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Rimbaud by Graham Robb

Graham Robb

Graham Robb
London 2000
£8.99 0330488031

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Pedantry, writes Hazlitt, is a happy necessity in academia and the arts. Without it, we are left with the lazy ambition of the myth-makers and hair-brained critics. Few need this approach more than Rimbaud, the symbol-par-excellence of adolescent poetic rebellion. Nor is Robb the kind of pedant who dryly approaches his subject with a view to cataloguing Fact; he systematically approaches Rimbaud’s life via beautiful prose. At times its flow appears to transcend his subject matter, yet at a second reading it is clear he has simply revealed his subject in the best possible way. Robb neither eulogises nor condemns Rimbaud: by withholding judgement he allows the facts and scholarly suppositions to speak for themselves. At no point does Robb claim conjecture as Truth: throughout, he displays a talent for listing various possibilities and interpretations, especially concerning Rimbaud’s whereabouts on his travels, without forfeiting the disciplined narrative he so carefully constructs. Robb is that marvellous creature, the entertaining pedant.

Robb’s talent for marrying Rimbaud’s intellectual and social progress beneath the umbrella of concise but satisfactory historical elucidation is well-balanced and often intriguing. He describes situations and events, domestic and otherwise, with such clarity they are immediate. Such is his rendering of the Franco-Prussian War, which directly affected Rimbaud’s home-town of Charleville, and the situation of Paris upon the arrival of the young ‘anarchist’. A sore-point, however, is Robb’s treatment of the relationship, or ‘marriage’, between Rimbaud and the older, married, Paul Verlaine. He does not shy from their sado-masochistic homosexuality, which, in a rare intervention, he explains as a singular, and quite healthy, symptom of their relationship.

The problem, in fact, is the lack of attention brought to bear on their break-up. After Verlaine’s imprisonment for shooting his young lover, Rimbaud left his companion of a year or so and seemingly felt nothing. Perhaps Rimbaud couldn’t care less, Verlaine had exceeded his usefulness. The absence of commentary on this event, too, is perhaps in line with Robb’s anti-conjectural stance. However, no real attention is paid to Verlaine’s continued obsession, nor his diligent attempts to push Rimbaud into the limelight. This, along with Rimbaud’s later fame, could have been brought out much more. Rimbaud’s absence from the literary world does not necessitate the biographer’s, and despite the paraphrase of his later burgeoning fame toward the end of the book, I was left dissatisfied over the treatment of this important area.

One of Robb’s finest achievements is his approach to Rimbaud’s intellectual development. We read how the precocious and brilliant child, who wrote his maths homework in Greek verse, broke away from the educational system and truly influenced French art-forms. Robb’s attention to Verlaine’s ‘revolutionary’ disruption of the caesura, and Rimbaud’s subsequent reaction to it, is deftly handled, as is Robb’s implication that the French school-system was the tool by which Rimbaud gained his immense stylistic and intellectual discipline. More could have been made of Rimbaud’s contribution in writing the first ‘free-verse’ in French language, comparing him stylistically with Laforgue. Rimbaud’s development was so intense and rapid that pinpointing any stylistic ‘period’ would arguably be redundant: every new advance the young poet made, resulted in the obsolescence of previous experiments. Despite this, the poems which survived Rimbaud’s nonchalance could have been approached through a more literary framework.

The greatest achievement of this biography is Robb’s refusal to see the end of Rimbaud’s poetic career as the end of his intellectual development. Rimbaud continually expanded his knowledge: he became expert in Arabic and African languages, in geography and geology, in marketing and sales-techniques, and in manipulating opinion in his favour. When he finally broke the cycle of his travels, which usually ended with him back at Charleville, he proved himself to be adept at adapting to local customs and climates, while becoming a successful businessman. Robb carefully reveals the more than respectable profits Rimbaud made in his African trading exploits, as opposed to the apparent bankruptcy suggested by other biographers, while painting a picture of a man happiest when complaining about his ‘miserable’ situation. The ‘break’ with poetry is not really considered a true break, but a moving-away from art into life. Some parallels with the later Situationists would have been interesting here, but Robb no doubt aims to keep speculation at a minimum.

Finally, without hammering the point home with mock-Freudian analysis (a favourite these days), Robb implies that Rimbaud was truly a product of environment. With a brilliant but prodigal father, who translated the Qur’an into French after serving in the army, and a cold, bitter mother, who showed little physical warmth or affection, Rimbaud was the stereotypical enfant-terrible, almost destined to be an essential loner and despiser of bourgeois values. Rimbaud’s almost psychopathic coldness, selfishness and curious charm, are understandable conditions of his upbringing. These attributes possibly led to his being hailed as one of the great European explorers of Africa, completely aside from his previous manifestation as the adolescent poet-sage.

Even to the most anarchic of decadents, Rimbaud was an unbearable rule-breaker, lacking manners, respect and even, in some eyes, humanity. That he was more than devil-poet, a successful businessman, a famous explorer and manipulator of politics in his own right, is brought out so well, so lucidly, Rimbaud the man becomes as, if not more interesting than Rimbaud the boy-poet. In this case, the result is not a disappointing subsuming of the artist, but a revelation of the whole, and a refusal to see the end of poetry as an end to intellectual development. Truly Great.

Reviewed by Gregor Milne


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