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book reviews and upcoming releases

 

"Romanticism has never been properly judged. Who was there the judge it? The Critics?"

-Rimbaud, in a letter to Paul Demeny

 

Reviews by D.J. Carlile,

translator & author of the upcoming RIMBAUD: COMPLETE WORKS from Xlibris

 

Arthur Rimbaud: PRESENCE OF AN ENIGMA
by Jean-Luc Steinmetz
Translated from the French by Jon Graham
Welcome Rain: 480 pp 16 pp illustrations $35.00

The life of Rimbaud presents us with a trajectory of relentless motion, a balancing act involving the tension between the I and the Other in the human soul: a shaping of destination rather than a destiny. This life is not divided by a silence—before and after; its borders are fluid, the journey a whirlwind, and the poetry a set of sign-posts at the edge of the vertiginous road.

Jean-Luc Steinmetz has produced what may be the most comprehensive and readable biography of this problematic poet; for, as Delmore Schwartz once said of Rimbaud: "What we have, whether we want it or not, is a complex moment of Western culture, rather than merely an interesting life or interesting kind of poetry." Steinmetz gives us all the famous and infamous events—the repressive childhood, the school and hoodlum years, the Verlaine affair ending in gunshots, the African odyssey, and the grotesque finale where, old before his time, he dies worn-out in a Marseilles hospital bed. All of this resonates in an elegant prose that is richly varied in tone and texture. Regarding the bullet removed from Rimbaud’s wrist after Verlaine’s drunken shooting spree, Steinmetz wryly comments: "What frenzied bidding the sale of this projectile would inspire today if it hadn’t been thrown away like a useless knickknack—which of course it was!"

Nine years after its appearance in French, in Jon Graham’s eloquent translation, we have in English a Rimbaud biography with no particular sexual thesis to promote or socio-psychological axe to grind—a book that shows us the myth in the making, without promoting any one particular interpretation of the subject’s actions. In his preface, Steinmetz expresses that he wanted to avoid imposing "a verifiable image that would add an additional face to the gangster-seer-homosexual-initiate-explorer-totem pole. What is important," he says, "is to note the manner in which Rimbaud created his own legend."

Rimbaud has, after all, come to represent the "teenaged genius" par excellence—composing a body of masterpieces in his teens, then just walking away from it—the "god of adolescence" as Andre Breton dubbed him, "this considerable passer-by" as Mallarme put it, the avatar of rebellion and fecklessness, the godfather of Punk and Beat and Rocknroll; granddaddy of Crane, Cocteau and Eliot, Kerouac and Ginsberg, Patti Smith and Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and The Doors. And it is the rocknroll connection as much as the literary lineage that keeps this perennial teenager up-to-date. He is "always arriving." In 1992 Hector Zazou produced an album of pop/worldbeat settings of Rimbaud’s poetry called SAHARA-BLUE, featuring the likes of John Cale, Lisa Gerrard, Khaled, Anneli Drecker and Bill Laswell among others. Certainly the lyric to many a Doors song is rife with Rimbaldien symbolism, thanks to Morrison’s reading of the poet. Dylan’s 1964 "Chimes of Freedom," with its message of compassion for the "luckless and forsaken"—where the listener, "spellbound and swallowed," stumbles through "a wild cathedral evening"—has much of the lyrical power of Rimbaud’s finest work..

Steinmetz, who edited the 1989 Flammarion Complete Works in French, has given us more than a post-modern deconstruction. He presents an integrated view of the glum-faced child, the angry and icy-eyed adolescent, the "flaky traveller," the gaunt and prematurely grey trader of the African highland, all of them Rimbaud, all of them in a kind of sympathetic motion, an allusive synchronicity of departures and returns. "For Rimbaud the important thing was quite simply to leave. As if it were enough to go away to discover the unknown! Rimbaud will be a travel addict; he confronts the unknown fearlessly, and with a surprising and infectious confidence, never seeing that ‘Death, the old captain’ is often helping to weigh anchor."

The book begins: "I won’t be going to Charleville this time… I went there in search of a man; what I encountered was only a fiction…" Charleville-Mezieres, on the River Meuse in the Ardennes near the Belgian border, is the town where the poet was born and is buried. His name appears on buildings, on street signs, in bars, but there is a curious lack of presence. "It is in fact his absence we feel," Steinmetz explains, "and the reality of Charleville only confirms it in its compliance with an insurmountable distance, with the movement of an impossible confiscation."

Now the town prepares for the celebration of the 150th Anniversary of its most famous native son in 2004; the asphalt streets leading from the town square to the river have been torn up, to be newly paved with "authentic" cobblestones. Gas streetlamps will be installed. The house by the river where the Rimbaud family lived is being restored as a museum; it will contain the personal effects of the poet on display—his famous valise, the articles of clothing, the cutlery, the musical instruments, the mementos and leavings of a life. And even though his bones rest beneath a white marble tombstone in the old cemetery at the end of town, Rimbaud is conspicuous by his absence—except perhaps on chocolate boxes, posters, postcards, and a bronze bust at the railway station that looks like "somebody else."

And what is the power of this poet who seems to call for one "impossible confiscation" after another—biographies, translations, pop albums, museums, anniversaries?—as soon as he is fixed in our sights, he is already moving on, or gone. In a brief passage in the last chapter of Part One, Steinmetz addresses the poet’s staying power. "Rimbaud does not disclose to us the space of an intimate dream as much a reality that has been looked at anew, transmuted, and exacerbated with completely different means than those used by his naturalistic contemporaries. What falls under his eyes becomes the object of an ardent metamorphosis at the end of which reconstructed objects, beings, and landscapes emerge. It testifies to an accelerated sensation and he performs real acts of magic where our eyes only manage to see the common presence of things… He creates while he is describing…" Of Rimbaud’s most famous poem THE DRUNKEN BOAT, Steinmetz comments: "Rimbaud pierces the ‘sky reddening like a wall.’ Here he sees in all clarity ‘what men have thought they saw.’ …The ship, or boat rather, a modern Argo, speaks in oracular verses. Allegory? Without a doubt. It is that of life breaking its moorings and attaining the Great Unknown."

The life has been so mythologized, massaged and misinterpreted—even made into a couple of movies, the latest one starring Leo DiCaprio as the poet –- that the skeptical tone of this book, tempered with its inclusive generosity, seems a breath of fresh air. "We are once more entering a realm of pure hypothesis," Steinmetz writes of the period following A SEASON IN HELL: "Rimbaud's time eludes us. How did he live these days? How did he spend these days at his disposal during which he refused so much? … I like to imagine that…[he] returned to the ILLUMINATIONS but to go even further. He proceeds in a very distinctive manner that consists of not finishing in order to finish. He produces several texts announcing a radical conclusion…" His life, as this book seems to show, was a sequence of unfinished journeys, of repeated "farewell appearances."

This elegant biography is a work of affectionate devotion and unflinching honesty. The subject doesn’t always elicit sympathy or understanding, but the life of Rimbaud fascinates. A volatile and brilliant youth of exceptional gifts, he altered the course of modern literature by exhausting and reinventing the uses of language. His innovations inspired the likes of the Surrealists and Dadaists as well as Joyce, Beckett, and T. S. Eliot. Steinmetz suggests, near the end, that Rimbaud was aware that his work would last, even though he took no care of it. In 1890 in Africa, he received a letter from the editor of La France moderne hailing him as "leader of the Decadent and Symbolist school," and asking him for a contribution. –"…Rimbaud stores away this unexpected letter. A final burst of pride on his part for escaping human stupefaction? Astonishment at the sight of these few ‘marvelocerous’ lines? This simple piece of letterhead at least provides positive proof that he knew everything. What crazy news, people were reading his verse. For one moment, sitting between his cash box and his scales, he embraces the strangeness of his destiny. He is constrained to accept the thread—which escapes him. He sees his ‘other’ taking shape. He sees his double—precursor of his death.. Transformed into the leader of a school … did he have any more reason to live, now that he had already survived himself?" And attention to his process, to his "becoming," will be of compelling interest to those drawn to the "Unknown"—the unknowable mystery of creation, the life that was a search for "the formula" of "true life,"-- a question of presence, the presence of an enigma.

RIMBAUD: A BIOGRAPHY
by Graham Robb
W.W. Norton 455 pp. 16 pp. Illustrations $35.00

British author Graham Robb has penned highly-praised biographies of Balzac and Victor Hugo. His brand-new RIMBAUD reads breezily, is well-researched, and contains many informative maps, charts, tables and quotations-all-in-a-row, yet its tone is captious and condescending. Totem-words and phrases like "brutish little vagrant," "mercenary," and "smutty homosexual terrorist" pop up with deadening frequency. "…Rimbaud, the poet of drug-induced visions, is more often the poet of the morning after…" he says, "…To an outside observer, Rimbaud was simply drowning his genius in alcohol. This may be true, but he was also devising a new life for himself and Verlaine that would help to revolutionize poetry and, eventually, sexual morality…" In this manner, Robb ascribes motives and intentions to particular events, often shifting "evidence" from one episode to another in the manner of a cinematic adapter, to make a picture or tell a story. This is not an entirely honest biographical method, especially with source material being splintered, the fragments fitted into circumstances to make a point—especially if the consideration is a consignment of camels and not human cargo.

On the issue of Rimbaud’s involvement in slave –trading in Africa, he announces, "The file should now be reopened. Although Rimbaud never tried to profit directly from the slave-trade, it is quite clear that no European could do business in Abyssinia without it." He goes on for some few convoluted pages, proving at best that Rimbaud may have been, at least once in 1888 for three or four days, in the same city with a caravan run by a notorious slaver.

In his preface, the author makes a point of discounting the memoirs of the poet’s sister Isabelle and her husband Paterne Berrichon, Rimbaud’s first biographer, calling them unreliable due to their agenda of "cleaning up" the poet’s reputation. But then, later in the body of the work, he cites them as gospel—particularly in the "reverential" story of the cross found carved into the table whereon A SEASON IN HELL was composed. That table is now vanished, along with the rest of the Rimbaud farm at Roche, blown to rubble by the Germans during World War I.

Professor Robb sums up the poet’s early Bad-Boy behavior thus: "Rimbaud now began to consolidate his reputation. With unerring lack of tact, he presented himself as a combination of the two most repulsive characters known to 1870s France: a homosexual and an anarchist." This is conjecture that wrinkles its nose at its own surmise; intentions and outcomes are baldly psychologized. It is more a type of high-toned pop journalism that we get from Robb, an ironic skewering and squaring away of a subject, than the perceptive ordering of events and fluent commentary of Steinmetz with his complement of salient detail.

Robb makes an intriguing connection regarding the poet’s abrupt mid-life silence. "Rimbaud’s abandonment of poetry in his early twenties has caused more lasting, widespread consternation than the break-up of the Beatles…" he informs us,"…Almost every aspect of Rimbaud’s life has been plagued by the search for single causes. If the mystery can be reduced to one solution, it lies in a simple coincidence: Rimbaud stopped writing poems at about the same time that he gave up living with other people." Robb engages us with this idea, but goes no further with it.

Conjectural notions and preconceived points are presented as fait accompli: "…the very act of seeking truth was self-defeating—if enlightenment eludes the conscious mind, how can it be consciously pursued?—[this dilemma] is typical of Rimbaud’s energetic pessimism, his tendency to embark on a project only when failure was guaranteed by the initial conditions." This explication of Rimbaud’s so-called tendency for ‘energetic pessimism’ oversimplifies and denigrates the essentially unknowable by-ways of the poet’s thought and spirit. This tendency of Robb’s to intrude himself judgmentally into the story eventually burdens the reader’s enjoyment. To quote the book’s admonitory final paragraph: "On the ‘cursed, desolate shores ‘ of this century, Rimbaud is still an ambiguous presence—warning his unknown readers of the hell to which ‘derangement’ inevitably leads and showing them exactly how to get there." A bleak picture, to be sure.

And his commentary on the poetry is equally bare and simplistic. Regarding A SEASON IN HELL, he states, "The book which began with a crisis of indecision and lost identity ends with a post-religious affirmation of consciously blind resolve: ‘Slaves, let us not curse life.’"

Enid Starkie’s monumental biography has been the standard text on the poet’s life for over half a century; it is laden with page after page of untranslated French, but it was still the primary English-language biography until now. Jon Graham’s translation gives us a clear view of what Steinmetz has accomplished with his PRESENCE OF AN ENIGMA. This is a thoroughly-researched and finely sifted study that pulses with insight and wit. Steinmetz lays to rest, once and for all, the pernicious business of "Rimbaud the slave-trader," which Starkie was still mistakenly upholding in the 1960 revision of her work and Robb tries to revive; he traded in coffee, animal hides, ivory, and guns—but never slaves. Steinmetz also puts in proper perspective the poet’s readings in alchemy and the kabbalah, which Starkie over-emphasized and Robb chooses to down-play. The love-hate relationship with fellow-poet Verlaine is shown to have dwindled to a conclusion rather than ending dramatically with yet another drunken quarrel in 1875. For those interested in the more hallucinogenic or sexually explicit aspects of the poet’s life, Jeremy Reed’s Delirium: An Interpretation of Rimbaud (City Lights) and Benjamin Ivry’s Arthur Rimbaud (Absolute Press) should satisfy their curiosity. For the final word, however, the Steinmetz book will be the one to read, peruse, and ponder for many a season.

Rimbaud, "the god of adolescence," was a poet wise beyond his years. The image of wisdom is effectively summarized by Hermann Keyserling in his 1929 book THE RECOVERY OF TRUTH: "The Chinese, who know more of wisdom than any other race, designate the wise by the combination of the ideographs for wind and lightning; wise, with them, is not the serene old man bereft of all illusions, but he who, like the wind, rushes headlong and irresistably on his way and cannot be stopped nor laid hold of at any station of his career; who purifies the air in the manner of lightning, and strikes when there is need for it."

 

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