Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa
Random House, 1997 335pp
Reviewed by Ann Skea
“…one might glimpse an underlying motive of the African years – to recover something elemental and primitive, an ancient feast, a mythologized childhood, an antidote to Europe corrupted by sophistication and pretence.”
Charles Nicholl’s comments on Rimbaud perhaps reflect some of his own reasons for writing this book. On the face of it, Rimbaud’s African years as a coffee trader, photographer, adventurer, Arabist and gun-runner, sound like the stuff of myth, a return to primitive hardships – exotic, even. But biographers have often seen these years as “a long blank coda at the end of a brief and brilliant career”, and the sources of information are, to quote Nicholl, “tantalisingly thin”.
Nicholl draws on the memoirs and reports of people who met Rimbaud briefly and worked or corresponded with him, but whose reports have “the usual uncertainties of anecdotal transmissions”. More importantly, he draws on Rimbaud’s own African writings, which often show a caustic, satirical wit, but which have none of the imaginative extravagance of his poetry, because that was precisely what he had determined to put behind him: “Je ne pense plus a ca”. So, despite Nicholl’s best efforts, the adult Rimbaud remains as tantalisingly blurred and enigmatic as he does in the three African photographs which he took of himself and which are reproduced in the book.
The irony of Rimbaud’s life was that, in spite of his efforts to leave European culture and his teenage excesses behind him, he became renowned, even before his death, for the poetry he contemptuously labelled “‘rincures’ – slops, dregs, leavings”. Rimbaud’s poetry and the legends of his early life inspired Bob Dylan, crept into Dylan’s songs, and later influenced Jim Morrison and touched a whole generation of English-speaking people who would not, perhaps, even recognise Rimbaud’s name. And, to judge by a quick survey of internet sites, Rimbaud’s early poetry and prose is still very important to the French.
In some ways, Nicholl’s book shares Rimbaud’s predicament. The Poet Maudit (the cursed or outlaw poet) of the brief early chapters is vivid, arrogant and outrageous , and quotations from his poetry and prose add fire and richness to the text. He is much more interesting than the “taciturn and tranquil”, ascetic, sometimes surly character of the later chapters.
Yet, Nicholl is a good writer who clearly likes his subject and perhaps, as the personal note at the end of the book suggests, even identifies with some of Rimbaud’s youthful extravagances. He tries very hard to bring the older Rimbaud to life – to flesh out the “somebody else” of Rimbaud’s youthful, paradoxical statement about the imagination: “I is somebody else”. And Nicholl’s own journey in Rimbaud’s footsteps does add immediacy and interest to the text, although it adds little that is new to the history. Like Nicholl’s image of Rimbaud’s first arrival in Aden, Rimbaud’s history remains “…like some scratchy old home-movie. The faces around him are blurred. There are jump-cuts due to lack of information. There are guesses.”. And one can sense Nicholl’s desperate need for concrete evidence in his almost chapter long investigation of the three “textually” but not physically” identifiable houses” in which Rimbaud lived in Harar. These houses prove almost as hard to pin down as Rimbaud himself, and all Nicholl can say with certainty is that Bet Rimbaud, the Rimbaud House currently shown to tourists, is not one of them.
Nicholl’s stated intention was to tell the story of Rimbaud’s African years and to show them as “a sort of doomed existential adventure”. But Rimbaud eludes him, as surely any existential hero must – refusing to be pinned down and closely examined. Unsatisfying as this is, one is left with a strong sense of the strangeness of Rimbaud’s character, and an understanding of Nicholl’s urge to find out more about those “lost” African years.