Clerkenwell Press £14.99

Disaster was my God, By Bruce Duffy

The man who remade Rimbaud

It can be hard for hindsight to remember that lives of towering artistic success can go hand in hand with dismal personal failure.

Even among Keats, Van Gogh and Modigliani, Arthur Rimbaud stands out as the loser's loser, the boy wonder who mapped out the future of poetry in his teens and then gave it all up by the age of 20 to be a colonial oppressor in East Africa. Dying in 1891, aged just 37, he has fascinated artists and writers ever since.

Biographers used to focus mainly on his early years of triumph, until Charles Nicholl tackled his lost years as a trader in Abyssinia in the groundbreaking Somebody Else. Bruce Duffy, in this first publication from the new literary imprint, Clerkenwell Press, also seeks to integrate the two aspects of the poet's life, focusing on the gravely ill Rimbaud's journey back across desert and ocean to Marseilles. As Duffy underlines, literary revolutionary he may have been, but Rimbaud retained all the arrogance of the era, bitterly contemptuous of the Abyssinian natives and, despite his infirmity, tough and resourceful; even violent. It's as if he wanted to purge himself of the effeminacy of poetry.

Flashbacks retell the story of his childhood and his glory days in Paris, where with a handful of new poems he unnerved the established writers of the day. But Duffy doesn't just go over familiar ground: the artistic manifesto in which Rimbaud pledged himself to the "rational disordering of all the senses", his affair with the married poet Paul Verlaine, the shooting incident in Brussels. In fact, celebrated scenes are set aside in favour of quieter moments, invented episodes giving Duffy more imaginative leeway. Duffy's knowledge of the poems is clearly profound, and many passages have the headlong exhilaration of the prose poems in Rimbaud's groundbreaking collection Illuminations. Using poetic techniques – sound effects, synaesthesia and weird juxtapositions – Duffy attempts the impossible: to imagine what it was like to have Rimbaud's brain.

As a novelist, he can boldly go where biographers only surmise, locating the devastating poem "The Stolen Heart" in a gang rape of the poet by idle soldiers, but overall he avoids the temptation to see the poems as mere transcriptions of personal experience. The evocation of Rimbaud's deprived rural childhood is superb, with a runaway father, sickly siblings and his terrifying mother, the "Shadow Mouth". But just as Rimbaud mashed up genres and tones, so Disaster was my God varies widely in technique, with lengthy passages reading like straight biography or critical comment.

The final chapters, detailing Rimbaud's decline and death, are agonising and moving. He remained staunchly indifferent to his great achievements, and Duffy has remained true to this hard-headed, objectionable man, resisting the urge both to idealise or self-identify. In a final note he pleads: "Please read the poems. In any language they are ageless." Rimbaud has been remade for a whole new audience.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform