New light on a total eclipse

Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa 1880-91 by Charles Nicholl, Cape, pounds 18.99
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It is an amazing story. Arthur Rimbaud, the unknown 16-year-old delinquent poet, writes to Verlaine - established and nearly 30 - then turns up at the older poet's home in Paris. Verlaine falls in love with the boy and deserts his pregnant wife. The two flee to London and have a violent affair fuelled by huge amounts of alcohol.

Verlaine eventually escapes to his mother in Brussels. Rimbaud follows, only to say he's leaving Verlaine. Verlaine begs him to stay; Rimbaud says no. Verlaine shoots him with a revolver, hits him in the arm, goes to prison. Rimbaud, tries England again - weirdly, he turns up in Reading in 1874 - before abandoning literature and working as a trader in Aden and Ethiopia for the last 11 years of his life. He came back to France in 1891 to die. Verlaine died five years later. Both were victims of bohemianism at its most exultant.

The first quarter of Charles Nicholl's book recounts Rimbaud's earlier life with Verlaine. It is written in high focus, with a strong narrative drive, because much was happening and there is substantial documentation. Then, as Rimbaud embarks on his African period in 1880, the style changes. It falters and drifts in an atmosphere of tropical reverie, hashish dream and sandstorm.

We are among nostalgic yearnings, sun-yellowed extracts from forgotten company ledgers, conjecture, a stream of exotic places and few events. The documentary back-up for this phase is negligible - Rimbaud's few letters home and the recollections of commercial colleagues. Whatever there may be of hard-core evidence Nicholl has assiduously traced. But it doesn't amount to a picture.

The dossier-like form of the ensuing book and its author's feline performance with very speculative material present a constant tease. Perhaps we shall soon come to somewhere; perhaps we shall even meet Rimbaud, strangely sensed as one who, wherever you turn up, has just left the room.

Certain of Nicholl's tricks do not feel right. The on-the-road Bob Dylan sub-theme is pure hippy sentimentality. The switches from past to present tense in historical passages is bogus originality. The present tense in biographical work always comes across as mannered, though not in autobiography. In autobiography the present tense brings one closer to the subject, whereas in biography it takes one further away. So the present is obviously less grating when Nicholl employs it to recount his own recent journeys in Rimbaud's footsteps.

Yet Nicholl keeps himself quite as much of a ghost as Rimbaud, in what one may call the peeping-Tom school of travel writing (Bruce Chatwin and Colin Thubron are the recent masters). The author says "Just go about your affairs as though I weren't here", which produces endless scene-setting and no adventure. Nicholl gives us a superb description of the arrival of evening in Djibouti - an evening on which nothing whatsoever happens.

The avoidance of emotional contact is very English and maybe even appropriate. In Africa, Rimbaud sought to turn himself into a stoical, abstracted Englishman. Previously he'd been outrageously the Parisian artist, extravagantly self- aware and expressive, pushing poetry off all sorts of cliffs.

Eventually one adjusts to Nicholl's oscillation of unrealised possibilities and shifts of perspective, even when the background swallows up the foreground. When, for example, a paragraph referring to some obscure record Nicholl has managed to locate begins "There are 14 camel-suppliers named", one knows one's going to be taken through the whole lot. Yet one accepts it because in such a remote, formless terrain of faint echoes and heat-haze, there isn't much else to do.

Unexpectedly, one comes away with more than a ghost. Nicholl quotes Rimbaud's prescient line: "Exiled here, I had a stage on which to perform dramatic masterpieces". They were very private masterpieces too. Thankfully his colleagues were less reticent. One describes him as "closed-up". Another said "He was, it was plain to see, an embittered and irascible man". His hair went prematurely grey. He took an Abyssinian mistress but there were no children and his greatest emotional attachment was to a servant boy. A part of him was somehow ego-less, picking up local languages very quickly and slipping effortlessly into the rhythms of native life. He traded in gold, ivory, guns, earthenware jugs of his own design, but not slaves.

It also becomes very clear what drove Verlaine mad. Rimbaud was the classic pain-in-the-neck adolescent, relentlessly sarcastic, clever, surly, uncooperative. He seems to have stayed that way. There is a terrible stubbornness against life in Rimbaud. Nicholl refers to "The horror of stasis: to arrive at the empty inn, at the end of the adventure, and find your old self waiting for you". If you refuse to react with life this is what will happen.

Nicholl doesn't investigate the crassness - or divine idiocy - in Rimbaud, the refusal to connect or care about anything or anybody. Nor, in a book fundamentally about the need to escape, does he pursue that great idea either. Why did Rimbaud need to escape so completely? Why did he stop writing? Why, for that matter, did he start writing? What is the connection between poetry and fury? Lists of camel-suppliers are all very well but some intellectual exploration to parallel the geographical would have been fruitful.

The end is ghastly and movingly rendered. Rimbaud returns to France with a severe leg infection. The leg is amputated. He becomes trapped in a Marseille hospital, between his need to go north to his family and south to Africa. He dies there, watched over by a sister, and Rimbaud's moroseness at last attains its Hamlet-like nobility.