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Originally published Thursday, November 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel" dives into a madcap life cut short

Edmund White's short biography "Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel," looks at the man behind the legend of the short-lived, anything-goes French poet.

Seattle Times book critic

"Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel"

by Edmund White

Atlas & Co., 192 pp., $24

French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) is known as much for his legend as his writing.

Taking up at age 16 with older fellow poet Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud shocked even the bohemians of Paris with his obnoxious, transgressive, drug-and-alcohol-fueled behavior. The love affair between the two men climaxed with Verlaine shooting Rimbaud in the wrist. At 21, Rimbaud renounced poetry and headed off to Africa and the southern Arabian Peninsula, where he entered the import-export business — including gunrunning. He died at 37 following complications from the amputation of his cancerous right leg. By the time of his death, early neglect of his writing ("The Drunken Boat," "A Season in Hell") had built into acclaim, especially for his experimentation with the prose poem.

The legend was good to go.

Novelist Edmund White ("The Farewell Symphony") serves up this tale at a brisk pace, starting with his own first readings of Rimbaud as a gay teenager, then employing his novelist's gifts to animate all the chief figures in Rimbaud's life.

White lived for a long time in Paris, where he wrote an award-winning biography of another outlaw of French literature, Jean Genet. For this shorter portrait of Rimbaud (one in Atlas & Co.'s series, which also includes Louis Begley on Franz Kafka and Francine du Plessix Gray on Madame de Staël), White draws on both French and English language sources, including a 1,242-page 2001 biography in French by Jean-Jacques Lefrère and a more recent 1,032-page collection of Rimbaud's letters edited by Lefrère. White supplies his own translations of Rimbaud's words (19th-century London, the poet declared, was "as black as a crow and as noisy as a duck"), and he also alerts readers to the meanings of French words that don't quite translate into English.

For instance, when noting Rimbaud's dismissal of his poetry career as "hogwash," White remarks: "The word in French he used was rinçures, an unusual one that comes from the word for 'rinsing' and means 'dishwater' or 'slops,' and is even used for 'bad wine.' Whereas 'hogwash' sounds blustery and dated to our ears, rinçures is suitably strange and sticks in the mind." White soon convinces you he's not just a reliable guide to Rimbaud and the mountains of biographical material that have accumulated around him, but to the entire language and culture from which he sprang.

He's drolly tart, too, on the insanely erratic behavior of both men: "Verlaine, never one to avoid a dramatic opportunity, wrote a fresh suicide note to Madame Rimbaud [the poet's mother]." He nails the mercurial nature of the younger poet with ease — "With Rimbaud one must speak of months instead of years, since he changed at such a rapid rate" — and he's sharp in delineating the literary influence the two writers had on each other.

Graham Robb's full-length biography of Rimbaud — which White acknowledges as "by far the best" in English — offers more detail on the varied realities that the ever-complaining Rimbaud inhabited post-Verlaine, including his underappreciated role as an explorer in Africa. But White's shorthand account also serves well.

The one disappointment about White's book is that the copy editing is sloppy. A few obvious typos and some grammatically wayward sentences have squeaked through. With an enterprise like Atlas & Co., one expects better.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@ seattletimes.com. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has published four novels.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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