Somebody Else — Arthur Rimbaud in Africa, by Charles Nicholl, Jonathan Cape, London, 1997, 335 pages, ISBN 0224043765
This piece first appeared in a much shorter form in The Australian newspaper on 10 January 1998. It is 3,400 words or about ten pages long.
When I was seventeen, I fell in love with a sodomite.
His eyes were a dazzling blue, and he had the face of an angel. His hands were large and awkward: a peasant’s hands. He was a poet, and I thought — and I still think, in my middle age — that he was one of the most brilliant poets the human race has ever seen. He belongs in the company of Callimachus, and Sappho, and Horace.
No, not Horace, who was shrewd and successful, at ease with his rich and powerful friends, the Seamus Heaney of his age — no; he was more like Catullus, the spoilt kid from the north whose frank and erotic poems scandalised Rome: odi et amo, Catullus had written. I hate you, and I love you. That says it all.
I fell in love with a ghost, an illusion, one I’ve been trying to shake off ever since. By the time I came under the spell of his beautiful lies, his body — minus the amputated right leg — had been rotting in a lead-lined coffin in the damp earth of northern France for seventy years. World War One had rolled over him, with its terrible thunder, and then World War Two. He’s been dead, now, for over a century.
Arthur Rimbaud wrote poetry for a few brief years, while he was still in his teens, from about 1870 to 1873. He could never have imagined the extraordinary influence his slim collection of poems would have over the following century. It seems that with every generation, young people rediscover Rimbaud for themselves — Rimbaud the teenage rebel, that is. There was another very different Rimbaud, and we’ll meet him in due course, focussed under the sympathetic lens of Charles Nicholl’s book.
Arthur Symons, who’d been a friend of Mallarmé, introduced Rimbaud’s work to an English public in his book The Symbolist Movement in Literature in 1900. Henry Miller venerated his memory in Paris in the 1930s. A photograph of Rimbaud (retouched to show him wearing jeans) graced the barricades of the student revolt in Paris in May 1968. His prose poems (Les Illuminations) were set to music by Benjamin Britten; poets from Auden to Dylan Thomas and popular entertainers from Bob Dylan to Jim Morrison have hailed him as an inspiration. The painters Sidney Nolan and Brett Whiteley both did him the homage of painting his portrait. The popular movies based on his life include Paris Blues (1961), where Paul Newman plays a jazz musician called “Ram Bowen”, and Une saison en enfer (A Season in Hell), the garishly-coloured 1972 French-Italian co-production shot in Ethiopia, starring blue-eyed Terence Stamp.
Enid Starkie, an Oxford don, devoted the main part of her life to a thorough biography of Rimbaud. There are several translation of his poems available in English, including Oliver Bernard’s excellent Penguin edition, which I quote from here.
But all of that would have meant nothing to Rimbaud. He had abandoned the world of literature long before. When he was nineteen, he gave in to a mixture of rage and pig-headed pride, and threw his marvellous talent onto a bonfire, along with his manuscripts. By the time his anger had eaten its way through his soul, he could not speak of poetry without contempt. He lived another eighteen years, wandering from one end of Europe to the other and as far afield as the East Indies. He joined the Dutch Colonial Army and was sent to Java, but deserted and returned to France. He got work in Cyprus, as an overseer of a stone quarry, but his temper got the better of him — “I have had some quarrels with the workmen,” he wrote, “and I’ve had to request some weapons.” He collapsed with typhoid and hurriedly returned home. In March 1880 — he was twenty-five — he left France for the last time. He found work in Cyprus again, as foreman of a construction gang in the mountains. He got involved in another quarrel and, it seems, threw a stone which hit a local worker on the temple and killed him. Rimbaud fled, travelling through the Red Sea — further and further from Europe — and ending up in the British port of Aden, a sun-baked volcanic crater perched at the gateway to the Indian Ocean on the coast of Yemen. He spent the next eleven years as an exile, working as a trader in Aden and Abyssinia.
Charles Nicholl’s book is chiefly the story of those years, from the time Rimbaud disembarks at Aden in 1880 to his death in Marseilles in 1891, at the age of thirty-seven, from the cancer which had started in his right leg. It is very stylish, thoroughly researched, and shows a great deal of insight into the character of this angry and bitter man.
Arthur Rimbaud’s adolescent rebellion was so brief and the flowering of his talent so violent and astonishing that it has overshadowed his essential character. His life is often seen through a Romantic blur, and the astringent view of his career that Nicholl presents in this book is a useful corrective.
Rimbaud was born in the northern French town of Charleville in October 1854, the son of a 40-year-old army captain and a farmer’s daughter. There were two younger sisters, Isabelle and Vitalie, and an older brother Frédéric, who was a dullard and lived out his life as a bus driver. The father, who had spent some years in Algeria and in different parts of France, found provincial life stifling and family life difficult. He was often absent. Rimbaud was six when his father left for the last time, never to return.
His mother was a dour, hard-working woman of peasant stock, impatient with her husband’s fecklessness, and embittered by his final desertion. For most of his life Rimbaud was like his mother — devoted to hard work. As a child he was obedient, studious and even rather prim. In his final school examinations he swept the board, as Starkie says, winning all the prizes in his form except for two.
In his sixteenth year, everything changed. Two catastrophic public events shook France, and a private calamity changed Rimbaud forever.
The French emperor Napoleon the Third declared war on Prussia in July 1870. It was an ill-advised move. The German armies swept through north-eastern France, the countryside where Rimbaud had grown up, and within six months the French had been defeated.
In the aftermath of the Armistice in January 1871 the people of Paris, republican to the core and disgusted with their government, set up a Commune. Eventually French government troops put it down, killing twenty thousand French men and women in the streets of Paris in a single week in May.
Rimbaud had run away from home to join the Commune, though it’s unlikely he was there during that week of horror.
He had his own, personal nightmare to live through. At some time during this visit to Paris he was raped, perhaps gang-raped, probably by a group of soldiers at the Babylone barracks. The evidence is indirect but — as Charles Nicholl says, and most biographers agree with him — it is persuasive.
He went home to Charleville in a state of profound shock and confusion. He sent batches of his poems to important poets in the capital, Banville and Paul Verlaine among them. Verlaine summoned him to Paris and to his fate. It was September 1871 — Rimbaud was sixteen; Verlaine twenty-eight. Verlaine’s pretty young wife was pregnant.
The two men — rather, the man and the schoolboy — became lovers.
The older poet Banville lent him an attic flat for a while as a favour to Verlaine. Rimbaud became friends with the musician Ernest Cabaner, who also put him up for a while, the novelist Jules Claretie, and the poets Charles Cros and Germaine Nouveau. These bohemians were scandalising the bourgeoisie with their sexual indiscretions, their immodest writings and their indulgence in absinthe and hashish and opium. Rimbaud outdid them in every respect.
He made many enemies. Verlaine’s future biographer Lepelletier disapproved of his influence on his old friend Verlaine, and Rimbaud responded by calling him an ‘inkshitter’. When Lepelletier told Rimbaud to shut up, the boy threatened him with a table knife.
He called poor Banville an ‘old cunt’, he stabbed the photographer Carjat with a sword-stick, he repaid the hospitality of Cabaner by going into Cabaner’s room when he wasn’t there and masturbating into his cup of milk. In short, he was an arrogant, bad-tempered little shit.
In July 1873, less than two years after they had first met, Verlaine shot Rimbaud in a fit of drunken jealousy. The boy was wounded in the wrist, and Verlaine burst into tears and begged his forgiveness. The next evening while they were out walking in the street he turned ugly again and pulled the revolver from his pocket. This time Rimbaud called out to a passing policeman. They were in Brussels; the police discovered evidence of their homosexual relationship, and incriminating letters. Rimbaud tried to take back the charges, but it was too late. Verlaine was sentenced to two years’ hard labour in a Belgian gaol.
In the collection of prose poems and verse fragments that make up the short book A Season in Hell, begun in April 1873 in an outbuilding at the family farm at the village of Roche and completed by the end of August, he looks back in despair over his life as a poet. In one of the fragments, titled “Ravings number two” he talks about “the history of one of my follies”. “I invented the colours of the vowels!” he claims, and goes on: “I flattered myself that I had created a poetic language accessible ... to all the senses ... I expressed the inexpressible. I defined vertigos ... I ended up regarding my mental disorder as sacred.”
He draws a picture of his affair with Verlaine in cynical terms, painting Verlaine as a weak and foolish virgin and himself as an “infernal bridegroom”, a monster of cruelty. It wasn’t far from the truth.
The last chapter of A Season in Hell is titled “Farewell.” It has an air of exhaustion and relief about it. “I have tried to invent new flowers, new stars, new flesh, new tongues. I believed I had acquired supernatural powers. Well! I must bury my imagination and my memories. A fine fame as an artist and story-teller swept away! I! I who called myself magus or angel, exempt from all morality, I am given back to the earth, with a task to pursue, and wrinkled reality to embrace. A peasant!”
It was finished in August 1873. He somehow persuaded his thrifty mother to pay to have the book printed in Belgium. He sent his six author’s copies to his friends and to men of letters in Paris.
Many people see this manuscript as his farewell to literature. It certainly reads like that, but I’m not so sure. I believe (with Starkie) that it was his farewell to a kind of literature — visionary, mystical, growing out of the selfish and hallucinatory lifestyle that had crashed to a halt a few months before with his shooting and the gaoling of Verlaine — and a commitment to something more humble and realistic. “Well, now I shall ask forgiveness for having fed on lies,” he wrote. I think he hoped that the French literary world would offer him the forgiveness that he was now prepared to ask for, and give his book favourable reviews. He went to Paris to see how his book had fared.
Favourable reviews? He must have been mad. To those literary men, the dilettantes he had mocked and despised a year or two earlier, Rimbaud was the insolent catamite who had destroyed their old friend Verlaine: sponged off him, wrecked his marriage, corrupted his soul and ruined his life, and then, when he had used him up, had turned him in to the police to face hard labour in a Belgian gaol.
We have an eyewitness account of Rimbaud on the day when the last door in Paris had been slammed in his face, at the moment when he realised that the literary career he’d embraced so passionately was over.
It was the evening of the first of November, 1873, a holiday, and the cafés and restaurants were crowded. The poet Poussin had joined some writer friends at the Café Tabourey. He noticed a young man alone in a corner, staring into space. It was Rimbaud.
Poussin went over and offered to buy him a drink. “Rimbaud was pale and even more silent than usual,” he later recalled. “His face, indeed his whole bearing, expressed a powerful and fearsome bitterness.” For the rest of his life Poussin “retained from that meeting a memory of dread.”
When the café closed, Rimbaud — who hadn’t spoken to anyone all evening — set out to walk home through the late autumn countryside. It took him about a week. When he got to Charleville he built a bonfire and burnt all his manuscripts.
He didn’t bother to collect the remaining five hundred copies of his book from the printer — they mouldered there until they were discovered by a Belgian lawyer in 1901. That should have been the end of it.
But he couldn’t quite let go. The following year in London he carefully copied out his prose poems, gathered under the title Illuminations. The year after that he tried to get them published. Giving up poetry must have been like pulling out a tooth, or weaning himself from a drug.
Nicholl gives a perceptive summary of these years of turmoil, but his focus sharpens as Rimbaud steps ashore in Aden in August, 1880. There he is on the edge of Africa, at twenty-five, burnt brown by the sun, worn out by fever and tiredness. He’s on the run, with very little money, no profession, no degree, no training, and no prospects. This was the first day of the rest of his life.
What had he written, on the last page of his only published book? “…let us go… All the filthy memories are disappearing ... at dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter into the splendid cities…”
He got work in Aden as a foreman for a French coffee trader named Alfred Bardey. He already knew Latin and spoke English, German, and some Italian and Greek. He picked up some of the native languages and dialects, and learned Arabic, studying the Koran thoroughly.
Once he’d learned the ropes and proved himself useful and trustworthy, Bardey asked him to set up a branch of the business in Harar, five hundred kilometres from Aden as the crow flies, in the highlands of Abyssinia, as Ethiopia was known then. It was dangerous work. The caravan routes were infested with murderous Danakil tribesmen who prized the testicles of their victims as souvenirs. In 1886, a caravan to the Abyssinian highlands was attacked and the French trader Barral, his wife, and twenty Abyssinian guards massacred. The raiders had meant to kill another trader, Chefneux, who passed by the scene a little later, and found “the remains of corpses half-devoured by beasts and birds of prey, mutilated beyond recognition.” He thought he recognised, by a gold tooth shining in the sun, the severed head of Barral’s young wife.
Rimbaud certainly wasn’t a tourist. His letters home were practical and filled with details of business schemes, expenses, and profit calculations. From those letters, mostly to his mother: “I am like a prisoner here” — 1880. “I am by now completely habituated to every form of boredom” — 1882. “My life here is a real nightmare. Don’t imagine I am enjoying it at all” — May 1884. “I feel that I am becoming very old very quickly, in this idiotic occupation, in the company of savages or imbeciles” — September 1884.
Albert Camus (in The Rebel, 1952) talks about how these letters are not what we want to hear: “To sustain the legend one had to be unaware of these decisive letters. They are sacrilege, as the truth sometimes is.”
The explorers and traders he worked with are very clear about the kind of man he thought he was. Here is a selection of their words: “he had certainly given up his old ideas ... Poetry was dead for him ... he always expressed satisfaction that he had turned his back on what he called the pranks of youth, on a past which he abhorred ... disgusted by the Bohemian life ... never spoke about his previous existence, nor about literature ...”
When Bardey, his employer in Aden, stumbled on the secret of his past and asked him about his time as a poet, Rimbaud was visibly shaken and angry. “Absurd,” he spat out: “Ridiculous, disgusting!” The poetry he had written? It was just slops, he said: “rinçures”, dregs.
These “hard-bitten men” as Nicholl calls them, “who didn’t suffer inefficiency gladly,” variously said that he was “a good merchant”, “a passionate trader”, “entirely devoted to commerce”, “a very serious man, experienced in business affairs,” and so on.
Nicholl makes the poignant point that these “references” were highly valued by Rimbaud. “He attains,” Nicholl says, “at the end of his long journey, a kind of luminous ordinariness.”
By the end of the 1880s, installed in Harar as a commission agent for the trader Tian in Aden, and trading on his own behalf as well, he had developed a circle of friends among the Africans as well as the Europeans. He had a devoted servant, a beautiful Abyssinian mistress, and a busy schedule. He’d earned the esteem of the society he’d chosen to join.
He had become somebody else.
And yet ...
Bardey: “If I speak of him as having wasted his life, it is because he himself often complained of doing so, saying, as his excuse, that he had only taken up this empty and pointless work [in Aden] in order to escape from a more pressing difficulty.” The “more pressing difficulty” is whatever he left Cyprus in such a hurry to escape; the killing of the workman, perhaps.
For two or three of his teenage years, from the ages of sixteen to nineteen, Rimbaud had been the most brilliant poet of his age. He demanded mystical insights, and was prepared to go through any suffering to get them. Enid Starkie believed that he tried to make himself the equal of God.
Rimbaud’s great contribution was to lead poetry away from the polite chatter of the Parisian drawing rooms and out into the streets of the modern world. In a parody of the conservative Banville, he wrote “from your dark poems ... let strange flowers burst out, and electric butterflies! See — it’s the century of Hell! And the telegraph poles, the iron-voiced lyre, are going to adorn your magnificent shoulders!” This in 1871, forty years before T.S.Eliot’s urban aperçus, and fifty years before Stephen Spender thought of writing about power pylons.
“One must be absolutely modern,” he writes, in A Season in Hell. But the modern world presented him with an insurmountable problem. Edmund Wilson in an essay on Rimbaud points to the contradiction inherent in the role of poet at that time. In the utilitarian society which had been produced by the industrial revolution and the rise of the middle class, he says,
“the poet seemed to have no place. For Gautier’s generation [the poet Gautier lived from 1811 to 1872], the bourgeois had already become the enemy; but one took a lively satisfaction in fighting him. By the end of the century, however, the bourgeois’s world was going so strong that, from the point of view of the poet, it had come to seem hopeless to oppose it ... one simply did one’s best to ignore it, to keep one’s imagination free of it altogether. The poets of the end of the century, when they happened to be incapable of Naturalism or of social idealism ... were thus peculiarly maladjusted persons.”
Nicholl’s book is sensitive to these issues. He reads Rimbaud’s poetic project with insight, yet he is sympathetic to the poet’s much longer career as a hard-working petty capitalist who despised the bohemian ideas he had relinquished. Nicholl takes Rimbaud as he finds him: intense, vain, bitter and deeply human.