Edmund White’s Rimbaud is Superb.

Posted on October 30, 2008
Filed Under Book Review | 328 Comments

RimbaudI’ll admit I was a little nervous about this one.  One of America’s great writers, Edmund White, has written a biography of one of France’s great poets–arguably the father of modern poetry–Arthur Rimbaud.  Sounds intelligent.  Sounds profound.  Sounds…well, maybe just a little bit over my head.  Frankly, I’ve always steered clear of Rimbaud.  My French has never been good enough for me to read him in the original language.  And I’ve always been suspicious of poetry translations.  Is there any way to translate a rhyme?   And so, Rimbaud remained a mystery to me.  Without even the sketchiest information about his life, would it be possible for me to follow this story–let alone get interested in it?

Fortunately, Mr. White is the intelligent, ever-patient tour guide.  In a surprisingly minimalist style, he skillfully renders the worlds of Arthur Rimbaud:  nineteenth century France, London and Northern Africa.  Mr. White’s tone is often drily humorous, as when he writes of Rimbaud:  “While still a kid he had already become resolutely anti-bourgeois in the great tradition of French bourgeois authors.”  He refers to Rimbaud’s long-term lover as “a drama queen.”  And he even gives us the etymology of the queer culture expression:  “Miss Thing.”  Make no mistake:  this is a highly entertaining read.

It is also highly intelligent.  Reading this book was an edifying experience for me.  I learned not only the details of Rimbaud’s life, but also what made his poetry great.  Mr. White sometimes describes how the poems rhyme in French before he presents the English translation.  At other times he presents the poetry first in the English translation and then in the original French–effectively illustrating the rhymes.  More important:  Mr. White selects samples of verse which perfectly demonstrate the depth and the breadth of Rimbaud’s genius.

The story of Arthur Rimbaud is as surprising as it is interesting.  I don’t want to give away too much of it, except to say that the subtitle:  The Double Life of a Rebel is ideal.  From a twenty-first century perspective, Rimbauld remains an enigma.  Was he bourgeois or anti-bourgeois?  Did he really cease to see the value of his poetry–poetry that many in his lifetime identified as great?  Was he gay, straight–something in between?  As always in great literary biographies, it is the unanswered questions that remain the most interesting.

Edmund White’s Rimbaud:  The Double Life of a Rebel is published by Atlas.


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