Edmund White

Edmund White talks about his biography of Rimbaud

Left: Cover of Edmund White's Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel (detail; Atlas & Co., 2008). Right: Étienne Carjat, Portrait of Arthur Rimbaud at the age of seventeen (detail), ca. 1872.

A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Edmund White is widely known for his essays and novels on gay and artistic life, as well as for his biographies of prominent writers. In 1993, he published Genet: A Biography, for which he won the National Book Critics Circle Award. White’s brief Atlas biography Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel will be published October 9.

RIMBAUD WAS a childhood hero of mine, and it was interesting to revisit him for this short biography. I found him less heroic as a person and maybe even more interesting as a writer. I think I wrote more about him as a gay figure, about his love of Paul Verlaine, than previous writers had done. I don’t think I exaggerated its importance; as far as I know, they were the first really prominent gay artist couple in history. I think it’s quite clear that Rimbaud was the top in the relationship, and I think that’s something that straight people don’t usually grasp very well. They often see the younger boy as being a sort of stand-in for a girl—maybe that comes out of the classical Greek model. But this idea of a tyrannical younger boy frightening and controlling an older married man is something that people who are gay and who’ve lived in gay life recognize as a possible variation of that situation.

There are plenty of older men, even older men who are writers, who are tyrannized by their younger hustler lovers. But what’s unusual about the Rimbaud-Verlaine and the Bosie–Oscar Wilde pairs is that all four of them were writers, and each had this peculiar relationship where the younger one was the top. (Perhaps Don Bachardy and Christopher Isherwood are kind of an exalted and kindly version of this model.)

I say in the book that Rimbaud essentially invented obscurity. I think Rimbaud’s greatest poem is “The Drunken Boat”; certainly people in his own day would have thought it was obscure, although it was not nearly as obscure as the kinds of things he was writing toward the end of his brief career, like the Illuminations. The Illuminations are as difficult as John Ashbery poems. They’re strangely utopian, though it’s a utopian vision that you wouldn’t actually ever wish to see come true. They’re very hard to follow, and you have this feeling you’ve entered into the world of the poem a little bit too late, after whatever it was that it was supposed to be about was already announced. There’s nothing comparable in English at that date, and there’s very little comparable in French until quite a bit later. When you get to figures like Valery Larbaud or Pierre Reverdy or Tristan Corbière—those are all difficult poets, but they’re poets of the 1890s or even the beginning of the twentieth century, arriving thirty years after Rimbaud. Rimbaud really scoops everybody as far as obscurity.

I don’t think Rimbaud’s “systematic disordering of the senses” is very useful for a novelist—or at least an ordinary novelist like me. I try to write relatively straightforward, realistic fiction, and even though the subject matter might be quite bizarre or in some cases unprecedented, the method is not revolutionary. Perhaps it would be useful for somebody like André Breton writing Nadja—but usually I think a novel is a very long project that you have to keep chipping away at every day for a year or two. Whereas a poem or painting is something that you can do in a day or even an hour, and I think there oftentimes is an emphasis on formal innovation as well as thematic originality. I think poets usually do like to get drunk and get kind of crazy, and a lot of painters do, too. I think that’s gone out of fashion, though, this romantic notion of the artist.

The bad boys are very intriguing; in the case of Rimbaud, he has a fantastic, highly compressed career that is unprecedented. I can’t think of another writer who revolutionized poetry by the age of twenty and then abandoned the whole thing. Rimbaud had a very exalted notion of what poetry was and what it could do to the world. I think he really thought it had transformative, magic powers, and when it turned out that it didn’t, he gave it up. It was easy for him to give it up, because he was so deeply disappointed. When people would come to him in his later years as a gunrunner in Africa and say to him, “How do you feel about being the founder of the Symbolist school?” he would say, “It’s all hogwash.” He had no interest in it; he was embarrassed by it. He was worried that his colleagues in the trade would find out that he’d had some gay sex. You gotta love him.

I’ve recently been toying with the idea of a novel based on the lives of Goethe and Kleist. Kleist was a young poet who admired the much older Goethe, and among many other things that Kleist wrote there was a comedy—there aren’t many comedies in German—and Goethe admired it and said, “I’ll direct it and put it on here in Weimar.” Kleist was thrilled, but there was one problem: Goethe couldn’t direct, he knew nothing about it. He made a complete botch of the play, and it was a flop. So Kleist was very angry with him, and Goethe was angry that he was angry. (Anyway, Goethe didn’t really like talented people who were unlike him; he’d rather meet less talented people who were exactly like him.) So he pushed Kleist away, and Kleist committed suicide; I find it very interesting, this relationship between the older, careless mentor and the overly earnest, neurotic follower.

Anyway, I think I used to identify with Rimbaud and really admire him and want to be him. Now I think he seems like a horrible brat. I wouldn’t even want to know him now—though he looks kind of hot. But other than that, I think he must have been a real pill.