cover image Rimbaud


Graham Robb. W. W. Norton & Company, $35 (551pp) ISBN 978-0-393-04955-8

In this robust biography, Robb (Balzac; Victor Hugo) contemplates the life of Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) as if the French poet/ vagabond's deeds were those of a mythic hero. Rimbaud's every impulse is viewed as the expression of a coherent, wildly innovative vision of the world; his artistic accomplishments are assumed to have redeemed his devious and destructive tendencies. Thus, when the academically gifted Rimbaud produced other students' homework for a price, the burgeoning genius was operating ""a parasitic service industry feeding on the education system,"" which Robb posits as a ""splendid achievement for a child of fifteen."" When Rimbaud spread his own excrement on the table of a Parisian caf as if it were plaster for a fresco, he was making the critical point that ""flat canvas and oils could not compete with the three-dimensional kaleidoscope of reality."" And when discussing the poet's use of blackmail to secure the attentions of his lover, poet Paul Verlaine, Robb dryly notes that Rimbaud ""never allowed conventional morality to ruin a practical arrangement."" The author seldom admits ambiguity. He is most effective in his effort to blend Rimbaud's early life as a bohemian social deviant with his subsequent 16-year career in Africa as a fledgling anthropologist and explorer. Rimbaud's childhood wanderings through the French countryside matured into caravans across the deserts. His youthful willingness to venture the unmapped lifestyle of the homosexual prepared him to encounter the exotic cultures of Abyssinia. His literary works, from ""Le B teau ivre"" to ""Voyelles"" and ""Une Saison en enfer,"" invariably focused on fluctuation, on moments of departure. According to Robb, these poems were crowbars that pried Rimbaud loose from family, tradition and society. (Oct.)