Disaster was my God by Bruce Duffy

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Disaster was my God by Bruce Duffy

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Andy Lancaster
Reviewed by Andy Lancaster
Summary: The scandalous life of the French poet and original 'fin-de-siecle' punk Arthur Rimbaud is source of constant fascination to anyone interested in French literature, and the birth of alternative youth culture. Duffy's dramatic fictional biography explores Rimbaud's early years as a child prodigy and his outrageous youth, and then in complete contradiction as a colonialist trader in sub-Saharan Africa.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 356 Date: November 2011
Publisher: Clerkenwell Press
ISBN: 978-1846685286

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The life of Arthur Rimbaud must be one of the most outrageous in literary history, more scandalous than Wilde, more self-destructive than Malcolm Lowery, Rimbaud was the boy poet and iconoclast who took on the literary establishment at end of the nineteenth century and won. So Duffy's fictional account, based closely around the actual facts of Rimbaud's life, was bound to be an exciting and furious, and he doesn't disappoint. This is a difficult book to put down.

Using the widow Rimbaud as the central focus for much of her son's early years, we see this authoritarian strict Catholic matron drive the child to become a prodigy, and ultimately to drive him to run to Paris to escape this repressed household. Duffy traces the early stages of the disastrous relationship with the poet Verlaine, portraying Rimbaud as a crude dominatrix over the elder, weaker drunk, and takes us rapidly to their split and the almost fatal ending of their relationship.

The drama and chaos of this absinth-fuelled literary ferago is followed by an account of Rimbaud's dangerous trek across the desert of Ethiopia to reach Europe and treatment for his cancerous leg. And here Duffy's choice to write a fiction rather than a strict biography allows him to exploit fully the tensions and dramas, so we have a tale of Edwardian daring-do and the tensions inherent of the role of a colonial.

The novel isn't without it's problems. Duffy's triumph in recreating Mme Rimbaud is some senses swamps our vision of her son, just as his detailed account of Rimbaud's second Nemesis, the poet Verlaine, dominates this section of the novel. Young Rimbaud himself is a cipher compared with the she-dragon and the dissolute and rapidly dissolving older poet decaying into madness. It is not until we see Rimbaud the African trader in total bourgeois contrast to the Parisienne radical that the detail of Arthur, the insights into his mind and torments really comes to the fore. But even then Duffy does not really attempt to deal with the mystery of the great poet abandoning poetry before the age of twenty, and never writing again.

But it would be wrong to characterise this novel as a failure. Duffy has achieved what I am sure he set out to do, to recreate the emotional circumstances and climate of Rimbaud's life; not to offer us easy solutions but to place us in the turmoil created by the clash of forces that beset the young man throughout his life (he died at only 37). And while that might not address the central issue of how Rimbaud become at 16 the outstanding poetic genius of his generation, and why just 4 years later he ceased writing forever, the novel doesn't ignore the poetry itself. Indeed if the test of a literary biography is that it makes you go back to the literary works themselves, then Duffy more than passes that test. He has a good understanding of the poetry scene of fin-de-siecle Paris, and more than that he has a great enthusiasm for Rimbaud's work which is infectious. As he concludes…

'Please, read the poems. In any language they are ageless'

It is very hard to find any other book which really compares with this - indeed Duffy has made the 'fictional biography' something of a personal genre ('The World As I Found It' being based on the life of Wittgenstein). But all biographies of historical characters are something of a leap into the imaginative, in order to link the facts and remains as we have them. Another book which attepmpts to understand a very complex and not always likeable literary character The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle by Russell Miller has a great deal to recommend it.

Buy Disaster was my God by Bruce Duffy at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Disaster was my God by Bruce Duffy at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Disaster was my God by Bruce Duffy at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Disaster was my God by Bruce Duffy at Amazon.com.

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