SOMEBODY ELSE by Charles Nicholl


Arthur Rimbaud in Africa 1880-91
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Nicholl fuses the genres of biography and travelogue to tell an emotional story of Arthur Rimbaud’s ten years in Africa, unveiling the mystery of the leading French symbolist’s post-poetry period. Rimbaud gained world renown for his symbolist verse and for a brief but tumultuous homosexual relationship with Paul Verlaine, who left his family to join the teenage Rimbaud (only to shoot him after the younger poet jilted him). However, the man who was hailed as the founder of a new poetic movement dismissed his own talent as an adolescent hobby. He stopped writing verse at age 21 and from then on sought to erase his bohemian past. Rimbaud’s vagabond instinct led him to the exotic East, and he arrived in Aden in 1880, after short sojourns in Java and Cyprus. For the next decade, he would shuttle ceaselessly between modern-day Yemen, Ethiopia, and Egypt, trading in coffee, skins, guns, and even, according to some less than reliable accounts, slaves. Tireless despite his volatile health, driven by a spirit of adventure, Rimbaud walked hundreds of miles at the head of trading caravans through dangerous lands. He found his calling exploring uncharted territories and learning the language, religion, and culture of local peoples. His expertise was acknowledged when the French Geographical Society deemed his commercial and geographical report on East Africa worthy of publication. Drawing on Rimbaud’s massive correspondence, Nicholl portrays him as always on the run, physically and psychologically, ever in search of new experiences but never attaining happiness. An enormous, cancerous swelling of the knee finally forced him to return to France. Nicholl’s narrative culminates in a powerful description of the agony Rimbaud endured between the amputation of his right leg and his death a few months later. Rimbaud is a fascinating personality, but Nicholl’s (The Creature in the Map: A Journey to El Dorado, 1996, etc.) account offers more: poetry, historical documents, and personal impressions unite in a general statement about human ambition and limitations. (38 b&w illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: May 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-226-58029-6
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1999


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