SATURDAY NIGHT SPECIAL
The Most Famous Gun in Literary History Sells for Half a Million
A tumultuous love affair, a drunken brawl, Leonardo DiCaprio, and a six-figure auction sale: The story of literature’s most famous gun.
PARIS — Who knew that the weapon in a botched crime of passion could be so valuable?
Certainly not the legendary Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, who brandished a 7mm six-shooter at his teenage lover, the infamous bad boy of French letters, Arthur Rimbaud, as the two argued in a Brussels hotel room in July of 1873.
“Oh come back, every hour I am crying again,” a distraught Rimbaud had written Verlaine from London less than a week earlier, after Verlaine had tried to end their tempestuous courtship and return to his wife. “Tell me to meet you,” wrote Rimbaud, “I will come.”
Verlaine offered no such invitation, but Rimbaud showed up in Brussels anyway. A booze-soaked brawl ensued and Verlaine pulled the gun, reportedly yelling, “Here! I will teach you how to leave!” before firing twice. One bullet hit Rimbaud in the left wrist, while the other blasted into a nearby wall.
And Verlaine still wasn’t finished. Even after accompanying Rimbaud to the hospital, where the prodigy-poet/boy-lover was bandaged and released, on the street outside he reached for the pistol once again. A panicked Rimbaud summoned a nearby police officer and Verlaine was hauled off to prison.
Despite Rimbaud’s testimony on his behalf, Verlaine was slapped with a two-year jail sentence and spent his incarceration writing a collection of poems he called Cellulairement. Rimbaud returned to France where he completed his now-celebrated A Season in Hell.
“I summoned executioners to bite their gun-butts as I died,” he wrote (as translated by A.S. Kline). “I summoned plagues, to stifle myself with sand and blood. Misfortune was my god. I stretched out in the mud. I dried myself in the breezes of crime. And I played some fine tricks on madness.”
Then Rimbaud abandoned poetry altogether finding work in the fetid heat of Africa and the Gulf as, among other things, a gunrunner, before dying of cancer at age 37. In the years since, his writing and his mystique have become legend, influencing the Surrealists and even filtering into American pop culture when the author of the original “Rambo” novel (First Blood), turned into a series of Sylvester Stallone movies, adapted the name for his own purposes.
On Wednesday in Paris, more than 143 years after Verlaine pulled its trigger, the revolver in question sold at auction at Christie’s to an anonymous bidder for €434,500 ($460,618)—more than seven times the estimate. As for the gun’s mysterious new owner, it is safe to assume that it wasn’t the weapon’s 19th-century craftsmanship that prompted the individual in question to plunk down such a staggering sum—almost half a million dollars—for what’s basically a 19th-century Saturday-night special.
“The gun is the origin of two masterpieces, Cellulairement and A Season in Hell, “ Isabelle de Conihout, the head of the Books and Manuscripts department at Christie’s in Paris, told the French news site 20 Minutes. “It is the final episode of the tumultuous relationship between Verlaine and Rimbaud.”
But the gun’s bizarre history didn’t end with the stormy antics of the two lovesick poets. Confiscated by the police after Verlaine’s arrest, the revolver was returned to the Montigny armory in Brussels from which Verlaine had purchased it. In 1981, the gun wound up in the hands of Belgian bailiff and weapons collector Jacques Ruth, who kept it stored in a cupboard for two decades, unaware that the weapon was the very revolver at the center of what was known as the “Brussels Affair.”
However, it was via a fictional rendition of the “Brussels Affair” that the gun’s true identity came to light. While watching the 1995 Leonardo DiCaprio film “Total Eclipse,” about the relationship between the two poets, Ruth noticed a striking similarity between the revolver in the movie and the one locked away in his cupboard. Ruth contacted historian Bernard Bousmanne, who had curated a Brussels exhibition dedicated to the two poets in 2004.
“I thought it was a joke, but all the elements matched: the model, the date and the production location, “ Bousmanne told L’Express. “We even took it to experts at the Royal Military Academy in Brussels. The findings were conclusive. We can say with 99 percent certainty that this was Verlaine’s revolver.”
Despite having taken a bullet from his lover’s revolver, Rimbaud gave a sworn statement on Verlaine’s behalf during his trial in an attempt to have the charges dropped.
“Verlaine at once expressed the deepest regret for what he had done,” Rimbaud said in the statement. “He was like a madman: he put the pistol into my hands and pledged me to fire it at his temple. His attitude was of profound sorrow…”
Indeed, it’s widely believed that Verlaine purchased the revolver not to murder Rimbaud, but to kill himself.
But the judge wouldn’t relent, and Verlaine’s prison stint would ultimately put an end to the torrid relationship.
“My last thought, my friend, will be for you, you who called me all the worst this afternoon,” Verlaine wrote a week before the shooting. “Do you want that I kiss you while I am dying?”
Although the revolver ended neither of their lives, nearly a century and a half later it’s hard to imagine a literary artifact with quite such an explosive impact.