Edmund White Does Rimbaud – And Other Things

Edmund White spent his boarding school nights crouched in a toilet stall reading Rimbaud, the French poet who gained notoriety for his drunken violence and love of older men. Fast-forward some odd years and White’s again thinking about Rimbaud, but under decidedly different circumstances.

No longer the teen clinging to dreams of the big city and loving men, White’s made quite a name for himself on the literary scene, a name that led Atlas publishing company to ask the author to pen Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel.

White recently invited our editor into his home to talk about the book, but, as happens, the conversation veered in all sorts of directions – from Rimbaud’s drunken days to White’s evolving take on gay marriage; from Rimbaud as the “teen top terror” to how France changed White’s writing style. It’s a potpourri!

Take a peek, after the jump…

Andrew Belonsky: What’s your greatest vice?

Edmund White: Laziness.

AB: Really? After all the work you’ve done?

EW: I know! But it’s just because I put in endless hours. I’m so distractible. I never can seem to focus. For instance, for weeks now I’ve been trying to write just a short article for New York Review of Books and I can’t seem to do it.

AB: Sometimes the shortest pieces are the hardest.

EW: Yeah. Anyway, I guess that’s what I think of as a major vice. Other people would probably say being gossipy, but I don’t actually consider that a vice, because I don’t ever actually say harmful things, although I can be very indiscreet.

AB: I think gossip may be essential. Every culture has gossip, even if you’re just talking about a woman in the hut across the village. It makes me wonder – there must be some social purpose to gossip, or is it that we’re just interested in others?

EW: They say that history is a superior form of gossip, but, yes, it must serve some sort of function in the sense that it helps you to orient yourself to new people and to familiarize, to know what’s really up. For instance, say you find out that this guy is in love with that married woman, and then you start to understand why they always want to be seated together.

AB: You once told Butt magazine, which of course is a fabulous publication, that you hate writing.

EW: Yeah. Like most writers, I feel inadequate for the job. Yes, there are some writing narcissists who seem happy to be endlessly opining about everything, but I think most writers suffer, because they feel – well, for one thing, before the 19th century, there really wasn’t such an emphasis on originality. There wasn’t such an emphasis on concision, so that many novels, let’s say an early Balzac novel – he wrote one called Modeste Mignon – that would today be a short story, it wouldn’t be a novel. He might not have even written it because people would say, “Yeah, that isn’t original enough.” With the Romantics, you begin to get this tremendous emphasis on originality, so every novel has also has to be a theory of the novel. You can see writers like Pynchon or David Foster Wallace, the poor thing, suffering over all these questions, because they really feel they mustn’t repeat themselves.

AB: If you hate writing, then why do you do it? Do you feel like a vessel, like Rimbaud?

EW: Uh, well, it’s the only thing I can do well. There’s this wonderful reply that Beckett made – he said, it’s very slangy French, “Bon qu’a ca” –“ I’m only good at that.” He said that when someone asked him why he wrote. I can see what he means. I can’t play the piano, I can’t paint, I can’t waltz – I’m not very good at many things.

AB: You’re good at writing.

EW: Thanks!

AB: This book must have been a very remarkable experience for you, simply because of Rimbaud was such an idol for you, as you write in the opening pages. Did you learn anything new? I know you had read Rimbaud biographies before, but was there anything that caught you by surprise?

EW: Yes. For instance, I felt like in the latter part of his life – Enid Starkie, who was one of his most prominent biographers, certainly in English, she wrote a biography in the late-30s, that dominated the field for many years. I used to list as one of my favorite biographies. Anyway, she always claimed that he was a slave trader. Well, I found out that no, he wasn’t. In fact, the Christians weren’t, in this period, slave traders. It was Muslims who were slave traders. And Rimbaud would have liked to own slaves, but a friend of his said “That’s really not on. It would be mal vu.” That is, “It wouldn’t be seen as good for you, as a Christian, to have slaves.” Although Rimbaud did have servants who seemed to be virtually slaves, including a woman who seemed to be his mistress.