Disaster Was My God

by Bruce Duffy
(Random House: 360 pp., $27.95) 

When Bruce Duffy’s debut novel, “The World As I Found It,” based on the life of Ludwig Wittgenstein was published in 1987, the response was almost hysterical. “Dazzling language,” “dizzying speculation,” said the New York Times, “an astonishing performance,” said Newsday, “It is hard to know which is more outsized,” said the Los Angeles Times, “the talent of Bruce Duffy or his nerve.” 

Readers were universally impressed with Duffy’s ability to climb inside the skins of his characters and muck around—and with his gutsiness. He did not tiptoe in the arteries of biography. His language was not careful. He sliced and hacked. Lifeblood spluttered all across the pages. Duffy was up to the task: his own writing, it was said again and again, his own thinking was as creative and elegant as the men he wrote about: Bertrand Russell, George Moore, but especially Wittgenstein, the philosopher who loved the flicks.   

And now, one novel and a quarter-century later (“Last Comes the Egg” in 1997, was admired but not so well loved), Duffy has crawled inside the mind of the poet-prodigy, Arthur Rimbaud. Rimbaud was not the usual prodigy. At sixteen, in 1870, he had been writing poetry for several years. “By then,” writes Duffy, “not that anyone knew it, of course—Arthur Rimbaud had anticipated and exceeded, Dada and Surrealism, had checkmated and rewritten fifty or sixty years of future poetry, had barged headlong into the twentieth century….” (p51)

This is a dangerous mind to enter, though generations of artists and writers have found a muse in the poet who stopped writing (stopped reading, talking about literature and acknowledging the existence of his early promise) at twenty, never to look back, not even before his death at thirty-seven in 1891. Why dangerous? Because he was a master of beauty—a seducer with a cold edge, a barger into the future. While there was great tenderness in his poetry and his life, he was uncompromising and could be cruel. In his relationship with the poet Verlaine, ten years his senior, Rimbaud uprooted Verlaine from his bourgeois life with a young wife and son, brought the older man crashing down in love with the poet he had “discovered” and revealed to the Parisian world, drove him crazy and left after Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the arm and went to jail. One of those.

Duffy’s writing is some of the most vividly imagined you will see in our time. He follows Rimbaud from his childhood on a farm in the Ardeche with a despotic mother to his escape to Paris and the relationship with Verlaine, to Africa where Rimbaud reinvented, “rebaptized,” (p95) himself after the episode with Verlaine as an explorer/merchant hunting gold in the Abyssinian desert and home again on a stretcher, one leg gouty and finally amputated, chased by hordes of fathers and brothers keen on killing Rimbaud for deflowering and discarding one of the region’s great young beauties. “He would be that new man, le capitaliste dynamiting mountains, diverting rivers, and charting new seas. Anything but that useless, impoverished wretch the poet.” (p95)

Duffy weaves these episodes in the poet’s life with a grace that is driven by image: the cobalt blue sea, cloaks and veils, a “pulverizing sun,” silhouettes, mud, husks, rinds, skinny barn cats, tureens of soup, keening women, Compline. “More flies. Bottle blue, black blue, green blue. Particles of life. ..Breathing, almost. Like a concertina. No, a corset, a black corset of flies, was it? Hadn’t he thought this, dreamed this, written this once? For suddenly life is taking, even for the apostate poet, a spectacularly strange turn. Seeing again. That’s it—seeing, such as he hadn’t seen in years, back to his runaway days.” (p79)

Duffy is driven by two fascinations: the poet’s sheer brilliance and his determined rejection of that brilliance, of poetry and art in general. Rimbaud’s mother, truly evil, is unforgettable, and his sister Isabelle, who gave her life to his biography, sadly trapped in her mother’s clutches and in the world’s adoration of her brother, gradually loses her fierce desire to marry and escape. 

Duffy inhabits the world of the driven. The insipid are not for him. Why use his considerable talent and imagination to bring these enormous characters to life? Because he can.