Fleeing the Mother Tongue
- Rimbaud Complete edited by Wyatt Mason
Scribner, 656 pp, £20.00, November 2003, ISBN 0 7432 3950 4
- Collected Poems by Arthur Rimbaud, edited by Martin Sorrell
Oxford, 337 pp, £8.99, June 2001, ISBN 0 19 283344 8
- L'Art de Rimbaud by Michel Murat
Corti, 492 pp, €23.00, October 2002, ISBN 2 7143 0796 5
- Arthur Rimbaud by Jean-Jacques Lefrère
Fayard, 1242 pp, €44.50, May 2001, ISBN 2 213 60691 9
- Arthur Rimbaud: Presence of an Enigma by Jean-Luc Steinmetz, edited by Jon Graham
Welcome Rain, 464 pp, US $20.00, May 2002, ISBN 1 56649 251 3
- Rimbaud by Graham Robb
Picador, 552 pp, £8.99, September 2001, ISBN 0 330 48803 1
Arthur Rimbaud, the boy who gave it all up for something different, is a legend, both as a poet and a renouncer of poetry. He had finished with literature before the age of 21. By the time his work began to appear in the 1880s, to great acclaim, he had become a trader and a minor explorer in inhospitable country, working for a French company in Aden which sent him across the Red Sea to run a branch of the business – coffee, hides and ivory for the most part – in the town of Harar, between the Ogaden and the highlands of Abyssinia. He looked back at his earlier life as a poet with some unease. This transition from the adventure of language to adventure proper is crucial to the legend.
Wyatt Mason’s is the latest in a long line of Rimbaud translations. Some distinguished figures have taken a swing at it, in one-offs or batches, including Pound, Beckett, Lowell and Norman Cameron. There have also been the thorough, proselytising translators, above all Wallace Fowlie, who wanted the whole oeuvre turned into English and the legend retold to Anglophone readers. And there was Edgell Rickword, in whom the two strands coincided to produce remarkable poems in English from a small number of Rimbaud’s originals as well as a book-length exposition of the legend in Rimbaud: The Boy and the Poet (1924). Mason belongs with the translators proper rather than the poet-appropriators, and he disapproves of the legend, for all the right reasons.
Far more distracting, in his view, than the dust cloud of the absentee ex-poet are the myths of the precocious boy, or ‘Adolescent Poet’; the deranger of the senses, or ‘Hallucinogenic Poet’; and, as the lover of Paul Verlaine, the ‘Gay Poet’. Mason means myths, I think, in the sense of true stories which become more than the sum of their parts. The problem with them all, he believes, is that they ‘put too plain a face on the poems’, which are ‘vessels of indeterminacy’ and ‘ambiguity’. As for the haunting, post-poetic phase of Rimbaud’s career, he does not feel this is ‘any of our business’: ‘Let our business be Rimbaud’s poetry.’
But what we know about the poet – or ‘think we know’, as Mason insists – is never far from what we bring to the work. Myth itself is a sort of discipline, muzzy in parts, edgy in others, and we can make our way into a poem, across several readings, with or without the life of the poet at our side. Besides, some of Rimbaud’s poems scoop up the riches of biography quite deliberately and redistribute them according to the hungry demands of form. ‘Memory’, for example, is a Life encrypted in ten stanzas. In the third section of this troubled riverbank meditation, a portentous ‘Lui’ appears – a version of the poet’s fugitive father momentarily bonded with the runaway poet – and a haughty, damaged ‘Elle’, also ‘Madame’, surely the silhouette of Rimbaud’s mother:
Madame se tient trop debout dans la prairie
prochaine où neigent les fils du travail; l’ombrelle
aux doigts; foulant l’ombelle; trop fière pour elle;
des enfants lisant dans la verdure fleurie
leur livre de maroquin rouge! Hélas, Lui, comme
mille anges blancs qui se séparent sur la route,
s’éloigne par delà la montagne! Elle, toute
froide, et noire, court! après le départ de l’homme!
In Mason’s translation:
Madame stands too upright in the neighbouring field
where threads of work snow down; parasol
between fingers; trampling flowers; peacock proud;
children read Moroccan-leather books
in the flowering field! Alas, He, like
a thousand white angels dividing on the road,
flees to the mountain! She, perfectly
cold, and black, gives chase.
‘Memory’ is an extensive poem opening up large tracts of grazing far from the designated sites of family business, before ending at the bottom of a river-bed. It is so ‘ambiguous’, so dense, that there is no chance of putting too plain a face on it: ‘He’ is more than one kind of absence darkening a landscape – the loved ‘man’, for sure, but also the sun going down behind the hills – while ‘She’ is precisely desolate, like a river darkened by shadow that seems to flow in pursuit of the light; in any case nothing as simple as someone’s mother. Certainly this is how it feels in Mason. Most of his translations are attractive and underwrought, yet they catch the rigours of the original – he hates the idea that because Rimbaud was famously all over the place, we might think his poetry sloppy or easily won.
The ‘threads of work’ in Mason’s ‘Memory’ translates ‘les fils du travail’, a phrase that has intrigued French commentators, and produced some interesting results in English. In the poem the world is seen through the eyes of a child, who conspires with the poet, under the shared pronoun ‘I’, to uncover its content of longing and loss. The ‘field’ with something thread-like falling through the air above it seems briefly to stand for the task they are performing. But what is that something? Martin Sorrell, whose translations are often less free than Mason’s, and never less impressive, takes a bolder turn:
Madame holds herself too stiff in the next field
where sons of toil flurry like snow; clutching
parasol; trampling umbels; too proud for her,
children in the flower-strewn grass, their noses
in books bound in red morocco! Alas, He, like
a thousand angels dispersing down the road,
fades beyond the mountain! She, utterly
cold and dark, runs! after the man has left!
That’s good, though rather different. Nobody quite agrees on who or what is ‘proud’, and both translators get over the problem fine, even if there’s a case for the umbels, or Mason’s generic ‘flowers’, being too tall for Madame’s liking. Sorrell is more literal with the figure of the running woman: it’s not just that she ‘gives chase’, but that she starts to do so after ‘He’ has already gone. This matters because ‘Memory’ is unsentimentally, almost pedantically, interested in our wish to reverse the irreversible. But in the Sorrell version, those ‘sons of toil’ snowing onto the field remain perplexing.
At first sight there appears to be a plain mistaking of the word fils – ‘son’ or ‘sons’ – for the plural of fil, ‘thread’. It is in fact a complex imaginative reading. According to Jean-Luc Steinmetz in his fine edition of Rimbaud (Flammarion, 1989), these threads are the drifting lines on which young spiders hang in the air in order to migrate, and which the French call ‘fils de la Vierge’ – ‘Our Lady’s threads’. In the original – no doubt this is Sorrell’s reasoning too – the lost ‘Vierge’, replaced by ‘travail’, is still audible to a French ear. And so, with the suggestion of labour pains and flurries of children, a disparaging little jeu de mots on virgin birth, quite in keeping with Rimbaud’s distaste for Christian fable, pings in the poem, resonating with an earlier, ironic reference to a young maid defending a parapet, and the later appearance of a ‘sacred bed’ in which the devastated ‘She’ had once revelled, post-virginity and pre-desertion. The same formulation, ‘fils du travail’, appears almost untranslatably in ‘Remembrances of an Old Idiot’. Perhaps it was a phrase that went round in the poet’s head, gathering associations and resisting meaning. It is brave of Sorrell to take the difficult option, yet both these robust translations reveal the lengths to which Rimbaud could go after a first flush of virtuosity to ensure that his poems were not some elegant form of self-congratulation: there was always another step worth taking away from the well-turned ornament.
‘Memory’ is undated. It may have been written before the ‘Last Poems’ of 1872, sometimes known as ‘New Poems’ or ‘Songs’, but this is where it has come to rest in the running order. It is a difficult, unaccommodating poem, despite the impartial courtesies of the 12-syllable line, now showing visible signs of strain. The caesura, the pivot on which the two halves of the line should balance in the old ideal of French prosody, is all but erased. The English reader thinks of a saloon door in a western: there’s a faint jolt but no change of pace or register as the sense shoves through on its way to the bar. The only other 12-syllable verse in ‘Last Poems’ is a ferocious lament for the Paris Commune, also quite likely written in 1871. The rest consists of verse in anything from five to 11 syllables, much of it running freely with the idioms of nursery rhyme, popular song and comic aria. ‘Exercise’ and ‘experiment’ are not the right words to describe the ‘Last Poems’. There is more in the way of coaxing and lying in wait – and singsong conjecture that imagines the shape of a poetic encounter, then wills it to happen.
In his introduction, Mason brushes past the ‘Last Poems’, taking us straight from the summer of 1871, when Rimbaud composed ‘Le Bateau ivre’, shortly before joining Verlaine in Paris, to the summer of 1873, when he finalised A Season in Hell, his prose renunciation of that relationship, of his own life so far, and of his poetry. In A Season in Hell, he quotes a handful of his own verses, badly remembered and therefore dishevelled, dragging them before the bench in order to mock them. All of the offending items date from this brief period, when – in the disabused words of their creator – ‘I expressed myself as ridiculously and strangely as possible.’ And all are among the best work he wrote. You’d expect Mason not to feel at home with the ‘Last Poems’ – they’ve shed so much proof of technical earnest – and he makes less of them than Martin Sorrell, who has a good ear for the game, with all its laconic urgency:
We’re your grandparents,
Covered in the cold sweat
Of moon and greenery,
Our dry wines had heart!
Beneath the undeceiving sun
What does man need? To Drink.
To which the poet (‘Moi’) replies: ‘Die in barbarous waves.’
It may be that Mason, with his stern judgments, is Rimbaud’s most loyal executor: Rimbaud, after all, disliked these poems because they had already taken what he called the ‘alchemy of the word’ too far, straying into a domain of beautiful babble and hermetic invocation. As a reader one is free to disagree. The ‘Last Poems’ work because they have abandoned the search for the philosopher’s stone, picked up something more palpable and gone on to wring blood from it. Rimbaud didn’t see it that way.
Michel Murat’s close, scholarly reading of the poems shows how blurred the phases of Rimbaud’s poetic career actually were, and how there were at least two modes on the go at any time. We tend to imagine them in serial evolution, each one signalling a deeper impatience with formal constraint and the whole culminating in the final crisis of silence. But Murat doesn’t believe that a Mallarméan ‘verse crisis’ led Rimbaud inexorably to the final form, that of the prose poem, for the good reason that he detects no signs of ‘crisis’ in the best of the ‘Last Poems’. On the contrary, they’ve hit a vein. And besides, ‘final’ isn’t quite right: Rimbaud was almost certainly running the prose poems, or Illuminations, through his head, and even into drafts, at the same time that he was turning out the ‘last’ verse. And we know that he continued work on the Illuminations after 1873, despite all the disavowals of A Season in Hell. In a roundabout way the opening section of A Season seems to admit their existence as unfinished business – a handful of ‘shabby deeds’ still mysteriously pending.
The Illuminations, when they emerged in 1886, would make greater demands on the reader than anything in the verse. To some, including Mason, they are the great achievement; to others the point at which the work levels off into an order of difficulty that is not worth the unravelling. They remain the basis of a plausible English Rimbaud, though this is not a connection that matters to all his English-speaking devotees. It did to Rickword, and probably Britten (courtesy of Auden); Enid Starkie, too. But most, including the Beats, Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk, Jim Morrison and Patti Smith, took Rimbaud to be a key French import for the prosperity of imaginative dissent in their own culture, and in some cases as a fashion accessory. Easy to sneer at them, but no bad thing to bear in mind that London was the making of some of Rimbaud’s best poems in prose.
In the spring of 1874, Rimbaud returned to the city he had discovered with Verlaine a year and a half earlier, and found rooms in Waterloo with the young poet Germain Nouveau, who helped him copy out some of the Illuminations. Nouveau drained the last of a legacy and headed back to Paris. Rimbaud had not stinted on Verlaine’s money, and he probably helped with the dispatch of Nouveau’s little windfall, although as Steinmetz says, there was more to the relationship than that: no one was closer than Nouveau to the improvised Londoner during the closing stages of his life as a poet, finalising those ‘shabby deeds’, just as he always seemed to be finalising everything.
It may have been around this time that Rimbaud made the well-known entry in his notebook of handy English phrases:
Pigeons: homing – working – fantails
pearl-eyed tumbler –
shortfaced – performing tumblers
trumpeters – squeakers
blue, red turbits – Jacobins
baldpates – pearl eyes, – tumbles
high flying performing tumblers
splashed – rough legged
over thirty tail feathers
In his voluminous biography, Jean-Jacques Lefrère wonders whether Rimbaud wasn’t reporting from England on cattle shows, agricultural fairs and pigeon-fancying conventions for American newspapers. Apparently, Verlaine had written from London for a paper in the US in 1872. The idea is intriguing. But it doesn’t tumble well, once we compare the lists that Rimbaud would draw up later in his letters home from Africa, requesting anything from theodolites and aneroid barometers to ‘a compendium of all the sciences required by the explorer, in topography, mineralogy, hydrography, natural history etc’. Something about the compilation of eccentric English words and expressions (493 in all, according to the scurrying Lefrère) anticipates the dreams of the expatriate ex-poet and speaks more convincingly of a grand monomania than of modest dispatches for the livestock columns of a local paper in Louisiana.
By December 1874, London had been thoroughly culled and Rimbaud was back at the family home in the Ardennes. In 1875, Verlaine was released from jail in Belgium, where he had served 18 months for shooting Rimbaud in the wrist. He tracked down his peripatetic friend in Stuttgart. Before they parted for the last time, Rimbaud handed him a manuscript sheaf of Illuminations. There were some final, fleeting moments in England the following year. By then, the poetry thing was done, if not dusted, and Rimbaud was set on another course. He enrolled in the Dutch Colonial Army, and was drafted to the Malay archipelago. Not long afterwards, he deserted in Java and worked his way back to Europe. It took him nearly four months, and he passed briefly through Liverpool before pitching up again in the Ardennes.
The Illuminations contain many elements transfigured from London:
The grouping of buildings into squares, enclosed courtyards and terraces has displaced the cabmen. The parks exemplify primitive nature shaped with marvellous art. The better district of the town has inexplicable details: an arm of the sea, empty of boats, unfolds its gauze sheet of blue hail between quays stacked with giant candelabra. A short bridge leads to a postern right underneath the dome of the Sainte-Chapelle. This dome is an armature of artistically worked steel some fifteen thousand feet in diameter.
This passage is from ‘Cities [I]’, one of the so-called ‘urban’ Illuminations that conceive of the metropolis in ways that were proper to London in the 1870s, a teeming, futuristic heart of empire, all grandeur and abjection, progress and poverty, and quite unlike Paris or Brussels at the time. Where Starkie sees ‘the West End, with its squares and terraces’ in ‘Cities [I]’, Jean-Luc Steinmetz tells us that Rimbaud was keen to show Nouveau the Crystal Palace – ‘the virtual-reality dome’, as Graham Robb calls it. And there, perhaps, is the source of the fantastical dome of the Sainte-Chapelle in the poem, vastly oversized and raised on a massive modern metal frame.
‘Cities [I]’ was copied out by Nouveau, not Rimbaud, and in the sensational city it founds, the ‘underlings’ of the ministries, once glimpsed, are described as being prouder than something illegible. Mostly they’re thought to be ‘prouder than Brahmins’ – ‘brahmanes’ in French – but it’s only an informed guess. In his parallel text translation of 1966, Wallace Fowlie had ‘brahmanes’ in the French and stuck in an ellipsis in his English version – somehow the worst of both worlds, like a shotgun wedding where the groom doesn’t turn up. The authoritative André Guyaux, who prepared an edition of Illuminations in 1985 and is now revising the Pléiade Rimbaud, has announced a ‘correct reading’, which he gives as ‘Brahmas’. It’s hard to see clearly because it overscores the word ‘nababs’ (‘nabobs’); the change was made, he believes, because nabobs appear further down the poem, in a context that wouldn’t have squared with the earlier one: ‘the snow on the streets has been trampled; a handful of nabobs, as rare as a Sunday-morning stroller in London, make their way towards a carriage of diamonds.’ In any case, this is the magical city – give or take a nabob – steeped in exoticism: trampled snow and Oriental splendour, flickering, Lefrère hints, with the spectral trace of a visit to London by the Shah of Persia in 1873.
The translations above are by Martin Sorrell, whose Collected Poems is a proper Rimbaud in English. Things are clearer as a result. In the marvellous ‘A la musique’, for example, soldiers dawdle in the square of a provincial town, ‘fumant des roses’. In Fowlie, they are ‘sucking on roses’, but in Sorrell, who has gone to the trouble, they are ‘smoking standard-issue cigarettes’. (‘Roses’, according to Steinmetz, were cheap cigarettes named after the colour of the pack.) It’s a relief to have Rimbaud de-Surrealised in this way – and translations that do not add oddity to the strangeness of the originals. Sorrell rightly praises earlier translators for paving his way, but both he and Mason are pathbreakers. Mason’s claim to be a ‘Rimbaud Complete’ rests, among other things, on his bold attempts at Rimbaud’s schoolboy verses in Latin and a tricky piece of Latin prose composition. Sorrell sticks to the French. His success has earned him the right to a few quiet thrills on the side. He renders ‘Le Bateau ivre’, composed, for all its wildness, in alexandrines, into fluent English lines of ten syllables.
Steinmetz’s biography originally appeared in 1991 as Arthur Rimbaud: une question de présence. It is a ‘Continental’ take on Rimbaud, at odds with Anglo-Saxon notions of a Life, and hits the documentary trail with less of a debunking air than the best modern biographies, such as Robb’s. Long passages are written in the present tense to let the narrative keep up with the ‘urgency’ of the ‘promeneux’, an Ardennais term for ‘walker’. This is an important signal about Rimbaud’s restlessness, and his way of getting about. Few people who were not in thrall to war, hunger or marathon sports can have walked as many miles as Rimbaud did. After touring with a travelling circus in 1877 (probably as a cashier), he walked much of the way from the Ardennes to Marseille and the following year from the Ardennes to Genoa, where he boarded for Alexandria. Once he was established in Harar, after two spells in Cyprus and a stint in Aden, he took to riding, but was soon walking long distances again. (The habit continued until the onset of a violent pain in his right knee, which took hold in 1891, and foreshadowed his death at the end of the year.)
Steinmetz is never far behind in his search for ‘a probable Rimbaud’ – ‘an intimate companion of the real Rimbaud’ who he thinks is unknowable, though he speculates well. When Rimbaud tells his friend Ernest Delahaye in 1879 that he is no longer interested in literature, Steinmetz wonders: ‘Did Rimbaud mean to say, with his usual terseness, that literature had become powerless in the modern world and wasn’t worth the trouble?’ The question leads on, later in the book, to another: what is meant by the much quoted injunction near the end of A Season in Hell, ‘One must be absolutely modern’? Generally it’s taken to mean that one should avoid doubling back into the wash of one’s personal history when it’s better to press on; and that one mustn’t fall into the arms of religion after the rout of hope. Steinmetz, ingeniously, also hears it as a call to the ends of the earth. ‘The truly modern man,’ he remarks elsewhere, ‘is the merchant, the engineer, full of youthful energy, who heads for parts of the world where gold and silver are plentiful, and changing hands.’ In this sense, Rimbaud the adventurer is the modern man of late 19th-century fiction – a contemporary of Paul Montague and a predecessor of Charles Gould. The ‘delinquents, vagabonds’ and ‘mercenaries’ with whom he signs up to fight for the Dutch are another, brutal expression of this modernity: ‘true “moderns”’, Steinmetz suspects, among whom Rimbaud can pass incognito, in a world where his name ‘means nothing to anybody’. Later, as the values of the progressive bourgeois that he once mocked in a poem to Théodore de Banville take root, he is impelled by ‘the idea of amassing a personal fortune, as if to prove that this, at least, was not beyond his capacities’. And, as though we should have known it all the time, Steinmetz tosses in a premonitory line from ‘Bad Blood’ (A Season in Hell): ‘I shall have gold.’
Fleeing the mother tongue is another Steinmetz theme. In secondary school Rimbaud was famously good at Latin verse composition; six or seven years later his English was coming along nicely, with its tumblers, trumpeters and squeakers; the Illuminations are sown with interesting anglicisms; he was happily mastering German while he was in Stuttgart in 1875 (he was lured away by impatience, the road, the thud-thud of his urgings to get out of Europe); after his arrival in Aden five years later and his transfer to Harar, he became proficient in Arabic and Amharic. We know, too, that as a poet, between the ages of 17 and 21, he had hoped to effect a radical transformation of language and, by extension, the world. Steinmetz fixes the psychological consequences of all this briefly, and superbly, in 1880, as Rimbaud is obliged to leave Cyprus after a row with an employer, or possibly a fatal attack on one of his workers. The choice is now between returning to the Ardennes or pressing on past Suez. In Steinmetz’s view, any anxieties Rimbaud may have had about the second option were calmed by the thought of being a long way from the family home, ‘far from France and far, quite plainly, from his native tongue. He was soothed, I’m convinced, by no longer hearing the drone of French . . . in his ears. It meant he was no longer guilty of poetry.’
From the botched epigraph onwards, Jon Graham’s translation serves Steinmetz very badly. The English is often poor and sometimes terrible; on occasion a Google translation might have done better. The result is a huge disappointment. (I lob this boulder from the glasshouse, having made some comical mistakes in a piece about Rimbaud for the LRB a few years ago to which a handful may well be added here. Still, the carping has to be done in defence of Steinmetz, who is made to seem a chump in this edition.) An honourable publisher would revise Graham’s version, engaging someone with a passing interest in poetry – someone who could cope with the French word ‘vers’, for instance, so that Verlaine no longer refers to the ‘Voyelles’ sonnet as ‘14 of the most beautiful verses in any language’.
Which leaves Graham Robb, surely now the standard biography in English, and something of an anglicisation itself, though it reverses the trend of Anglo-American Rimbauldianism by whipping off the poet’s beret and stamping on his string of onions. Deflating his quintessence of Frenchness is achieved by turning the first part of Rimbaud’s life into a universal developmental parable about unhappy families, ambition, genius and the rise of the strategic planner from the ashes of the promising schoolboy. Rimbaud is devious, miserable, too clever by half, from his early start as a dab-hand imitator to his final jokey verses in a letter to Delahaye in 1875. He is both a deracinated Frenchman and a composite English anti-establishment figure, part Artful Dodger, part Joe Orton. At the same time, he is brought utterly to life in a way that fallen angels can never be, because they are finally a little dull. The result is superb, vivid, and possibly true. One gasps at Rimbaud’s militant genius and the purity of his malice. One feels the filth in his fingernails. This is in many ways the full-dress portrait of the young man so brilliantly sketched by Christopher Hampton in Total Eclipse.
The exotic otherness of Rimbaud to his Anglo-Saxon readers is indissociable from myths about French Revolutionary violence, the Paris Commune, Continental sexual mores, French art, French bohemianism, Parisian chic and counter-chic: Frenchness, in other words, as the epitome of difference, and Rimbaud as the epitome of the epitome. But Robb won’t buy that. To do away with the tailor-made poète maudit and his native country at a stroke, as Robb’s book does, is a great achievement. What of its dangers? Losing a grip on France is not one of them. Robb’s France is real, wallowing miserably in the last years – the ‘liberalisation’ phase – of the Second Empire, which turned the nation into a gloomy building site run by an overweight nonentity whom no one, bar Joseph Conrad, seems to have admired. The arrival of Robb’s Rimbaud in Paris, in the aftermath of the war with Prussia and the suppression of the Commune, is so shocking to the remnants of chaise-longue bohemia that they turn against him with a condescending shudder. He can only make common cause with the lowest, sub-groupuscule dregs of the Communard intelligentsia, too haywire to have been dangerous and driven into exile.
Robb is a dazzling writer, far too knowing to be duped by a call to arms (‘there was something quite studious about Rimbaud’s anarchism’ etc), and one memorable formulation follows another. Baudelaire is the ‘adulte terrible of French letters’; Rimbaud’s ‘Voyelles’ and ‘Le Bateau ivre’ are ‘pinnacles of his career, rising over a vast pilgrim city of critical commentary’; A Season in Hell was written by ‘someone who was feeling happily posthumous’; ‘Rome’ – on Rimbaud’s phased withdrawal from poetry – ‘was not demolished in a day’; and again: ‘In the face of venerable mysteries like Rimbaud’s “silence”, it is sometimes useful . . . to reformulate the question: not “Why did he stop writing poetry?” but “Why did he keep taking it up?”’ An exaggeration, but a useful one. And so on for page after page. This is a tour de force, and at the same time serious, careful, serene as it goes for the kill, cold in its dispensations.
In Robb, the African Rimbaud is a successful profiteer and a conniver in slaving. He is grossly money-minded and here, too, his ambitions course ahead of him (‘I will have gold’). Above all, and controversially, Robb considers his arms-deal in Abyssinia to have been an outstanding success, landing him with a 225 per cent net profit – a far cry from the description of his undoing at the hands of King Menelik and his Amhara notables by Charles Nicholl in Somebody Else. Robb makes a good case, which serves a respectable purpose: he doesn’t want the later Rimbaud to look like a victim of anything or anyone, except himself, and this seems thoroughly right. He fell victim, in the end, to physical pain and despair: the fiery agony in his leg, his terrible journey down from Harar, the amputation in Marseille, followed by metastasised cancer and paralysis, yet all of this lasted less than a year.
It is also reasonable of Robb, on arraigning Rimbaud, to have him empty his pockets, but it’s only fair to return some of his personal effects as the inquiry draws to an end. We shouldn’t confiscate the element of adversity in Rimbaud’s life and turn it into a fabulous megalomania simply because it was so often of his own making. True, Rimbaud was not always unhappy. Robb describes the man of composure (provisional composure) in Africa very clearly – but he also explains how money and ambition niggled away at him, in the form of tricky deals, and impossible projects, and how hard done by he felt. An unjustifiable feeling, perhaps, but real for all that.
Then there’s the bigger issue of his other-worldliness, not to be confused with incompetence (Verlaine was incompetent and in the end rather worldly; Rimbaud was neither). To make a fortune in Amhara country, as Robb believes he did, on the sale of old firearms, is not necessarily to be a man of the world. The project was as crazy as his earlier enterprises: becoming a seer, setting up a peripatetic poetry workshop with Verlaine, trying too often to walk to the edge of Europe in order to leave it, and driving his poetry into an attractive impasse – Illuminations – of which Robb has such a sensible (yet debatable) distrust. Steinmetz, in Jon Graham’s English, may sound like a pig in a mudhole, but he is just as lucid as Robb when he identifies Rimbaud’s need to make a fortune chiefly as the wish to recover from poetry – he’d trashed his youth on it, after all – and to show that he was good for something in the world. The eerie pertinacity of this wish, which could never be satisfied, meant that Rimbaud had to go to physical and geographical extremes before the unfulfilled ambition and the man it held in thrall could reach the working compromise that Robb describes in Harar.
He writes beautifully about the tiny expat scene in the city raised above the Ogaden, of how convivial yet quietly misanthropic Rimbaud was. He is funny and painstaking about Rimbaud’s business improprieties. But one misses the oddball trader, surrounded by the knick-knacks in his compound, pottering like a dangerous crone in an African fable, still toying with the dark arts of self-transformation, long after the magical make-over of the world through language has been junked. This is Rimbaud’s not quite human side. It completes the picture of the disingenuous ne’er-do-well that Robb draws so magnificently – and with such hard-headed affection.