad man, this boy with a golden pen?
A startling, shocking relationship began between Rimbaud and fellow poet Paul Verlaine. Their relationship was stormy at best. Spiced with violence, sex, and alcohol, their madness escalated to the point that Verlaine shot Rimbaud with a pistol. Verlaine was sent to prison. Rimbaud left Europe. Verlaine stayed loyal to Rimbaud, promoting his poetry while he was away in Africa and even after his death. At the age of 21, Rimbaud was done with writing poetry; for his remaining 16 years he lived in exile, ending up as a major explorer and arms trader in Abyssinia (today's Ethiopia).
Robb succeeds in giving life to a man who lived two separate lives. The first life was his rise to fame in literary circles. His poetry, "The Drunken Boat," "A Season in Hell," and "Illuminations," illuminated his own life --- the deep, unknowable well of his most intimate thoughts. This life is well documented. His love affair with Verlaine, his influences on the Symbolists and Surrealists and gays and anarchists can all be found in this book or that. But his second life is just as interesting as his first (if not more so) and it has been left in utter obscurity. Graham Robb casts a brilliant light upon it and writes with passion and with the details that make biographies rich.
"By the end of 1888, most of the foreign trade in southern Abyssinia revolved around Rimbaud. He was an importer and exporter, a prospector and financier, a middle-man for the principal arms importer (Savoure), an agent of the oldest trading firm in Aden (Tian & Co.), and the main supplier of the man who was masterminding King Menelik's new nation." These accounts were fascinating to me, the reader of his poetry. I had no idea what kind of influence Rimbaud had in Africa --- his travels made him the first European ever to enter into many areas of Abyssinia.
RIMBAUD: A BIOGRAPHY is a compulsive read. It is the story of a young poet boy and a business man. It is the story of someone who turned poetry upside down and a man who traded camels in the deserts of Africa. It is the story of a turbulent childhood and a successful young adulthood. Robb has given us Rimbaud's life in its entirety, and it will be the bench mark for Rimbaud biographies for quite some time, if not all time.
Reviewed by Jonathan Shipley on October 1, 2000