The Day on Fire: A Novel Suggested by the Life of Arthur Rimbaud

Beautiful (& completely forgotten) book by James Ullman wherein he writes the life of Rimbaud and fills in the gaps with his own fantasy. I discovered this via breadcrumbs left for me in an Annie Dillard book. Claude Morel is the reimagined Rimbaud, a brilliant poet who churns out his best, disturbing work between the ages of 16-19 before disappearing into Africa and Europe. We meet him at age 15, winning most of the prizes in school, and simply hopping a train to Paris to get away from his mother, the Black Queen as he dubs her. His first knee injury is incurred when jumping from the moving train to avoid the ticket taker at the other end; later he’s shot in the knee when soldiering for the Dutch; at the end he must get the leg shorn from the thigh down, leading to his delirium and ultimate death. On that first trip to Paris he is molested by a bum who calls him girl/boy; on another trip to Paris where he wants to join the Communards, he’s again sexually assaulted, leaving him confused and ending up in a drunken/drugged relationship with Durard (in real life: Verlaine).

Claude perpetually circles back to his mother, the Widow Morel, despite their grievances. In Africa, having given up his poet identity, he buckles down and works hard for a merchant, rising quickly and sending half his salary back to his mother. Throughout, he runs away but always returns to her.

My only real beef with the book is the usual wooden portrayal of women as either Madonna/Whore. Germaine comes closest to being a real woman, meeting Claude when they were both 16, in Paris, and “getting” his poems, no matter how disgusting they were. Claude’s African wife, Nagunda, is a savage tamed and given trinkets like candy and the rosary. They don’t speak, and she’s conveniently murdered by the conquering army before she gives birth to their “son” (Claude is convinced it must be a son).

The best recommendation I can give of this fictional biography is that I’m now interested in attempting to read Rimbaud’s poetry again.

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Great quote from Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell:

Right now, I’m damned. My country appalls me. The best course of action: drink myself comatose and sleep it off on the beach.