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Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel Hardcover – November 17, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Here is a lean, incisive biographical-critical book by one of our outstanding literary commentators. In compelling personal writing, White (Genet: A Biography) shows how one of the heroes of French culture, Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891), led a double life—in many forms. He who famously declared, I is another, abruptly abandoned the literary life, virtually as a teenager, for more than 15 years until his death. Unconventionally beautiful, from a provincial middle-class background and something of a mama's boy, the lover of Paul Verlaine was bisexual and secretly craved conventional worldly success even as his aesthetic was in the Symbolist art-for-art's-sake mode, portrayed by White as part shaman, part alcoholic and drug addict, part Catholic saint, Rimbaud remains a phenomenon in world literature. Included in this literary biography are White's superb translations of works he is discussing and fresh insights into Rimbaud's destructive relationship with Verlaine in particular, as well as with other poets, family, friends and business associates. This is a disturbing and original portrait of a man White sees as a fallen angel who misbehaved even in hell. (Oct. 6)
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From The New Yorker

Yeats once said that the writer must decide between the life or the work, but Arthur Rimbaud�teen-age prodigy, archetypal rebel, African adventurer�chose both. Although White notes that �a biographer of Rimbaud could fill his pages with nothing but his ceaseless comings and goings,� his own account is slim and skillfully blends action and analysis. White declares his personal infatuation�even speculating that an affair with a teacher as �an unhappy gay adolescent� may have been inspired by Rimbaud�s example�but he is clearheaded about his idol�s shortcomings. Rimbaud�s contempt for bourgeois life certainly made him an impossible visitor: if he wasn�t selling the guest-room furniture, he was using the magazine in which his host�s poetry had just appeared as toilet paper. White ultimately agrees with those of Rimbaud�s acquaintance who saw him not �as an angel or a devil but as an obnoxious boor.�
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Atlas; First Edition edition (November 17, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1934633151
  • ISBN-13: 978-1934633151
  • Product Dimensions: 0.5 x 0.1 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,406,353 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

43 of 48 people found the following review helpful By Jon Hunt on October 21, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The short, adventuresome life of Arthur Rimbaud is a seemingly endless contradiction of terms. For one who thought his own life boring and a failure as a poet, Rimbaud has succeeded in the century since his death in being one of the more endearing writers of his time. That his productivity was limited to a mere four-year period in his teens, makes Rimbaud ever the more seductive.

Edmund White nicely captures Rimbaud, ever the idealist but with a side of realism that belies his own thoughts and travels. His relationship with Paul Verlaine was perhaps in a strange way the most settling time in Rimbaud's life, even with all of the rages and furies between them. It is this association around which White centers, reflecting their sexuality within the context of the day. It is a terrific and enlightening part of the book and one that helps the reader to understand both men.

The question remains why Rimbaud stopped writing. Would he have been more favorably looked upon had the body of his work been much larger? Or is his treatment due more to the smaller number of offerings coupled with his personal reputation during his life. One cannot say for sure, though White seems to prefer the latter. Rimbaud led a full life of sorts in his short, thirty-seven year existence and this biography is a welcome addition to the cumulative lore and knowledge of this wanderer poet.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Hank Napkin on January 19, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The Starkie and Fowlie biographies were my introduction to Rimbaud's life. As scholastic in tone as those two were, Edmund White seems determined to make the leap to a more conversational, anecdotal overview. Not critical in tone - he lets the work speak for itself - nor overly technical, White's own writing seems at times clumsy and repetitive, rarely hitting the smooth and dazzling pace and associative depth of his subject. The overall effect of this very concise book is one of making the complex comings and goings of Rimbaud more approachable and graspable, less an academic reading experience than an empathetic one: "Pity the wood that finds itself a violin".

What are we to make of such a life? Rather than a "double life", it seems to me Rimbaud deliberately and consciously divided himself from the rest of the world, as well as from the main body of literature. Of course, too often, the rebellious element of artistic movements are simply reactionary: standing against the entrenched as much as for (one of perhaps many) alternatives. Rimbaud's talent transcends simple opposition, but his choices in life clearly took him to a more radical point, one removed from even the need of art.

Still, there lingers a sense of disbelief that any person with such a gift could literally walk away from writing, or that any creative artist could or would set aside the arts for a "regular" life. Personally, I don't find it so hard to accept. The creative life is an often demanding and thankless one. If the artist is an honest critic of his own work, then his own work - no matter how well judged by peers or history - can offer a subjective wealth of disappointment and frustration, regardless of the presence or absence of commercial success.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Charles S. Houser on January 10, 2009
Format: Hardcover
The brevity of White's RIMBAUD: THE DOUBLE LIFE OF A REBEL only increases one's amazement at the bizarreness of the way poet-adventurer-businessman Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) chose to live his life, the hardships he endured, and the magnitude of his accomplishment as a poet (his "mature" work being written between the ages of 17 and 21). White, a scholar of French literature who teaches at Princeton, seems to have a good sense of the best biographical and critical sources available in French and English. His translations of Rimbaud's poems and letters for the most part seem good, though I found myself wondering whether the French word "negre" is best translated with the derogatory term in English as White does in several places. White does a good job of tracing and debunking a couple of the myths that continue to work their way into Rimbaud biographies, such as Enid Starkie's claim that Rimbaud was raped by Prussian soldiers as a teenager and claims by others that Rimbaud participated in slave trading during his time in Africa. The book has a helpful bibliographic essay but, sadly, no index.
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9 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Eric Anderson on December 16, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is a carefully researched and entertaining biography of the vagabond poet Rimbaud's life. Beginning with a moving personal note about what Rimbaud means to the biographer, White goes on to describe the poet's early life, literary maturation and later frustrated drive for financial success with his typically warm and engaging writer's tone of voice. Rimbaud's intelligence and extremely difficult personality are brought alive with stories of his family life, literary associations and tumultuous relationship with the poet Verlaine. The evolution of Rimbaud's poetry which seems to take place in hyper-speed is intelligently explained with examples of the poet's work and how it relates to the poet's experiences and radical artistic vision. White is also careful to disentangle some of the popular myths about this mysterious poet's life.

It is mesmerizing reading about the quickfire creation of Rimbaud's ambitious output before his total withdrawal from art and the artistic community. Passages of the poet's work are sublimely beautiful and one can't help wonder what sort of literary works he would have created in his adult life if he had kept writing. That such a young man made such an enormous impact on his early champions speaks more about the bewitching influence of adolescent gusto, particularly from such a handsome and frustrated youth, rather than the quality of his writing. Nevertheless, the enduring influence the poet had on successive generations of artists is clear.
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