cover image Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa 1880-91

Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa 1880-91

Charles Nicholl / Author University of Chicago Press $20 (352p

As a teenager in Paris, Rimbaud (18541891) thrilled at his initiation into violent sex with poet Paul Verlaine, 10 years his elder. However, on the evidence of his subsequent travels in Africaas documented by Nichollhe fled the fleshpots of Paris and London in revulsion, seeking a life remote in the extreme. Arriving in 1880, after much wandering, in somnolent Aden across the horn of Africa, Rimbaud at age 26 had run away from every aspect of his former self. He had already written his last verseshis decadent masterpiece, A Season in Hell, had been composed at 16. So now I can see, he writes in hopeful resignation, that existence is just a way to use up your life. In tracing the stasis and stagnation of the tropical entropy in which Rimbaud exiled himself as a small trader and gunrunner in Djibouti and Ethiopia, where the culture of bohemia did not intrude, Nicholl creates a minor classic of biography and travel. In the offbeat vein of The Quest for Corvo and Hermit of Peking, the narrative is less about the subject than about the search for documentation, little of which exists. Nicholl evokes the flyspecked, sunbaked miasma of mountain villages and the cursed coast, where the hubbub of the marketplace was all that gave life its interest, and where Rimbaud drove himself relentlessly, intending to use himself up. At age 37 he succeeded. In reconstructing the lost years, Nicholl (The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe) has described, compellingly, a long suicide. 38 b&w photographs. (May) FYI: Somebody Else received the Hawthornden Prize in England in 1998. Benjamin Ivrys Arthur Rimbaud, focusing upon the two-year affair with Verlaine, was reviewed in PW on February 22.