On the trail of Rimbaud, `the man with the soles of wind'. Pursuing a poet

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Rimbaud, by Pierre Petitfils. Translated by Alan Sheridan. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia. 388 pp. $34.95. Smara: The Forbidden City, by Michel Vieuchange. New York: The Ecco Press. 276 pp. Paperback $9.50

FEW writers have been as mythicized as Arthur Rimbaud. Symbolists and Surrealists have claimed his poetry; Roman Catholics, mystics, and satanists, his faith; communists and fascists, his philosophy. For Rimbaud's biographer, the challenge is to dispel the myths and arrive at some truth about the life - and both tasks are difficult.

The information we have is contradictory. The information we lack is critical. Rimbaud, at about age 20, having written the poems that would place him among the greatest French poets, apparently abandoned literature, first traveling, then settling in Africa, as trader, explorer, gun-runner. It is the last years - 1874 to 1891 - that make his life a mystery.

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This biography, published in French in 1982, sets straight, insofar as it is possible, the chronological record of Rimbaud's life, drawing on many sources. Petitfils's tendency to recreate scenes, including dialogue (taken, presumably, from memoirs), leaves me uneasy. But clearly his research is meticulous and his information vast.

Easiest to account for are Rimbaud's earlier years. Petitfils shows the brilliant pupil in Charleville; the adolescent rebel, running away from his mother; the young theorist, conceiving the poet as ``seer''; the 17-year-old poet in Paris, shocking the literati with his originality and alienating them with his contempt for their mediocre poems and bourgeois lives. He details the tempestuous relationship with Verlaine, reinterpreting his shooting of Rimbaud in 1873, and though Petitfils doesn't analyze the poetry in any depth, he relates events in the life to the poems.

Between 1875 and 1879 - when he became, as a friend said, ``l'homme aux semelles de vent'' (``the man with the soles of wind'') constantly in motion - Rimbaud is hard to trace. But Petitfils pursues him as he can: into Germany, Italy, the Dutch colonial army, and, repeatedly, back home, where he studied piano and languages and suddenly longed to become an engineer.

In 1880 Rimbaud left France permanently. His last years were spent in the Middle East and Africa, mostly as a trader, and from letters and other sources, Petitfils draws a detailed record of his activities, including his gun-running fiasco. Interestingly, the author shows Rimbaud still writing: He wrote up his explorations, a letter mentions articles sent to Le Figaro and Le Temps. Nonetheless, Petitfils suggests ``an impenetrable wall separated Rimbaud's two lives, the European and the African.'' He returned home only for his final illness, which the author vividly describes.

In amassing so much material, Petitfils has performed a service. Without it, we can't begin to understand Rimbaud. Yet for all its information, the biography fails to illuminate the life.

Partly to blame is the author's limited analysis of his material. Too often he fails to penetrate the surface. This is clear, for instance, in his simplistic treatment of Rimbaud's dominating mother. ``Arthur,'' he says, ``had only one idea in his head: to place the greatest possible distance between himself and her.'' Why then did he return to Charleville time and again? Why, depressed in London in 1874, did he implore her to come? We are given information, but little insight.

But would the most sensitive treatment illuminate Rimbaud's life? We may not have the information we need. ``What do we know actually of his interior life in the latter years?'' asks Henry Miller in his study of Rimbaud. ``Nothing, practically.''

In his letters, Rimbaud describes places, work; requests supplies; states ambitions - to marry, earn money; expresses, as ever, boredom. But he offers no consistent vision of what he is doing. Did he see himself as a man who had renounced poetry? Who had lost faith? Was he striving toward something or floundering? We simply don't know.

Like Rimbaud's poems, his life's message is ambiguous and it is partly their evocative mystery that imbues them with power.

Did Rimbaud, or some personal interpretation of his ``message,'' inspire Michel Vieuchange's pilgrimage to Smara in 1930? It is certainly possible. In his preface to the journal of this nightmare journey, Michel's brother Jean says the young writer's introduction to the works of Rimbaud, Nietzsche, and Whitman preceded the spiritual crisis, the loss of faith that led him - seeking ``some undertaking difficult enough to exercise his whole being, body and soul'' - to fix on Smara: uncharted ruins of an ancient Saharan city, lair of warring Moor tribes, prohibited to Christians.

And surely it is no coincidence that in the desert, having achieved his destination, he had ``a weird dream'' in which ``the most abstruse words of Rimbaud sounded, and I understood them.'' Or that in his dream the French explorer Cailli'e was Rimbaud.

Between the brothers' vision of the journey and the journey itself is a chasm. Conceptually, it was a spiritual pilgrimage that would give their lives significance, complete their youth.

The journal is an account of petty miseries. Michel complains of bleeding feet, delays. Unfamiliar with native language or customs, he comprehends little of what is happening. Absorbed in his mission, he has little regard for his companions. At Smara, he wanders only briefly through the ruins before he is forced to leave.

Michel did not survive his journey, succumbing to dysentery on his return. This journal is not the book he intended to write, nor does it suggest what he would have made of his experience. It contains no striking descriptions, observations, revelations.

Yet ``Smara'' can be read with interest as the record of an obsession, of a spiritual journey whose intent is made sadly explicit at the end. When, on his deathbed, Michel reembraces Catholicism, Jean says: ``I realized that we were to abandon the plane on which we had lived up to that time.''

Clearly, the brothers' ambition was to find a new source of faith. Did Michel, like Rimbaud, hope in some sense to become a ``seer,'' to reach the unknown by the ``derangement of all the senses'' which the journey entailed? Many parallels are suggested. But the difference between the two writers is profound. Each endured a season in hell, but only Rimbaud brought back the gift of fire.

Gail Pool is a free-lance reviewer specializing in travel books.

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