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.

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