Unearthing Rimbaud in obscurity

 

"IN the year 1880, in the dog days of August, a young Frenchman disembarks at Steamer Point, in the Arabian port of Aden. He is tall and leanfaced, with chestnut coloured hair that the sun has faded. His clothes are shabby, his manner brusque. He carries his belongings in a brown leather suitcase fastened with four buckled straps.

The arrival in Africa of the youthful traveller thus described in the opening paragraph of Charles Nicholl's recently published biography, Somebody Else, was in itself an unremarkable event. Many shabbily dressed young men drifted in and out of Aden in those days, having set off down the newly opened Suez Canal in search of - what? Fortune, certainly. Fame, perhaps; and with any kind of luck, perhaps a little adventure along the way.

But the Frenchman who arrived bin Aden that particular morning was the antithesis of the usual anonymous drifter. He was Arthur Rimbaud, the ultimate enfant terrible who had, for a number of years, been something of a cause celebre in French literary circles. If you wanted a dinner party disrupted or a dignitary insulted, Rimbaud was your man. His poetry was turbulent, eclectic, disturbing and way, way ahead of its time; his very public homosexual affair with his fellow poet Paul Verlaine was a catalogue of substance abuse and mutually assured destruction.

By the time he was 17, Rimbaud was a fully fledged bohemian; "a most alarming poet", as his colleague Leon Valade put it, with "big hands big feet ... [and] deep blue eyes, his temperament savage than shy". A lifetime of cafe society and literary accolades seemed certain to follow - except that at the age of 26, Rimbaud turned his back on Paris and on poetry, took a steamer to Aden and to all intents and purposes, disappeared.

It is at this point, when most biographies of Rimbaud fizzle out, that Charles Nicholl's study begins. Nicholl first encountered Rimbaud's poetry through the lyrics of Bob Dylan, specifically the 1964 song Chimes of Freedom, "with its political message of compassion for the `luckless and forsaken' wrapped up in a hallucinatory sort of landscape, a `wild cathedral evening' through which the poet stumbles `spellbound and swallowed'." But while many teenagers are gripped by Rimbaud's gloriously skewed vision of the world, not many adults would contemplate writing an entire book about the hazy period at the end of the poet's life about which little is known except that he never wrote another poem.

"Well," says Nicholl, a genial character who has written a series of vivid and evocative books on a range of exotic topics, including Colombian drug cartels, Burmese peasant farmers, the Elizabethan police state and "alchemy as it was used by the Elizabethan writers particularly in King Lear" from a hut at the bottom of his garden in Herefordshire, "people do ask me, as I get on in years, why don't I let go of all these badly behaved hooligans who were the formative figures of my youth. I've done books on Christopher Marlowe and on Rimbaud, and I've also done a book on Walter Raleigh, who wasn't as badly behaved as either of those two but wasn't nearly as respectable as people think he was. I seem to have taken a while to pay off my debts, as it were, to the bad boys, that I admired when I was young.

In the case of Rimbaud, the snooty tone of biographers who tend to write off his post poetry years as not worth bothering about was an added incentive. "This period at the end of his life - or as it turns out, really, the last third of his life - seems to be rather dismissed by people who write about him. So there was a challenge there, to try and recover what was thought of by many people as lost - or, indeed, of no interest. That was the challenge, really - people saying `what a pity he disappeared and didn't do anything afterwards'. But he did."

Somebody Else is, in a way, the tale of an extraordinary voyage into the ordinary. Rimbaud the poet had written of the importance of immersing oneself in "all forms of love, of suffering, of madness". Rimbaud the African trader was immersed, instead, in wholesale and retail, supply and demand, bundles of damask and crates of fancy buttons. There is no evidence of any homosexual activity either, once Rimbaud went to Africa; a photograph of his Abyssinian mistress survives.

References to these years are terse and often hazy: documentary evidence is maddeningly slight; from these brief glimpses of his subject Nicholl has managed to fashion a story that is not only as compelling as a detective yarn but funny and moving as well.

WE began his search for Rimbaud's lost years in Aden where, he writes, "the name of Rimbaud elicits no response other than the customary confusion with Rambo. (This confusion pursued me throughout my researches in these countries, where the bandannaed psychopath is still very popular. I soon took to describing Rimbaud as the `real Rambo', or `the original Rambo', which earned him a certain vicarious admiration.)"

But did he ever, faced with a succession of halftruths and blurred photos, feel like giving this book up as a bad job? "Not really. It was almost more disappointing to come to Aden and find that his former office was in the process of being turned into a coffee trading museum.

"It's part of the excitement, the fact that the footsteps are almost obscured in an historical sense - "but the paradox is that you're walking down the streets in a place like Harar, which is pretty unvisited even today, and really little has changed in the 100 years since Rimbaud was there. So you're getting a kind of link back to what he saw - you're getting into his skin in a way, and that's probably more valuable to the writer than the documentation is. Or rather, it's another kind of documentation."

Harar, where Rimbaud actually lived for the best part of five years, is in modern Ethiopia but is still, says Nicholl, the sort of rocky, walled city which Rimbaud would have found when he travelled there on horseback in 1880. "It's cobbled, there's not much traffic, the water and electricity still run out all the time and it has this aromatic - well, it's smelly."

Could Nicholl live there himself, even now? "No, is the shortanswer. It's a fascinating place and I met some very nice people, but I couldn't have lived there for the total of five years that Rimbaud did. It was a choice of isolation that he was making - I mean, you couldn't really have got much more isolated, in a European sense, than Harar in 1880. He was almost certainly the first `western European to live there, ever - the English explorer Richard Burton was the first European to get into Harar, and that was only 30 years before, so it was a complete break from European standards, and norms and company.

The Rimbaud story ends painfully, with the 37 year old Arthur forced to return to France in May 1891 to seek medical attention for a knee injury which most biographers have attributed to syphilis, though this is as doubtful as almost everything else about his life. What is certain is that he died in Marseilles a bare six months later, hallucinating that he was back in his beloved Africa - "Quick, quick, they are waiting for us," he told his devoted sister Isabelle, who nursed him to the end. "We must pack up our bags and go." He didn't get far: his mother insisted that he be buried in the family plot at Charleville rather than, as he wished, in Aden. There is an almost unbearable poignancy about this final chapter as the agnostic who had tramped across the wild places of Abyssinia lies dying, unable to walk, in a Catholic hospital.

Nicholl, meanwhile, will shortly be off to do some tramping in remote places himself; his next book is about bears, or the lack of them in Europe. "I've always been fascinated by bears, but have made do with large, furry dogs instead - now I'll be looking for the real thing. Most of the remaining ones are in Romania, where Ceaucescu, by virtue of wanting to shoot them, inadvertently preserved them. Now that he's gone, they're under threat." An irony which Arthur Rimbaud would, no doubt, have appreciated.