Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel, By Edmund White

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The Independent Culture

Edmund White's biography is subtitled "The Double Life of a Rebel", and Rimbaud's life was double in two senses. First, in the contrast between his poetry – which, as the extensive translated quotations show, was lyrical, finely wrought and fantastic – and Rimbaud's own repulsive personality.

Rimbaud was so rude that almost no literary figures in Paris wanted anything to do with him (except his long-suffering lover Verlaine, who ended up serving two years in prison for shooting Rimbaud in the wrist). Rimbaud alienated one poet at a reading by shouting out "Merde!" at the end of every line.

But Rimbaud's life was double in a chronological sense too: all the works on which his reputation rests were written by the time he was 21. In his early twenties he swore off writing poetry and left France to travel, ending up in North Africa, where he worked as grader, sorter of beans and accountant for a coffee exporter. Later, he became a gun-runner. He only returned to France to die, of cancer, at the age of 37. This smoothly written biography is an elegant demonstration of the disconcerting truth that the art may be much better than the life.

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