Ardennian Boy from coauthors William Maltese and Drewey Wayne Gunn, is historical romance and literary erotica blended into one masterful novel. Maltese’s sensuous prose retells the tumultuous love affair between poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, while Gunn’s lyrical translations of their bawdy gay poems, woven naturally into the fabric of the story, enlighten even as they arouse. Together, the two authors bring this singular love story brilliantly to life.
Arthur Rimbaud is an untamed teenage savage from the French provinces, randy and ready to try any and everything, convinced that a life of unbridled excess is the true pathway to great poetry. Rimbaud’s creative outburst is consumed in the decadence of his lifestyle by the time he is barely out of his teens, but not before he has established himself as one of history’s greatest poets, hailed today as one of the fathers of the French “symbolist” movement – and not before he has nurtured Paul Verlaine from a passable poet into a great one.
Paul Verlaine is a henpecked, closeted and probably bisexual husband who is trapped in an undesirable marriage, and totally unprepared for the whirlwind that engulfs him when Rimbaud appears in his life. In the end, Verlaine too defies the conventions of his day, and though he finds himself ultimately reviled by polite society for his incendiary relationship with the younger poet, Verlaine emerges from it not only a great poet in his own right, but a major figure in French literature. In tracing their gay heritage through some of the most influential men of letters and of politics from his day back to ancient Greece, he becomes one of the proponents of gay historical studies.
Often condemned for the frankness of their relationship, these two men stand today alongside Whitman and Wilde as literary pioneers in the struggle for gay rights in the 19th century. Maltese and Gunn have captured that frankness with unprecedented exuberance.
Review by Lee Benoit
Though the bloody, blazing Paris Commune had been ground to dust under the boots of agents of social order a season before Arthur Rimbaud acted upon his literary infatuation with Paul Verlaine, the excesses of the ‘Bloody Week’ tinge their bloody, blazing affair. Lines were drawn in the cafés and ateliers of Paris and beyond, and bourgeois sensibilities were ever after suspect in artistic circles. The Commune and its cultural aftermath are not directly addressed in Maltese and Gunn’s perplexing, redolent, radiant lad of a novel, but the iconoclastic energy of the Communards suffuses Ardennian Boy with a gleeful moral anarchy in whose face (dare I say, fèsse?) most readers – myself included – might find themselves by turns appalled and inexplicably charmed.
Without Gunn’s daring, earthy translations of the principals’ poems, Maltese’s text might devolve into scatological porn; without Maltese’s ultimately clearheaded linear narrative, the poems themselves might rest, as they have done with a few exceptions, as much-vaunted but little-read artifacts of gay history. In this bold and more-than-occasionally successful partnership, the story revives the poems as germs of gay liberation, and the poems exalt the fundamentally ordinary (albeit explosive and tragic) story of Rimbaud’s and Verlaine’s liaison.
Reading this unusual novel inspired me to revisit the photographs of Eugène Atget (most made within a generation of the events in Ardennian Boy), wherein I found a striking visual parallel for the central conflict in the book. The interiors – close, clean, and orderly – look like everything Verlaine sought, until his Rimbe dragged him out into disheveled courtyards and gritty alleyways where one might take a shit or buy a fuck, sometimes both at once. Maltese’s Paul is mired in a bourgeois fantasy even he hates (violently so – another element of the book that may discomfit readers), and for which both he and Arthur see the provincial prodigy as a corrective. Drink, drug, fuck, and fight your way to poetic genius – that’s Arthur’s mantra, and Paul is content to be dragged along until, with disappointing regularity, he rebels and seeks the false security of good family and good furniture.
Chapters alternate between the first-person voices of Paul and Arthur, and the voices are blessedly distinct. The manic skirl of Arthur’s thoughts and furies is rendered paradoxically charming, and Maltese does a masterful job of slinging the shitty and sublime elements of Arthur’s life and vision with equal verve. So what if I can’t imagine licking a lover’s poopy bum as an exercise in artistic liberation? Arthur can, and Maltese made me understand why. Arthur’s conviction that Paul is a poetic genius is endearing, and if he transgresses certain sexual and interpersonal boundaries to unlock that genius, well, history will surely forgive him. Maltese doesn’t gild the lily in the least: Arthur is no romanticized enfant terrible. As challenging (and, I will admit, sometimes downright unpleasant) as it is to read of his methods and madnesses, it’s never dull. One episode, in which Arthur seduces a coal stoker on a Channel crossing, makes delightfully clever use of Arthur’s limited English, class differences, and cultural variety. By the end of the episode, we have understood that Arthur is as bourgeois as Paul in his way, that the working classes of the Industrial Revolution are not as alienated from their fellow man as they might seem, and that quite polished quatrains can be generated in the midst of the raunchiest fuck.
As in real life, Paul is the more pedestrian of these lovers. His pendulous swaying between his middle-class aspirations and his artistic ones are, relative to Arthur’s more cutting edge tale, tedious. Verlaine was not the first artist to struggle with the respectability-creativity conundrum, and he wasn’t the last; in fact, it is only his partner that lends interest to the personal side of his tale. Therefore, Maltese has a harder row to hoe with this character. Once established, in the first third of the book, Verlaine’s character makes little progress. Maltese must tell us why Arthur stays interested; Gunn’s translations of the poems show us. The denouement of Arthur and Paul’s affair is simply a somewhat more extreme version of the cycle it followed from the beginning. In the afterword, Maltese and Gunn give us to believe that if living with Arthur unlocked Paul’s creative potential, the enforced solitude of prison gave it time to crystallize. Be that as it may, the novel would have been stronger without Paul’s voice – Rimbaud’s ruminations and Verlaine’s poetry are more compelling and get the point across with concision and interest, rendering Paul’s passages somewhat redundant.
It should be clear by now that this novel isn’t for everyone, certainly not for the prudish, the faint of heart, or those who demand happy endings. Though I’d describe myself as none of the above, I still had to lay the book down and pick it up several times over the course of a couple of months. In this I fancied myself rather (uncomfortably) like Paul Verlaine himself: Ardennian Boy stormed in at my invitation, took control of my creative efforts, wrested from me excesses I hadn’t imagined, and stormed out again.
Lovers of historical fiction may find some linguistic anachronisms to object to (a description of Arthur’s soldier-rapists as “macho,” for example), especially in the first third of the book. As the story continued I found myself convinced of the setting and period, despite these (though students of French history may disagree with me). There were also occasions on which I found myself wishing the authors or editors had been a little sharper-toothed (as when a French boy’s nipples are described as “dime-sized” or simplified French and English are described as “pigeon”). However, the novel rewards forgiveness as richly as it does persistence.
Much has been made (in other reviews, in promotional materials) of the redemptive power of Ardennian Boy. Though Verlaine and Rimbaud’s places in the gay pantheon (in the literary one, for that matter) have been assured for decades, this book does do something other biographies and translations appear not to have done. Another poet, Audre Lorde, argued at a more recent moment in gay liberation that the erotic suffuses all of life, whereas the pornographic separates us from everything but the soullessly, mechanically sexual. Among the many barriers – legal and political, social and cultural – arrayed against us in the modern era, that one, that we are naught but pornographic creatures, has been one of the most durable. Gunn and Maltese set out to declare and celebrate the position of Rimbaud and Verlaine in gay letters and liberation. Not least among their successes on this front is the melding of the erotic and pornographic in their storytelling and poetic translations. When the twain have met, as in John Preston’s work, the writer has tended to be transparent about his motives and method, as if to confirm that if one writes something sexy that is also literary one must defend that choice, be intentional and articulate about it. Though the short afterword can be read as this sort of apologia, Maltese and Gunn, like Rimbaud, pre-empt such a defense with the foregoing two hundred pages. Smeared with the piss, shit, and blood of violent coupling and violent creation, Ardennian Boy ends up, at bottom, a love story, “tender and fierce,” as Paul Verlaine dared name it.