Book Review: 'Disaster Was My God' Alan Cheuse reviews a novel based on the real life of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, called Disaster Was My God.


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Book Review: 'Disaster Was My God'

Book Review: 'Disaster Was My God'

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Alan Cheuse reviews a novel based on the real life of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, called Disaster Was My God.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: Writing biographical novels about intellectuals would hardly seem the most likely path to success for a writer, but Bruce Duffy seems to be making a go of it.

A few years ago, he wrote a novel about 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and now he has tapped into the life of 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud in his book "Disaster Was My God."

Reviewer Alan Cheuse is glad that he did.

ALAN CHEUSE: Good student at 12, provincial rascal at 15, major poet before 20, his life included a tumultuous homosexual love affair with married Parisian poet Paul Verlaine.

Arthur Rimbaud ended his writing career by age 20 and took off for Africa, where he became a savage businessman and gun runner. This flaunting, James Dean-like sexpot, petty thief, public nuisance, sometimes raging, sometimes sulking genius. There's quite enough in his short life for most novelists to work with, and Bruce Duffy does it up big.

His raucous, bawdy and ultimately worshipful take on the infamous poete maudit - as in cursed poet - offers histrionic scenes of pain, degradation, sheer madness and intermittent danger.

But Duffy also focuses on Rimbaud's poems, which overturn the ideals of classical French poetry; visionary work that opened the door to modern emotions and longings. So it's fitting that this meta-fictional biography seems always in a state of constant verbal agitation.

Duffy carries the reader beyond the usual ventriloquism of a realistic rendering of the material to a playful level above and beyond it. And his portrait of a mama's boy gone mad turns out to be quite entertaining. As in the Abyssinian desert town of Harrar, where Rimbaud makes his base until his late 30s, when he heads home to France to die, the heat in this novel remains constant.

SIEGEL: "Disaster Was My God" is by Bruce Duffy. Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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