A Season in Abyssinia: An impersonation of Arthur Rimbaud
Rimbaud as depicted by Henri Fantin-Latour in his ‘The Corner of the Table’ (1872)
By Paul Strathern
Now in Finds paperback and ebook
It’s the only true story I know of in which adolescent bookishness attains the apogee of cool. The date is November 15 1869, and the pupils of the Collège de Charleville are arraigned in sulky lines as they undertake their regional concours académiques. The examination began at six in the morning, now it is nine – and yet one candidate has had his head on his desk, soundly asleep, for all that time. When at last he stirs, it’s to demand some bread and butter. Once that is scoffed, the boy wipes his mouth on his sleeve, takes up his pen, and reels out eighty lines of immaculate Latin verse on the theme of the Numidian king Jugurtha. It’s the prizewinning effort of the day: the school’s honour is saved. But Monsieur Perette, the third-year master, looks sourly upon the boy and his precocity: ‘As intelligent as you like, but he will end badly…’
Does literary history have a finer legend to offer than that of Arthur Rimbaud? I doubt it. When you compound all the elements it really makes for the rarest gold. For a writer to have been a true enfant terrible, hallowed by the surly glamour of rebellion, is a powerful thing in itself – but to have also been a true literary innovator, a founding figure in modern European poetry, is to transcend mere image and attain greatness. But now, think on this: Rimbaud composed all of his major poems between 1870 (when he was 15-16) and 1874 (when he turned 20.) And that’s still not the kicker. Because, remember – having done that work, having earned that place in the pantheon, Rimbaud then turned his face away from it, and never once looked back.
Thus did the editors of his Pléiade edition write of ‘the slim and flashing work which, at the end of the nineteenth century, Arthur Rimbaud left to us with a kind of disdain, and without having taken the trouble to publish almost any of it.’ Enid Starkie, his first biographer in English, wrote that by the time he was 33 – living in Harar, Abyssinia, and scraping a living as a commercial trader – Rimbaud ‘had no curiosity about the fate and the success of his writings, which were appearing in Paris as the work of ‘the late Arthur Rimbaud’…’
Rimbaud had voyaged to Harar as the representative of an Aden-based coffee trader named Alfred Bardey, and was among the very first Europeans to show his face there. He immersed himself in the crude commerce of the town, utterly effacing his creative persona. All the while, back in Paris, his reputation grew, through his appearance in Poètes maudits (1884) and the publication of his Les Illuminations two years later. In Abyssinia, though, Rimbaud recoiled from any identification as a literary man. His employer Bardey was genuinely curious to find out exactly whom he had hired, but Rimbaud just didn’t want to go there. He would admit to Bardey that he had known ‘writers, artists and so on in the Latin Quarter’ but had very quickly come to feel that he had ‘seen enough of those birds.’
This is the Rimbaud we find conjured into life by Paul Strathern’s A Season in Abyssinia: An Impersonation of Arthur Rimbaud. It was Strathern’s second novel, first published in 1972, and it won the Somerset Maugham Award for its year. Faber Finds is very proud to be reissuing it in paperback and ebook: it is a brilliant work, richly evocative of the colour, squalor and hurlyburly of Harar and inspired in its rendering of Rimbaud of a restless, ragged self-overcomer, would-be explorer-imperialist, and genius poet repulsed by his past literary life.
The novel begins in Marseilles in 1891: Rimbaud lies dying in hospital, his mind wandering fitfully – taking him back to Commune-era Paris, to the scandalous life he led with Verlaine, to the difficult relationship he had with his straitlaced mother Vitalie. But, above all, he is transported in his memory to Harar, where he had ventured in 1880 to seek his fortune, having chucking in the disreputable game of writing poetry. Strathern’s Rimbaud, we soon see, is a man desperate to prove his worth in Africa, fearful of failure, driving himself onward against adversity. (He struggles, simultaneously, with desire for native girls and rather guilty feelings about attractions to men.)
Throughout the novel Strathern alternates between the first and third person modes of narration, a gesture to the famous ‘Je est un autre’ (‘I is someone else’) from Rimbaud’s letter to Paul Demeny of May 15 1871. (Rimbaud’s perception of the poetic ‘I’ as a fictional construct, his sense of detachment from his own consciousness (‘I am present at the hatching of my thought’/’J’assiste à l’éclosion de ma pensée’) is perhaps above all else what makes him eternally modern.) I’m pleased to say that Paul Strathern discussed this creative choice and others with me for a new Q&A preface to our Finds edition.
Paul is now best known for such major non-fiction works as The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance (2003), Napoleon in Egypt (2007), Death in Florence: The Medici, Savonarola and the Battle for the Soul of the Renaissance City (2011), and The Spirit of Venice: From Marco Polo to Casanova (2012). But back in the 1960s, as a recent graduate in philosophy from Trinity College, Dublin, he joined the Merchant Navy and travelled widely, and it was this experience that gave him the seed of the idea to imagine Rimbaud’s life as fiction. As he told me:
Rimbaud’s house in Harar from 1888, photo by Ottorino Rosa
During the time I spent in the Merchant Navy, the old tramp steamer I was on sailed the Red Sea, called in at Aden and travelled along the Ethiopian coast – all very much the ground Rimbaud covered when he gave up poetry and left France to become a trader. I was there in the early 1960s when Aden was a tacky duty-free port, a flea-bitten outpost of the Empire. But then just over half a century earlier Rimbaud had considered it much the same. Later, I travelled to Ethiopia with my daughter, and we visited Harar… The old city remained virtually unchanged from how it had been in Rimbaud’s time, and even from the time of Sir Richard Burton, who was the first European non-Muslim to stay there in the 1850s… we were shown where Rimbaud had actually lived – a nondescript place with a large dusty courtyard in front of it. A photo of this house, dating from 1888 and featuring a large ostrich, has since been discovered. Peter Porter wrote a poem about the photo, ‘Rimbaud’s Ostrich’, which can be found on the internet.
Paul also travelled down to Djibouti, where there was a Rimbaud Museum of sorts, ‘albeit permanently closed and empty.’ He and his daughter shared a small plane with a dozen or so sacks of qat, the local drug of choice, and on their arrival in Djibouti he got to observe the ritual dissemination of the plane’s bounty around the entire town:
By the time the qat was fully distributed, around noon, everyone was chewing away at their sprig of leaves, and within the hour the entire male population – and some females, so we were told disapprovingly – lay stretched out on beds, or on steps or in doorways, in a pleasant daze. All trade, all activity of any sort, ground to a halt. Rimbaud himself almost certainly partook of this ritual when he was on the coast, and probably when he was in the interior too. He may have given up poetry, but he never gave up drugs.
It’s consoling, perhaps, to think of some part of Rimbaud that remained forever young, though his disapproving schoolmasters may have felt his demise was all of a piece with that adolescent surliness. But by the time of his season in Abyssinia Rimbaud was assuredly all grown up; it might just be that in that arid and hostile bolthole, having evaded a literary world he thought moribund, he nonetheless had nowhere else to go.