Here’s a dilemma. You’re writing a fiction based on the life of an historical figure, and although you can stretch the truth, you cannot change the fundamental nature of your hero, a man roundly known at times to have been nasty, sadistic, and arrogant—even a jerk.
This describes my essential predicament with the central character of my latest novel, the French prodigy-poet Arthur Rimbaud, punk avatar and hero to rockers like Jim Morrison and Patti Smith. To better convey Rimbaud’s massive contradictions, let’s look past his warts for the moment. First the prodigy piece.
Child prodigy is not uncommon in music, Mozart being the most dazzling example. Prodigy likewise is relatively common in mathematics and the sciences. In letters, however, prodigy is extremely uncommon for the simple reason that a writer needs—beyond art—some requisite level of life experience and maturity.
Picture, then, a boy from the sticks of the French Ardennes who in the early 1870s, by the age of 16 and 17, is writing classic poems like “Vowels” and “The Drunken Boat.” What’s more, quite unlike any 19th writer you can name, even the greatest, this boy writes and thinks like a fully formed 20th-century being. Rimbaud is the rightful father of Dadaism and Surrealism, a poet who defied logic, broke into free verse, then, still more daringly, into prose poems like “A Season in Hell” and his revolutionary “Illuminations.” Consider the opening of the first illumination, “After the Flood:”
As soon as the idea of the Flood has subsided, A hare stopped in the clover and the swinging cow bells, and said its prayer to the rainbow. The precious stones were in hiding, and already the flowers were beginning to look up. The butcher’s blocks rose in the dirty main street, and boats were hauled down to the sea, piled high as in pictures.
Imagine, then, standing on this wind-swept height as Rimbaud did, almost out of your mind with the sheer power of your mind. Then imagine, at around age 20, giving it up forever, all of it, poetry, idealism—even hope.
You see, people love to mythologize the early, wildly idealistic Rimbaud come to change the world and revolutionize the one thing he never really had—love. The Rimbaud I struggled with, by contrast, was the nasty, precocious adolescent who brought new meaning to the term enfant terrible, attacking friends with knives and flinging lice on unwitting priests. But far and away the biggest problem was the later, turncoat Rimbaud, the angel who amputated his own wings. How was I to tell this part of the story, much less the later period in which he was selling guns in Africa, arming, with scarcely a second thought, a vengeful, murderous king?
And why was I making it so hard for myself, especially after the troubles I’d taken on with my first novel, The World As I Found It, based on the life of the great 20th-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. As main-character material, Wittgenstein likewise was highly problematical. Born and raised in Vienna and educated in Cambridge, the logician was a mental drill sergeant who destroyed the core of Bertrand Russell’s mathematics. Indeed, Wittgenstein once wrote in almost ecstasy of his method, “I destroy, I destroy, I destroy.”
And yet 20 years later, far from profiting from this experience, here I was, trying to create that oxymoron, a likeable Arthur Rimbaud. The same questions nagged me. What causes readers to stick with novels with frightening or repellent main characters—Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for example. How do such books give pleasure? Do we like Dostoyevsky’s arrogant ex-student Raskolnikov killing an old woman, a pawnbroker—a parasite, he thinks—with an axe? Or take Richard Wright’s brave masterpiece Native Son. What are we to think when Richard Wright’s black protagonist Bigger Thompson dismembers, then shoves into a furnace the body of a young white woman, whom he has accidentally suffocated? Why stick with such protagonists? Yet as readers we do. Taking us inside such darkness, the author has made the inexplicable humanly understandable, even as the story goes over a cliff.
In the case of Rimbaud, it’s clear his later life presented a formidable barrier, as evidenced by the fact that, more than a century after his death, nobody has done a comprehensive fictional treatment of what, at first glance, would seem obvious material. Other than a couple of cameo appearances, all we have, really, is the 1995 film, Total Eclipse, in which Leonardo DiCaprio—a dead ringer—plays the handsome young Rimbaud. Not surprisingly, the film concentrates almost exclusively on the iconic boy genius, striking faraway poses.
In any case, I tossed my doomed first effort—three years of work. Then, after further months of struggle, finally ready to throw in the towel, at last I had a breakthrough. This came when I recalled how, years after his death, Rimbaud’s mother, a tough, cold old peasant who had raised four children without a husband, had him exhumed—him and her favorite, a daughter named Vitalie who had died more than 20 years earlier at the age of 17.
The result was the book’s prologue, set in 1901, a decade after Rimbaud’s death. Long abandoned by her husband, Madame Rimbaud—or Widow Rimbaud, as then she insisted on being called—is another piece of work. We find her sitting in her carriage in the August heat, still fuming about his fame, the intrusions and hungry stares, the mad adoration from all these poets and professor-types peppering her with questions. Draped under a black church veil, the old hen insists on watching as the gravedigger unearths, like eggs, her children, two of the four. Bound they are for the exalted town graveyard where the wealthy slumber, and then for only one reason, these bumpkins—his fame. For the old woman, this is odious enough, but now her curse is to have his own statue, in the town square no less, the devil bronzed in the guise of some frolicsome imp! And then it hit me: This is the story of a monster raised by a witch.
Looking back, though, something else was blocking me—me. In the Wittgenstein novel, I had written in depth about Europe without ever having been there—at the time I thought it would be more fictional that way. Here, by contrast, I not only went to France but to Ethiopia. There I traveled across the desert to Rimbaud’s centuries-old walled trading town, Harar, then east, toward Somalia. Here I found a tribal Jurassic Park of wrecked vehicles and roaring smuggler trucks, a world in which tribal combatants still castrate their victims and virtually every male past puberty comes packing an automatic weapon.
Pilgrim foreigner. Under the desert heat I felt half dazed, to the point that one day, as if it were the most natural thing, I thought, Why don’t they just shoot me? Well, why not? A carload of German tourists had been killed the week before; there was nothing to stop them. Here I had done journalistic stories in Haiti, Bosnia, and Taliban Afghanistan, yet none of that quite prepared me for this tribal reality, beyond all law or help. I felt like one of those water striders, supported by the barest membrane of humanity, when a chilling thought came over me: Rimbaud spent 10 years like this.
Finally, at the age of 37, marooned in Abyssinia with a cancerous knee swollen the size of a beehive, Rimbaud organized his own rescue—him and his hoard of gold. Carried on a litter across more than a hundred miles of hostile desert, he reached the Sea of Aden and the ship that would carry him home to France, there to have his leg amputated and be reunited—unhappily—with his long-suffering mother. Here, too, Rimbaud depended on younger sister Isabelle, the same who would later reinvent him, or try, with her astounding hagiography, Arthur Rimbaud: Saint Among the Savages. In any case, some six months after his return to France—literally in his final hours—the rebel accepted Christ and took the sacraments. But never was he reconciled with the god of poetry.
Face it, it’s hard to read correctly the motivations of a genius so singular and precocious, much less to do so decades after the fact. Once the writing is done, it is equally hard to honestly factor in your own turbulent, not always noble emotions, much less to explain what is it about you—your own darkness and turmoil—that compels you to enter the psyche of such a disturbing hero? By now, liking him is almost beside the point. Rimbaud’s like somebody in my own family, the prodigal brother I never had, the family scapegoat and outlier. Lord knows.
In the end, however, one reality seems to me indisputable: I could not have brought to this book the level of reality and ruthlessness or élan—or the perverse joy and humor required—had hard experience not taught me how close our body double, the SOB, can really be. Closer than we dare admit.