Sunday, October 23rd, 2016
The gun used by Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine to shoot his young lover and fellow poet Arthur Rimbaud will be sold at auction next month in Paris. This weapon featured in one of the great scandals of 19th century French literature, which, given the amount of drinking, drugging and sexing going on in that bohemian milieu, is an impressive feat. It was known as the Brussels Affair and was the dramatic dénouement of a tumultuous two-year relationship.
Born in Metz in 1844, Paul Verlaine was the only child of a successful career military officer. His mother had had three miscarriages before Paul was born (she apparently kept the miscarried fetuses in jars in the family home), so he was very much beloved. His teenaged years were troubled and he was sent to boarding school where his boredom and appreciation for Baudelaire inspired him to write his own poetry. After he graduated, he had few interests besides pursuing his poetry. He enrolled in law school in 1862 but dropped out, preferring to hang with his artist friends in Paris.
He published his first poem in a literary magazine in 1863. His father, hoping like so many parents of artists before and after him that he would get a “real job,” secured him employment at an insurance company, then at City Hall. Verlaine continued to write even as he worked his 9-5 jobs. In 1866, when he was 22, his first collection of poems, Poèmes saturniens, was published. It was well-received and established him as a significant new talent on the scene.
His personal life, on the other hand, was a mess. He still lived at home with his parents. He drank to excess and was a brutally violent drunk. After his first love (his cousin who was raised by his parents after she was orphaned and wisely married someone else) died in childbirth in 1867, he tried to kill his mother several times in an alcoholic haze. At his mother’s vigorous encouragement, he got married in of August 1870 to Mathilde Mauté. He was 26; she was 17. They moved to Paris where, as a supporter of the Paris Commune, he enlisted in the National Guard and patrolled the streets of a quiet neighborhood every other night. When the Commune fell in May 1871, Verlaine fled the repression of the Communards.
He was back in the city by September which is when he met Arthur Rimbaud for the first time. Rimbaud was a fan of Verlaine’s poetry and had sent him several letters included poems of his own. In January of 1872, Verlaine invited the 17-year-old to moved in with him and Mathilde, an arrangement which was fraught with tension. There was a newborn in the house — Mathilde had given birth to their son Georges in October of 1871 — and Verlaine’s relationship with the teenaged poet quickly developed into a tempestuous sexual and emotional affair. Meanwhile, his alcoholism and violence increased. He beat Mathilde whenever he drank, threatened to kill her, even hit their infant son, once throwing him against a wall. She took the baby and left.
Their affair went public after that. Rimbaud was rude, shameless and just as much of an addict as Verlaine. They collaborated on poetry, drank absinthe by the keg, smoked opium and fought like wolverines, scandalizing even their circle of poets and intellectuals. After a desultory attempt to win back Mathilde by promising her he’d never see Arthur again, Verlaine left Paris with Rimbaud July of 1872 for Brussels. In September they moved on to London. There they spent almost a year off and on, fighting, drinking, breaking up, making up and generally being miserable with each other. Rimbaud tried to stab Verlaine. Verlaine called Rimbaud his “infernal spouse.” Rimbaud would write about this time in the aptly named A Season in Hell.
In June 1873, Verlaine left for Brussels alone. He couldn’t last a month before writing to Rimbaud asking him to join him. Rimbaud went to Brussels, but told Verlaine he was going to Paris instead of staying with him. On the morning of July 10th, 1873, Verlaine bought a Lefaucheux 7mm six-shooter from the Montigny armory in Brussels. He wrote to his family and friends to inform them he planned suicide, spent the rest of the morning drinking, then returned to his room with Rimbaud. When the younger man announced he was leaving, Verlaine fired at him twice, intending murder. He barely wounded him, one bullet grazing his left wrist, the other ricocheting off the wall into the chimney.
Rimbaud was treated for his wound at Saint-Jean Hospital then went straight to the train station to get out of Dodge. Verlaine was waiting for him. When he reached for his pocket, Rimbaud ran to the police who arrested Verlaine. Rimbaud withdraw his complaint the next day, Verlaine was tried for assault with pederasty as an aggravating factor. On August 8th, he was sentenced to two years in the prison of Petites Carmes. In October he was transferred to the prison in Mons. He was released early for good behavior after 555 days of incarceration on January 16th, 1875.
He never thought to claim his revolver from the police. They sent it back to Montigny where it remained in their archives, unknown to the public, for close to a century. When the Montigny company filed for bankruptcy in the 1980s and had to liquidate all its inventory, the owner reached out to his good friend and weapons collector Jacques Ruth to buy some of their stock. In gratitude, he gave Ruth the revolver at the center of the notorious Brussels Affair.
Ruth didn’t grasp its cultural significance at the time. He only realized what a scandalous treasure he had when he saw the 1995 film Total Eclipse starring David Thewlis as Verlaine and Leonardo DiCaprio as Rimbaud. In 2004, a new exhibition dedicated to the life and work of Paul Verlaine opened in Brussels. Ruth notified the curator that he had the famous revolver. The curator thought he was joking, but research confirmed that it was the real deal, serial number 14096, listed in the Montigny registry book as the one Verlaine bought on July 10th, 1873. It went on display for the first time at a 2015 exhibition on Verlaine held at the Mons prison where he did time.
The Lefaucheux six-shooter #14096 goes on the auction block at The Exceptional Sale at Christie’s Paris on November 30th. The pre-sale estimate is €50,000-70,000 ($54,315-76,041).