Based on the life of the 19th-century enfant terrible of French symbolist poetry, Arthur Rimbaud, Duffy’s story opens up the poet’s psychological depths, emotional torments and sexual proclivities.
The author alternates his narrative between vignettes of Rimbaud’s early life—growing up in the French provinces with a domineering and monstrous mother—and the last year of his life, ill and traveling back to France from Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) to get treatment for his cancerous leg. The novelist introduces us to Rimbaud’s early verse, received in enlightened and avant garde circles with both astonishment and éclat. We then learn of his move to Paris to meet (and for a while, live with) Paul Verlaine, whose 17-year-old wife on Rimbaud’s arrival is about eight months pregnant. The two poets begin a tempestuous and scandalous affair that flies in the face of conventional morality. While there’s plenty of dissipation to go around, Verlaine emerges as an even more debauched character than the younger poet, largely living on absinthe, wine, bitterness and envy. Their relationship climaxes in Verlaine’s wounding of Rimbaud, and the latter’s decision to give up poetry at the age of 20. The final journey Duffy chronicles is sad beyond belief, with the 37-year-old poet seeming about two decades older than his age, agonizingly making his way from Africa to France, hoping to reunite with his mother (who’ll have none of it) and with a younger sister who doesn’t even know he’s a writer.
Because Duffy quotes Rimbaud’s poetry generously, this novel serves as a good introduction to his life and work.