The most notorious gun in French literature

Specialist Isabelle de Conihout on the weapon with which poet Paul Verlaine shot his lover, an 18-year-old Arthur Rimbaud

On the morning of 10 July 1873, Paul Verlaine left the Brussels hotel room he shared with his lover, Arthur Rimbaud, and bought a gun. Returning to find Rimbaud packing his bags, he fired two shots, bringing a tempestuous love affair between two of France’s greatest literary heroes to a dramatic close. 

The gun at the heart of what has become known as the L’Affaire de Bruxelles is to be auctioned at Christie’s Paris on 30 November. For specialist Isabelle de Conihout, it is ‘more than a weapon’, symbolising the intense, alcohol-fuelled relationship that nevertheless resulted in some of the ‘most beautiful literature in the French language’.

Verlaine had met Rimbaud in 1871, in the same year that his first son was born. Their attraction was immediate, and Verlaine found himself ‘torn’ between his commitment to his wife and son, and a destructive love for the young poet, then just 17. They ran away together often, sharing a relationship in exile in London first, and later, in Brussels. 

When Verlaine purchased this gun, his relationship with Rimbaud had reached breaking point. ‘He had been drinking heavily, and was in a state of complete despair,’ explains de Conihout. Although he fired the gun at Rimbaud, she continues, ‘it is actually unclear whether the crime was premeditated. Indeed, it’s possible that Verlaine was contemplating suicide.’

The Revolver with which Verlaine faild to kill Rimbaud. A 6-shot, 7mm. calibre revolver. Estimate €50,000-70,000. This lot is offered in The Exceptional Sale on 30 November 2016 at Christie’s in Paris

The Revolver with which Verlaine faild to kill Rimbaud. A 6-shot, 7mm. calibre revolver. Estimate: €50,000-70,000. This lot is offered in The Exceptional Sale on 30 November 2016 at Christie’s in Paris

Verlaine’s shots did not prove fatal: the first bullet grazed Rimbaud’s wrist, and the second missed. Injured but alive, he escaped to the street below, attracting the attention of the police before being rushed to hospital. Courts charged both men with ‘moral indecency’, and Verlaine was sentenced to two years in prison at Mons.

Almost 150 years on, several signs reveal that this gun was the same one that was used by Verlaine. A serial number (14096) displayed prominently on its casing is also written against Verlaine’s name in the gunsmith’s original records. Ballistic tests have revealed that the weapon has been fired no more than two or three times — a finding compatible with the events of that summer’s day in the Belgian capital.

Although the two men met again after Verlaine’s release, the passion they had once felt had been extinguished. In 1873, Rimbaud had published a collection of poems entitled Une Saison d’Enfer (A Season in Hell), its title capturing their relationship’s bitter endpoint. This gun survives as a monument to its historic trigger; for de Conihout, it is ‘one of the most beautiful literary objects in existence’.