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the Complete Review
the complete review - biographical / literary

Rimbaud the Son

Pierre Michon

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To purchase Rimbaud the Son

Title: Rimbaud the Son
Author: Pierre Michon
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1991 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 82 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Rimbaud the Son - US
Rimbaud the Son - UK
Rimbaud the Son - Canada
Rimbaud le fils - Canada
Rimbaud the Son - India
Rimbaud le fils - France
Rimbaud der Sohn - Deutschland
Rimbaud il figlio - Italia
Rimbaud el hijo - España
  • French title: Rimbaud le fils
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays

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Our Assessment:

F : insubstantial; baffling

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 13/11/2008 Christian Schärf
NZZ . 13/10/2008 Thomas Laux

  From the Reviews:
  • "Michons Text liest sich als dithyrambischer Essay und als reales Märchen zugleich. Er ist darin ein Röntgenbild der modernen französischen Literatur, ihrer Typologien und ihrer Legenden, ihrer Ruhmeshallen und ihrer Schrottplätze. Zugleich wird der Mythos der Moderne in seiner ganzen Antiquiertheit vorgeführt." - Christian Schärf, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Michon gelingt auf wenigen Seiten ein komplexes Dichterporträt, ein intensives, empathisches, auch sprachlich anspruchsvolles Capriccio." - Thomas Laux, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Pierre Michon is a highly acclaimed French author. He has won several literary prizes, and he is widely translated. Several of his books have come out in English translation from small publishers I admire -- Mercury House, Archipelago Books -- and now Yale University Press is publishing this one (and re-publishing the Mercury House translations by Wyatt Mason) in their Margellos World Republic of Letters series.
       I've tried to read his slim books for over a decade now, and yet each time fail to find what has apparently entranced others; previously, I've simply avoided reviewing them, figuring that I am missing something, and that if I return to the books at another time, perhaps in another frame of mind, I'll be able to appreciate the qualities others find here, but now, reading yet another of his books and finding myself as bewildered by it as by any of the earlier ones, I figure: why not have my say. Mind you, the adoring critical consensus suggests that it is I who am missing something -- but damned if I can see what that is. All I can see here is that Rimbaud the Son is a terrible book, and while most of the books I disparage are either misguided or particularly poorly written, this one's failures are of an entirely different order.
       I like to think that I'm receptive to most of the strains of modern French writing, and as far as the 'literary' high (or low) end goes, open to everything from Queneau to Quignard, the rule-bound play of the Oulipo to the plot-stripped blandness of the nouveau roman to the introspective excesses of autofiction. Michon's writing, however, proves to be hors catégorie: I don't know what to do with it. (Among the few others that similarly trouble me: Sylvie Germain.)
       Rimbaud the Son would seem a particularly approachable Michon-title, as it is a take, of sorts, on the life of the poet Rimbaud. True, I prefer fiction to anything fact-based, but at least the worst a writer should be able to do with a life-story is make a mess of the facts or misinterpret them. Michon, however, demonstrates it's possible to make an entirely different hash of it, too.
       As the title suggests, Michon situates Rimbaud as a son: opening with Rimbaud's mother giving birth, he traces much of Rimbaud's life and, arguably, presents many of the influential (i.e. mentor-)figures in a somewhat parental/paternal role -- compensating, perhaps, for Rimbaud's absent father. Perhaps Michon also has daddy issues to deal with; perhaps this is a valid théorie-de-Rimbaud -- but, in any case, it's not really meaningfully worked-through here.
       What Michon does in Rimbaud the Son is take the reader through several stations of the poet's life. While rarely swooping in for much of a closer look (the book is not even eighty pages long, after all), he at least intriguingly focuses much of his attention on the figures who helped lead Rimbaud forward. There's some promise to this approach: schoolmaster Izambard, poet Théodore de Banville, not to mention Verlaine, all make for interesting chapters of Rimbaud's life, contributing in their ways to shaping the man-poet. But Michon's elliptical descriptions refuse to take much hold.
       Perhaps greater familiarity with Rimbaud is required for the material to unfold all (or any) of its riches, But I'm not sure how much more can be called for (I've read the poetry, the Starkie biography, Alain Borer's Rimbaud in Abyssinia, and Henry Miller's The Time of the Assassins; surely that's enough to go on).
       Yes, Michon presumes intimate familiarity with the facts -- as when he claims:

     Everyone knows that precise moment in October. Maybe it is the truth, in a soul and in a body; we see only the body. Everyone knows the disheveled hair, the possibly blue-white eyes, light as the day, that do not look at us but gaze over our left shoulder where Rimbaud sees a potted plant that is climbing toward October and burns up carbon, but for us, that gaze looks toward the future vigor, the future abdication, the future Passion, the Saison, the saw over the leg in Marseille; and for him no doubt as for us, that gaze is also on poetry, that conventional specter conventionally verified in the disheveled hair, the angelic oval face, the aura of sulkiness, but beyond all conventionality there also behind our left shoulder and gone when we turn around. We see only the body. And in the lines, can we see the soul ? In all that light, the wind passes.
       As the section preceding this one already made clear, what is discussed here is Étienne Carjat's iconic October 1871 photographic portrait of Rimbaud. (Regrettably, it is not reproduced in this volume.) Michon reads a lot into the picture -- that's the kind of guy he is. He's also the kind of manipulative writer that doesn't just want to speak for himself but commits the cardinal sin of making the reader complicit without express permission -- all this nonsense about 'we', as if the way he sees it goes for all of us. And even this -- one of the more sensible passages he offers (really) -- includes formulations such as: "a potted plant that is climbing toward October and burns up carbon"; perhaps I'm missing the potted-plant allusion from Rimbaud's poems, but to say any plant 'burns up carbon' is a pretty odd way of putting it -- a willfully odd way. But then, that's Michon's 'style' .....
       In closing his book, Michon repeatedly poses questions. Arguably, he's explored some of them in reaching this point -- but never really adequately. Worse yet, he frames them beside grand pronouncements that fail in any way to convince (of anything):
For I raise my voice to speak to you from very far away, father who will never speak to me. What endlessly relaunches literature ? What makes men write ? Other men, their mothers, the stars, or the old enormous things, God, language ? The powers know. The powers of the air are this breath of wind through the leaves.
       There's astonishingly little substance to Michon's writing -- but, basing his piece on widely-known facts and a vivid personality, arguably a writer could get away with that. Style can be a vehicle of conveyance, too, and Michon certainly offers a sort of style -- yet it is one that comes across to me as entirely empty, too. Admittedly, there are certainly issues of translation here, too -- "Michon's work calls for every translation trick in the book" the translators note in their Introduction -- but I think my objection is more fundamental (as noted, I've not found any of his other works a success either).
       True art may be unknowably sublime -- hence the resorting to theological-like excuses ('The powers know', but us mere mortals ? forget it, it's beyond our feeble comprehension ...). But Michon indulges in these in a particularly off-putting way.
       There are grains of insight sparkling in Rimbaud the Son, but they're lost in Michon's peculiar presentation; he's not so much guilty of obscurantism as consumed by his own flights of fantasy that lead him, his work, and his readers astray. Way, way astray.
       Presumably, appreciation of what Michon does and how he does it is an issue of taste; no question, it's decidedly not mine. This work, like much of his other work, strikes me not so much as objectionable but rather as simply a comprehensive failure (remarkably: in less than eighty pages). It's not so much vapid as vacant, offering an illusion of substance -- the subject-matter the work uses as a foundation -- and lots of fancy, twisted sentences but coming, and going, to naught.
       In sum: an absolutely terrible book.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 October 2013

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Rimbaud the Son: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Pierre Michon was born in 1945.

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© 2013-2021 the complete review

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