Monday, April 07, 2008

Son of a Rimbaud

'Man you oughta go to Hollywood and play Billy the Kid'
'Man I'd rather go to Hollywood and play Rimbaud'
– Jack Kerouac, Big Sur

Before I knew anything about it other than its title, I immediately thought, like many others did too I'm sure, that the recently released film Son of Rambow was about the life of French poet Arthur Rimbaud (or his son, if he had one). It's always struck me as somewhat perverse and problematic that Arthur Rimbaud is actually pronounced Arthur 'Rambo'. Eric Cantona encountered this when interviewed by the British press about his influences. He said 'Rimbaud', they all thought he said and meant 'Rambo'. There's no getting away from it: France's great symbolist poet is pronounced exactly the same as the mumbling murderous Vietnam war veteran (apparently the author of First Blood actually had Rimbaud's A Season In Hell in mind whilst writing it). So, for this reason, I thought Son of Rambow was a kind of play on that idea. But it's not. At all. That doesn't mean it's not good – it looks great. But what a shame it's not about Rimbaud. What a missed opportunity.

Arthur Rimbaud's amazing life story (the film Total Eclipse only concerns Rimbaud's relationship with Verlaine) deserves a full Bob Dylan-style I'm Not There (in which one of the characters is actually called Arthur Rimbaud) movie treatment – only transposed as I Is Another (Je suis un autre), Rimbaud's famously enigmatic quotation. From prodigious child poet, to doomed homosexual love affair affair with poet Paul Verlaine and being shot by him (in the hand), then giving up poetry aged 21 (no, not because of the bad hand), he spent the remaining years of his life travelling, finally settling in Ethiopia as a merchant, gun runner and possible slave trader, dying aged 37. His life is the stuff of legend.

Hugely influential – maybe more for his tragic romantic life than his poetry – Rimbaud's restless, mystic, rebellious, minstrel persona was picked up by beat writers in the 60s and musicians such as Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan and Patti Smith (hear her shouting "Go Rimbaud! Go Rimbaud!' in the song Land – they could have used it on the soundtrack in the latest Rambo movie – it sounds like she's saying 'Go Rambo!').

Pronunciation of foreign writers can be problematic – especially if you've never heard them pronounced by anyone else. Luckily there's hardly ever a situation when it happens. When it does, it can be embarrassing. It'll usually happen at a party when you're trying to impress some girl (or guy) studying French literature with your knowledge of 19th century French poetry and you'll say you love Arthur Rim-bald.

The contemporary misanthropic French writer Michel Houellebecq, although not Rimbaud's successor, has many similar qualities. Mainly the daunting name. It's like a question you don't know in a quiz: once you know it, it's easy, and you knew it all along anyway, and you're never going to forget it:

Michel Houellebecq is pronounced Michelle Well-beck.

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