Time and Place in Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion
by Barbara Scott Emmett
Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud was born on 20th October 1854 in Charleville, a provincial town in northern France. Now called Charleville-Mézières, the poet’s home town is the setting for my novel Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion. The protagonist, Andrea, visits his old haunts and sits, as she says ‘in the exact space Rimbaud once sat in, the molecules of my body mingling with the memory of his.’
Charleville-Mézières is an ordinary medium sized town, pretty without being spectacular, neat and bourgeois and full of civic pride. It was much the same when Rimbaud lived there – and he hated it. He couldn’t wait to get away, though his mother’s severity and emotional coldness no doubt encouraged his desire to flee.
The boy Rimbaud ran away twice before the age of 16, risking involvement in the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune. Hunger, violence and imprisonment for travelling on the train without a ticket were preferable to vegetating in Charleville. Forced to return, he wrote poems disparaging the worthy burgers and priests, got drunk at his friends’ expense, and refused to wash. One can imagine the outrage of the stiff petite bourgeoisie at the antics of this early punk.
The rebel finally left home properly after being invited to stay with Paul Verlaine in Paris. Verlaine became his lover, poetic mentor and travelling companion. During these wanderlust years – and also later – whenever life got rough Rimbaud scuttled home. He may have sneered at the shortcomings of Charleville and been bored by the family farm at Roche but his mother’s chilly hearth was always his bolthole.
I first visited Charleville-Mézières in the early 1990s and at that time there was still an air of stuffiness around. I recall the lifted nose of the receptionist when I asked for a room in a local hotel – a lone female, walking in off the street without much luggage – quelle horreur! I recall also being left to sit unserved at a café table, ignored by the waiter and other patrons alike. I began to understand Rimbaud’s bad behaviour; such attitudes made me want to do something outrageous to justify them.
The idea of setting the main part of my novel in Charleville was irresistible. I loved the idea of the bizarre goings-on and hallucinatory experiences of the narrator, Andrea, being set against this formal and somewhat conservative backdrop. Most of the places Andrea visits do exist – the quiet river Meuse, the cobbled main square, the public gardens near the station. The sedate town provides contrast to the disturbing action of the novel.
The last time I visited, in the mid-2000s, Charleville had loosened up a bit – unless it was because I had a husband with me that time. The town was becoming more modern, more generic. Yet in some strange way, I preferred the earlier incarnation – it seemed more authentic somehow. I decided to set Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion in 2004 – the 100th anniversary of Rimbaud’s birth. I wanted to pin Charleville-Mézières in place before it changed any further; before all the snooty waiters started saying ‘How may I help you?’ and ‘Have a nice day’ – if there is a French equivalent of such banalities.
I hope I have captured a little of the town Rimbaud love-hated – the cool lapping of the river he played on as a child, the shady square near the station with the bandstand he described, the arid cemetery where he now lies under a marble slab. Inevitably, though, imagination and distorted dreams will have transformed the town into my own version of it. I make no promises that missing manuscripts and mentalist magicians will be on hand should you decide to visit.
The ebook of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion is released 1st August 2014. The paperback will follow in October 2014.