I Wish I Wanted to Write Historical Fiction

The other day I was researching literary giants for an article and I came across a little story. This is a true story…well as true as hearsay can be when it’s had a couple of centuries to mutate…and it sent the plotting wheels in motion. Why? Because it has the right amount of sick twistedness and hopeless desperation to make it a perfect love story.
Of course, the previous research was abandoned as I read all I could find about Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. Who? Well, let me try to explain this story in a nutshell. I apologize if I leave anything out. I’ve done my best to keep it to “nutshell” and purge the less interesting parts:

Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud was a French poet, born October 20, 1854. Rimbaud is said to have produced some of his best work while still a teen, which is good because he gave up creative writing at about 20. Now Rimbaud, a restless, intolerant and childish soul who travelled three continents before his death at the age of 37, was encouraged one day to contact poet Paul Verlaine. Rimbaud did, sending Verlaine several of his (Rimbaud’s) poems.

Impressed by the boy’s poetry, 27 year old Verlaine sent him a one-way ticket to Paris, which Rimbaud accepted, arriving in 1871, just shy of his seventeenth birthday. Rimbaud stayed with Verlaine and his then pregnant seventeen year old wife. Verlaine himself had recently quit work to take up drinking, a pastime he’d continue for the remainder of his life.

Here’s where it gets good. No, it’s not Rimbaud and the young wife who get it on. That’d be boring. Verlaine and Rimbaud are said to have begun a brief but steamy affair, scandalizing the staid late nineteenth century souls around them.

Amidst their peers, the criticism and scandalousness (I know it’s not a word.) of their affair probably wasn’t quite so serious. You see, at about the time Verlaine and Rimbaud met, the Decadent Movement was about to begin. Libertine men such as Verlaine and Rimbaud were the epitome of the word decadence, so they could have been poster boys for the whole movement. The Decadent movement in literature was first given its name by critics of the writers associated with Symbolism or the Aesthetic movement. The name was given derisively, but the writers tagged as “decadents” adopted the label with relish. (For those of you who might wonder, in social settings, decadent is used to describe the “decline” of certain sections of society due to a decline or loss of moral, ethical, and sexual norms. In other words; decadents described the folks who did who they wanted, when and how they wanted.)

But back to the story:

Verlaine eventually abandoned his wife and infant son to live with Rimbaud. So you might think that love prevailed. (Don’t feel sorry for the wife. It’s rumored that Verlaine, a mean drunk, used to abuse his wife and son, so I’m sure she was like “Good riddance, ya alcoholic bastard.) Sadly, this isn’t happily ever after for anyone. The lack of money coupled with Verlaine’s violent temper and Rimbaud’s spoiled immaturity, along with a dash of hashish, a generous dollop of booze, and the vagabond lifestyle the two lived, caused the relationship to sour rapidly.

So, they broke up, leaving Verlaine heartbroken (we call it unhealthy obsession nowadays). He eventually sends for Rimbaud. Of course, being childish and immensely stupid, Rimbaud runs back to his former lover. This reunion ends in Verlaine getting drunk and shooting Rimbaud in his left wrist. He might have died had the man been sober, but booze tends to make accuracy with a firearm nonexistent. So for once in this story, yay for addiction!

So, after the firing of the gun, everyone’s like “Harsh, dude,” to Verlaine and he’s all like “Oh my God, I’m so sorry. Please forgive me,” to Rimbaud. At first Rimbaud says “Nah, I’m fine. No big deal. We’re still good.” He was probably in shock and I’m sure getting shot in the wrist hurts like a motherfucker, so he wasn’t really looking at the Big Picture. But then Verlaine’s mother (surprise, he’s a mama’s boy) escorts the two to a railway station where because Rimbaud has to go home, and she’s probably hoping to get him gone before he can consider pressing charges against her crazy baby. It’s here that Verlaine slips off the precipice of amusingly batshit and dives smack into seriously fucking insane.

Rimbaud sees this nuttier than usual behavior from his lover and finally says “Uh…no thanks, dude. I’ve got something else to do…like live.” Panicked, Rimbaud goes to the cops, has Verlaine arrested for attempted murder (you can totally bleed out if shot in the wrist) and then Verlaine undergoes what to him is probably a humiliating investigation. All of his dirty little secrets (that weren’t exactly well-kept anyway) get brought into the open. Rimbaud withdrew the charges eventually, but Verlaine was still sentenced to two years in prison because even back then, judges frown on things like shooting people, even if the people who get shot are okay with it.

Well you’d think that would be the end of the affair, wouldn’t you? But it wasn’t. Sure it’s where most tales about these two end, but in reality, they remained in love…or whatever you want to call what they had, be it healthy or not, with each other until each died.

Rimbaud traveled the world between the breakup with Verlaine and his death, although he wrote no more poetry. He didn’t wallow in wretchedness though. Not publicly at least. No he busied himself with several commercial and spiritual endeavors over three continents. Rumor has it these enterprises included gun-running in Africa and an attempt to join the US Navy. His bum wrist and French ancestry probably contributed to his refusal. When he discovered he had cancer in 1891 he returned to France, and despite amputating his leg in the spring of that year to stop the disease, Rimbaud died November 10, 1891 at the age of thirty-seven.

Four years later, in 1895, Verlaine published Rimbaud’s complete works, immortalizing his lost lover forever. Isn’t that sweet? Whether you think Verlaine is a total fucktard or not, his obsession with Rimbaud ensured that we are able to read his work today. I recommend Venus Anadyomène or Mes petites amoureuses, if you’re at all curious. Rimbaud’s work has inspired poets and artists for two centuries including more “modern” folks like Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, and Jim Morrison.

Verlaine did try to move on in the years after his imprisonment and prior to Rimbaud’s death. He tried teaching and lived with one of his students (Lucien Létinois), but they went bankrupt twice and Lucien died in 1883. Verlaine spent much of the last decade of his life in the bottle, relying on public hospitals and such for shelter. He is said to have spent his days drinking absinthe in Paris cafes. The French have never be known to as the most morally restricted bunch (and good for them, I say), so it should be no surprise that the French love of all things artistic resulted in Verlaine’s resurrection as a poet in 1894, when his poetry was “rediscovered.” But this time, Verlaine’s batshit craziness and his decadent lifestyle inspired admiration rather than ridicule, and in 1894 he was elected France’s “Prince of Poets” by his peers.

He died on January 8, 1896 at the age of 52. Just five years after his lover, Rimbaud.

Looking for inspiration? Do a little historical research. No, don’t write the exact stories you read, unless historical fiction’s your thing. There is so much to draw from no matter what genre you write. If I were a little more ambitious in the research department, I would write historical fiction, but I’m not really fond of research. So, instead I’ll envy those who can write it and use some of these real people and their real messed up lives as inspiration for fiction.

4 thoughts on “I Wish I Wanted to Write Historical Fiction

  1. Thanks, Henry. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I did use a little "poetic license" here and there but it was a fun post to write. Maybe I'll horrify Mike even more by researching more crazy literary types…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s