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Vol. LXII, No. 43
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
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Edmund White Talks About Rimbaud: “Wild,” “Admirable,” “Intolerable”

Ellen Gilbert

Acknowledging the “wonderful group” that turned out on a debate night, writer Edmund White read from and discussed his new book, Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel, at Labyrinth Books last Wednesday evening.

The American-born Mr. White, whose previous books include eight novels as well as biographies of Jean Genet and Marcel Proust, lived in France for many years. He is currently Professor of Creative Writing at Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts.

His reading at the Labyrinth event focused on Rimbaud’s tumultuous relationship with the poet Verlaine. Despite the fact that Verlaine treated his wife abysmally (he threatened to kill her every day after their child was born), he was “very undecided” about his relationship with Rimbaud, according to Mr White. “He was physically wild about his wife, and it was back and forth the whole time,” he said.

Rimbaud’s use of hashish and absinthe (the “long, immense disordering of the senses”) helped to popularize the myth that “being a poet meant being high all the time,” reported Mr. White wryly. Verlaine, he added, was “quite a nut, too,” who became a “homicidal maniac when he was drunk.” The book is filled with scenes of colorful brawls and knife-tossing “games.”

“My book is slightly different from the others,” said Mr. White comparing his own treatment of Rimbaud’s life with several earlier biographies. “I talk a lot about poetry,” he noted, saying that he did his own translations of Rimbaud’s poems (“in all my arrogance I marched right in”). He also believes that as a gay man he had “some insight” into the poet’s relationship with Verlaine. “Some people think it wasn’t sexual, which is crazy,” Mr. White commented. “It was one of the most sexual relationships ever.” Which is not to say that he was a homosexual; before meeting Verlaine, Mr. White reports, Rimbaud wrote many poems to young girls, and after his break with Verlaine, he “went back to women.” While Enid Starkey (one of Rimbaud’s other biographers) suggests that Rimbaud was a homosexual, Mr. White believes he was bisexual. Mr. White also gives the lie to the notion that Rimbaud broke with his mother at some point. On the contrary, he joked, “he went back to her about 72 times.” After publishing A Season in Hell (1873) and Illuminations (1886), Rimbaud famously gave up writing poetry (and, coincidentally, drinking).

“He really believed a poet could change the world,” observed Mr. White, “But by Season in Hell he had alienated everyone.” Rimbaud travelled around the world trying various business schemes. His aspirations became fairly conventional, according to Mr. White: “He wanted to marry and have a son who would become an engineer.” Although Rimbaud is known as the “poet who invented obscurity,” Mr. White thought that by this time he truly “believed in science and the clarity of reason.” Referring the public’s difficulty in understanding how Rimbaud could give up poetry, Mr. White suggested that “we take it so seriously, we want to see him take it seriously.” Rimbaud died from an infection he contracted while gun-running in Africa at the age of 37.

In response to an audience member’s question about whether or not he liked his subject, Mr. White described Rimbaud as “absolutely intolerable as a person.” His experience of retranslating Rimbaud’ poems, however, did lead to admiration. “He flouted convention,” Mr. White observed, something he himself particularly appreciated as a teenager.

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