Maltese, William and Wayne Gunn. “Adrennian Boy”, MLR Press, 2007.
I have always been drawn to historical fiction mainly because you not only get a good read but you learn a little something. This is essentially true in Maltese and Gunn’s “Ardennian Boy” which is based on the lives and loves of French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. You not only get historical fiction but classy, raw erotica (and Maltese is well known for this).
We first meet Rimbaud as a teenager from the French provinces. He is wild and will do anything and he believes that the more excesses that he experiences, the better poet he will become. He experiences much as a young man and lives an extremely decadent life.
Verlaine is in a marriage which seems to hold him a prisoner. His wife nags him and he must suppress any homosexual feelings that he has. However, when the two men meet, sparks fly and the two men begin a torrid love affair, one that Verlaine is totally unprepared for. Before Rimbaud, Verlaine’s poetry was merely passable but the passion that is awakened in him by the younger man from Ardennes, pushes him to the position of a great French poet. Verlaine ultimately ignores the societal conventions of the time and the two men live on the fringes of French culture. Ultimately the two poets join others such as Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde as “literary pioneers in the struggle for gay rights in the 19th century.
When the two men met, Rimbaud was only 16 years old and Verlaine was ten years his senior. “Ardennian Boy” tells us that Rimbaud was not physically attracted to Verlaine but admired his mind. Rimbaud manages to “drag” Verlaine out of his mundane life style and brings him into a self-destructive relationship and this self-destruction seems to be the reason that the two men rose to the heights of poetic expression. I think it is important to understand that the book does not deal with modern times but actually takes place some 130 years ago. Maltese tells the story with vivacity wile Gunn is responsible for the translation of the poetry. The two authors alternate poetry and story and it works beautifully. Both the poetry and the storyline are important to understanding the “love” that the poets shared. I particularly love the way that the poets exchange their poetry while they are involved in sexual activity. There is not a lot of romance here but there is great sex.
The two authors tell a story that is blatantly erotic. The relationship between the two Frenchmen scandalized French society and also brought us some of the most beautiful and bawdy gay poetry ever written. Maltese gives us hot sex all through the book and he does so in a sublime manner. The sex is hot but it also beautifully written. The story is not one that I would call “pretty” but it is compelling and a look at two of France’s greatest poets in a new light is a rewarding experience. The characters are geniuses who need to the sex to set off the fuse of their minds.
Granted the book falls into the genre of literary erotica but it is so much more than that. Looking at the sexual psyche of Verlaine and Rimbaud gives us a look at the sprit of the times as well as shows us the beginning of true sexual liberation. The two authors of “Ardennian Boy” have presented us with a great read as well as a peek into a period of history that so many of us do not know much about.