From the commune to the colonies

SOMEBODY ELSE: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa by Charles Nicholl, Cape pounds 18.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Arthur Rimbaud, who never wrote a bad or a dull poem, had turned his back on literature by the age of 25 and embarked on a life of wandering. As a teenager he continually ran away from the Rimbaud farm in northern France, tramping the roads in broken boots for weeks at a time, stopping at wayside inns, and commemorating literature's most famous ham sandwich in the gloriously offhand poem, "Au Cabaret Vert" ("At the Green Inn"). At 15 he had run away to Paris without a train ticket, winding up in prison; he was in Paris again during the Commune in 1871, dossing down in the Babylone barracks - his disturbing poem "The Stolen Heart" seems to be about the homosexual rape which biographers infer he suffered at the hands of soldiers there. At 17 he turned up at Verlaine's house, a pink- cheeked peasant boy with large, chapped hands, an offensive manner and a personal hygiene problem. He brought the 25 delirious quatrains of "The Drunken Boat". Verlaine was bewitched.

The facts of Rimbaud's early life, his writing life, are well known: they are covered in Total Eclipse, the Christopher Hampton play now filmed with Leonardo DiCaprio and David Thewlis as Rimbaud and Verlaine. Well known, but surprisingly slippery: we know hardly anything about the order in which the poems were written and what they mean. His sexuality remains an enigma. The connection between the art and the life is radically disrupted.

Ernest Delahaye, his friend, shed light on his technique: "Rimbaud ... prefers to make use of the real, of things he has experienced, but then displacing them from their true context, splitting them into parts that can be used in a new way, joining and mingling things which were in fact quite separate, stripping every subject of its actual nature to give it another ..." It doesn't help the biographer.

The young Rimbaud was abrasive, antagonistic and contemptuous of literary Paris. One of the most precious relics we have of him, the Carjat photograph which became an icon during the evenements of `68, nearly didn't survive. Rimbaud wounded Carjat in the hand with a sword-stick when the former called him a little toad (Rim- baud had been heckling "merde, merde" during a poetry reading). Carjat, enraged, smashed the photographic plates.

The moon-faced, angelic Rimbaud of Henri Fantin-Latour's famous painting "Un coin de table" is a memorial to his bad-boy reputation. The three main poets the painting was supposed to commemorate - Theodore de Banville, Leconte de Lisle and Albert Merat - are all absent, two having refused to sit when they realised the teenager would be present, one insisting on being painted out after the attack on Carjat.

Rimbaud's poetry is spangled and stiffened with magical and alchemical formulae; its failure to "make anything happen" for its creator apparently led to his abandonment of verse. In a sense, he didn't have to write about his African adventures, because he had already done so in his poems, a point Nicholl returns to again and again. Rimbaud the voyou (hooligan) is also the voyant, the seer.

He wanted to forget himself, to crush himself, to wipe out the European in him. Nicholl's title alludes to the celebrated slogan, "je est un autre": "I is somebody else." He spent the last ten years of his short life as a trader in Africa, dying at the age of 36 minus one leg. Very few of his French friends in North Africa knew of his growing literary reputation; when asked about it, Rimbaud either blanked the questioner or grunted that he never gave "all that" a thought.

Some accounts show the African Rimbaud as an innocent fleeced by wily natives. Nicholl strives to absolve him of the charge of incompetence, and also acquits him, as far as he is able, from charges of slave-trading, though it is clear that the advocate of "la liberte libre" was an enthusiastic cog in the colonial machine. Nicholl makes little attempt to reconcile the bitter letter-writer complaining about the blacks, the heat and the squalor with the man who wore native dress, learnt Arabic, read the Koran and was accepted by locals.

In contrast to the earlier visionary, joyous poems are the bald letters and dry reports of the African years, writings from which the numinous is ruthlessly eradicated. Nicholl pieces together the movements across the desert (still a dangerous place: a French explorer was hacked down by a tribe a few days before Rimbaud passed over the same ground; he was contemptuous of his compatriot's naivety). Nicholl himself tracks the poet through Aden and Harar, where he regretfully dismisses the house "Bet Rimbo" as a pious fraud, to Djibouti, today as then hardly more than a hallucination at the edge of the desert. He stands on rooftops where the poet slept, sniffing for a scent; penetrates the old Hotel de L'Univers, now a slum tenement; smokes khat; questions uncomprehending locals who think he's talking about Rambo.

The last illness is every bit as depressing to read about as the agonising final months of John Keats. Dragged over the desert on a litter with a swollen knee as big as a pumpkin, Rimbaud suffered all the torments of a second season in Hell. He made it back to France, and sent a telegram to his formidable mother: "Today you or Isabelle [his sister] come Marseille by express train. Monday morning they amputate my leg. Danger of death. Serious matters to attend to. Arthur."

He made it back to the Rimbaud farm, sans leg, but there was one last bid for escape. Convinced he could make it back to Africa, he persuaded his sister to accompany him once more to Marseilles. On the train, he gripped the stump of his leg with both hands, saying over and over: "Oh the pain, the pain." He died, muttering and hallucinating, in Marseilles, convinced that his sister was his beloved Arab servant boy, Djami.

The cover features a photograph of a gaunt, blurred figure in baggy white trousers and jacket. A self-portrait, it is out of focus, tantalisingly unclear. There are other photos in the book, also taken by Rimbaud, of traders and friends. Frustratingly, but quite fittingly, they are all crisp and clear.