‘Meticulous retracing of Rimbaud, a poet in motion’ | TWA 7 Apr 2012

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Rev. of Rimbaud in Java: The Lost Voyage, By Jamie James, Editions Didier Millet, 136pp

The Weekend Australian 7 Apr 2012

IN 1876, the 21-year-old enfant terrible of French poetry, Arthur Rimbaud, signed on as a fusilier in the Dutch Colonial Army and set sail for Java, without so much as an adieu to friends or family.

Five months later, bearded, tanned and rheumatic, he reappeared on his mother’s snowbound doorstep in Ardennes. Of this, his first voyage outside Europe and the apogee of his itinerant life (during which he later claimed to have visited “Palmerston”, now Darwin), no first-hand accounts survive: he kept no correspondence and had already abandoned the art form on which he had made such an indelible impression only a few years earlier.

Few poets’ biographies are as enigmatic, or as riddled with contradiction, as that of Rimbaud. A formidably precocious poet with an unnervingly blue-eyed stare, the thickly accented youth from northeastern rural France wrenched the muse from the polite sphere of the bourgeois drawing room and on to the soiled streets of industrial Europe, scandalising literary Paris in the process with his impetuousity, his scatalogical proclivities, and his torrid and very public affair with the older poet Paul Verlaine – and all before his 20th birthday. Then, in one of the most comprehensive volte-faces in modern literary history, the disillusioned prodigy renounced his art, to eke out his final decade as a trader and gun-runner on the Horn of Africa before his death at 37.

An account of Rimbaud’s voyage to Java is a tantalising prospect, for it marks the threshold between the death of his artistic persona and his subsequent reincarnation as a profoundly unpoetic capitalistic Crusoe. Yet the episode has received relatively short shrift from biographers. Graham Robb’s 445-page biography, Rimbaud (2000), glosses the trip in eight pages, substantially more than the two sentences granted the subject in Edmund White’s Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel (2009).

Enter Jamie James, former art critic for The New Yorker, travel writer, novelist and devoted Rimbaudian. In 1999, James moved to Indonesia, where he still lives, and for years entertained the idea of writing a novel about Rimbaud’s Javanese soujourn. He obsessively retraced the poet’s “known footsteps to the vanishing point”, from Jakarta to Semarang, Tuntang and Salatiga. There, the trail goes cold; Rimbaud was reported missing from barracks soon after his arrival and nothing is known of his whereabouts until his reappearance in France several months later.

With all the ingredients for a part-Conradian escapade in colonial Southeast Asia, part-Joycean portrait of the ancien artiste as a young man, the material seemed to promise substantial grist for James’s novelistic mill. In the same vein, one thinks of David Malouf’s resplendent rendition of Ovid’s exile from Rome in An Imaginary Life (1978); Penelope Fitzgerald’s gem, The Blue Flower (1995), based on the German romantic poet-philosopher Novalis’s doomed engagement to the 13-year-old Sophie von Kuhn; and, more recently, Adam Foulds’s Booker-shortlisted weaving of the lives of John Clare and Alfred Tennyson in The Quickening Maze (2009).

But as James explains with refreshing candour, he was ultimately stymied by the prospect of fictionalising the exploits of such a manifestly elusive figure. Rimbaud in Java is an elegant work of literary nonfiction, “an act of enthusiasm” first and foremost, that might best be called an extended literary essay (in the French sense of essayer, to attempt) in three parts. Printed on high-grade paper and bearing an Areca nut-coloured cover, the slim volume is replete with colour inserts and period illustrations.

James meticulously retraces the known details of the poet’s voyage aboard the Prins van Oranje from the boisterous Dutch port of Harderwijk, through the Pillars of Hercules to the Suez Canal (where he first encountered the African coast to which he would return), and from there to Batavia, the heaving colonial capital of Java. Here, James’s knack for local colour comes to the fore, as we are pitched into the bustle of one of the great cosmopolitan cities of the period. One hears the soldiers’ tram rattling through Old Batavian Chinatown, “where red-tiled shophouses flanked a network of narrow canals, their stucco walls marbled with black mildew and furred by patches of bright green moss”.

In addition to the usual kit of the assiduous biographer (from shipping logs to army manuals), James draws on an array of historical and literary sources, newspapers, popular travel magazines, memoirs and fictional accounts, to vividly re-create the atmospherics of late 19th-century Java. His richly suggestive descriptions bear the trace of his novelistic imagination: “Did he stain his skin with a potion of rhododendron leaves and the inky juice of the katiting tree and dress himself in rags to pass as a native? . . . Did he hide in a limestone cave eating beetles newly named by Alfred Russel Wallace?” or fall in “with one of the itinerant photographers who were travelling throughout Java at the time”?

The book’s final section examines the role of the Orient in the French literary imagination, locating Rimbaud in a tradition stretching from Antoine Galland’s 1701 translation of The Arabian Nights, via works by Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert and Rimbaud’s hero, Charles Baudelaire, to Leconte de Lisle’s experiments with the pantoum, a Malay-derived verse form. In this, James follows Edward Said’s dissection of orientalism as “almost a European invention”, shedding light on the likely allure of the island for the vagabond poet.

“Almost any biographer can give us much more than another fact to add to our collection,” observed Virginia Woolf. “He can give us the creative fact; the fertile fact; the fact that suggests and engenders.”

Such is James’s realm and, though his subject remains frustratingly elusive, his awareness of the necessity of this fact makes the process a fertile one. As he writes, it is impossible to know “what this utterly original and unpredictable artist did in a place that was totally alien to him. Perhaps he did go to Australia: the fascination, as ever, is inextricable from the not knowing.”

Rimbaud in Java: The Lost Voyage
By Jamie James
Editions Didier Millet, 136pp, $19.95

Jaya Savige is The Australian’s poetry editor.

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