Disaster Was My God: A Novel of the Outlaw Life of Arthur Rimbaud by Bruce Duffy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The tumultous relationship between the legendary French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine takes a surprising backset in this biographical novel that is ultimately the fictionalized portait of the embittered battlefield that is the bond between mother and son. The Rimbaud/Verlaine relationship would seem like the obvious centerpiece for this novel, and indeed it does crackle the pages with chilling power when it is covered. It is not to Rimbaud and Verlaine we are first introduced to in this novel; it is to Rimbaud's mother as she supervises the exhumation of two of her dead children--her daughter Vitalie, and the famous Arthur Rimbaud. When preference is given to Arthur's corpse over that of Vitalie's, Madame Rimbaud is horrified.
From here we see the history of Madame Rimbaud's life, motherless, sexually abused by her father, abandoned by her drunken brothers, and abandoned by her drunken husband. All of these factors form to create an ascerbic, controlling woman who relies only on her own cunning business intelligence, and the obedience of her bullied children to get by in life. When the teenaged Arthur breaks from her stifling grip, she cuts herself emotionally from him, forevermore seeing him as the failed, useless male, that her father and brothers represented to her.
From there we learn of Paul Verlaine's naive, pregnant, teenaged wife, and of Verlaine's eccentric and forgiving mother who also keeps the preserved fetuses of his miscarried siblings in glass jars. The inner lives, and social plight of these women, trapped in a world where a good beating from a husband is considered commendable is starkly portrayed. By the time Rimbaud's and Verlaine's romance is portrayed, all of their destructive lusting seems like so much selfish pining on the part of two talented momma's boys from opposite ends of the spectrum. This fuels the novel's main flaw, creating a tedious read for anyone not sympathetic to two talented men who seem to have no shortage of self pity even as they scorn and phsyically harm the women in their lives.
The novel's prose is intoxicating at times, however, with scenes taking us through the pathetic horror of a veal calf goring its tongue on a nail out of boredom, to blisteing high adventure, and passionate eroticism on the African desert. The first sexual encounter between Rimbaud and Verlaine punctures the page with florid passion, wrestling, and finishing with the breathless abandon even seasoned romance writers strive for. The unflinching departure from romance that this novel takes forces one to examine further the works of Rimbaud and Verlaine, and the lives, and relationships formed and destroyed to fuel the creation of their poetic masterpieces. It forces one to look at the faces of the women scarred by the creation of these works, and then one is left to wonder at the human price of high art.
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