They laughed when I sat down with these two writers–and never mind that both books arrived in the same box. The bad gay boy and the cold war saint! The apostle of derangement and the lexicographer of Newspeak! The red cape and the tweed jacket, the rotting knee and the lousy lung, the drunken boat and the memory hole! “I came to find my mind’s disorder sacred,” said the poet on a camel. “Good prose is like a window pane,” said the novelist who shot elephants.
But both Arthur Rimbaud and George Orwell did go down-and-out in Paris and London. Both their fathers were mostly absent, doing time as globocops in Third World tropics of the French and British empires. (On a sand dune, Captain Rimbaud taught himself Bedouin ways, the better to repress them. Orwell’s dad was a deputy opium agent, making sure the poppy juice got from India to the Chinese addicts.) Both their mothers loved cards more than kids. Both sons, hating school, gifted at languages, hostile to religion, intrigued by popular culture, would follow their fathers to the colonies, enlist in foreign wars, lose not only their tempers but also amazing amounts of manuscript and die younger than they should have, after dreaming up and acting out alternative identities. (Take a hike, Eric Blair: “I is somebody else.”)
Both live on as cautionary tales, litmus tests, celebrity role models and undead icons. In his wickedly entertaining revised version of Rimbaud, Graham Robb points to his posthumous career “as Symbolist, Surrealist, Beat poet, student revolutionary, rock lyricist, gay pioneer and inspired drug-user,” as well as “an emergency exit from the house of convention” for avant-gardes everywhere. Well-thumbed copies of A Season in Hell and The Illuminations are to be found in the portmanteaus of Picasso, Breton, Cocteau and Malraux and in the backpacks of Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Bruce Chatwin and Kurt Cobain. Jim Morrison, that swinging Door, is even rumored “to have faked his death in Paris and followed Rimbaud to Ethiopia”–just the right splash of mythic Tabasco.
Whereas Orwell’s name is mentioned every time we are looked down upon by surveillance cameras, lied to by governments, read about journalists who have been “disappeared” or hear about dissidents in mental hospitals. Big Brother is a member of our extended family, the pigs go on drinking all the milk and eating all the apples, and the SLORC word for Burma in Newspeak is “Myanmar.” In Democracy, her 1984 (!) novel of skulduggery on the Pacific Rim, Joan Didion would notice that “all reporters had paperback copies of Homage to Catalonia, and kept them in the same place where they kept the matches and the candle and the notebook, for when the hotel was bombed.” So postmodern is Curious George that he has even been abducted by such aliens as Norman Podhoretz.