Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) started writing a stunningly new poetry when he was sixteen; by age twenty-one, he’d given up literature forever. Why? What happened? Bruce Duffy tackles the first question by way of a powerful fictional dramatization of the second in Disaster Was My God (Doubleday, $27.95). As he did with Wittgenstein in The World as I Found It, Duffy brilliantly rides the line between fact and fiction, revitalizing legend with prose so vivid and muscular that every character it touches springs to energetic life. Equally evocative of place, Duffy’s narrative captures the seamy side of late-19th-century Paris, the rigors of a provincial French farm, and the myriad treacheries of an African desert. The novel interweaves several strands of Rimbaud’s episodic life, letting us in on his scandalous dalliance with the older poet Verlaine, his career as an arms merchant in Ethiopia, and his fraught relationship with his battleaxe of a mother—the only one of the many people he abandoned that he returned to. It was a wild, messy life; this is an exciting, beautiful novel.
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