Out of Africa. To his admirers, Rimbaud is the archetypal Romantic poet-adventurer. But was he really a slave-trader, seedy pederast and gun-runner? Will Self on the man behind the myth


Graham Robb <em>Picador, 552pp, £20 </em>

ISBN 0330482823

All biography presents us with the deeply satisfactory plot resolution of death. And gathered together in that apotheosis are the separate strands of approbation and refutation that weave themselves around an individual's brow to form the laurel wreath of posterity. Granted the exceptional sub-genres - dealing respectively with the out-and-out failure and those who never reached their true potential - you can rest assured, on beginning a biography, that the life described in its pages will be resolved into two main components: the inner and the outer; the subject perceived on his own terms, and the subject perceived in the eyes of the world. The job of the biographer, commonly understood, is to take these two tangents and, like some mathematical magus of life's geometry, decide whether they should be inversely or directly correlated; or, indeed, if some further coefficient should be introduced, to explain how the subject's lifeline has been extrapolated since his demise.

Arthur Rimbaud is an entrancing subject for a biographer- mathematician, because his life had an entirely non-Euclidean shape to it. Not only did the poet die, in 1891, at the relatively young age of 37, but he also managed the extraordinary feat of having ceased any poetic production (that we know of) 17 years earlier, at the age of 19. Also, rather than his reputation - as a seer-like precursor of the 20th-century Beats or as a lonely outpost of the 19th-century Romantics - being a posthumous creation, Rimbaud was already in the process of being reconstructed at the time of his death. As the real Rimbaud lay dying in a Marseilles hospital, one leg amputated in the aftermath of a "tubercular infection", one arm withered and useless (although from time to time galvanised by doctors using an electrical apparatus), the Rimbaud doppelganger was already limping spasmodically through the environs of literary Paris.

The day after his death, an edition of Rimbaud's poems with a bowdlerised biographical introduction was seized by the police. This was on the instruction of Rodolphe Darzens, the first of a probably near-infinite series of biographers, of whom Graham Robb is the latest. According to Robb, Darzens had been horrified that Le Reliquaire, as the edition was titled, was prefaced by gossipy remarks that "reinforce Rimbaud's reputation as a brutish little vagrant who made himself at home in the murkiest parts of the human mind". The police failed to net them all, and in their wake came a rash of newspaper pieces about Rimbaud. These variously described him as "a slave trader in Uganda"; or as "having made a complete recovery . . . will be arriving shortly to revise the edition of his works"; or, alternatively, they stated that he was "ruling over a tribe of Negroes in Africa".

In December of that year, Rimbaud's sister Isabelle saw an article in the local newspaper Les Petit Ardennais, ghosted by Ernest Delahaye, an old schoolfriend of the poet, that "made him sound like the exact opposite of a respectable person: a blasphemer, a Communard, an insulter of policemen, a forager in rubbish heaps and a friend of Paul Verlaine". So began Isabelle's career as a biographical revisionist of her brother's life and work. She married one of his earliest biographers, Paterne Berrichon, whom Robb describes as "a wilfully gullible writer . . . who seems to fall asleep halfway through his own meandering sentences". In cahoots with her husband, Isabelle enacted a posthumous rehabilitation of Rimbaud as a dreamy, adolescent poetaster; in terms of sheer, wilful misrepresentation, her actions are on a par with what Elisabeth Nietzsche did to her poor old brother Friedrich.

As Isabelle and Berrichon would have it, Rimbaud had repudiated his "youthful indiscretions" and gone to live in Africa so that he might aid its benighted inhabitants; a kind of precursor to Mother Teresa, "the natives called him the Saint because of his miraculous charity". They doctored his letters home from Africa "to show that 'the Saint' had also amassed a very respectable sum of money". As Robb points out, the biographies and editions produced by the duo "did a great deal of damage, not only by fooling the credulous, but also by convincing sceptics that the truth was simply the opposite of whatever [they] had said". Thus arose the counter-myth of Rimbaud, the superannuated poetic prodigy, as a failed businessman, a slave trader and a seedy colonial pederast.

We all like a highly coloured view of a remarkable individual, so the Rimbaud that comes to us, refracted through the kaleidoscopic lens of those who have preferred to view the life and the work as interfused - as with Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, Jean Cocteau and Allen Ginsberg - is an incredible figure, not least because the notion of a poetic prodigy is so much more alchemic than that of a musical, mathematical or otherwise mnemonical one. Not without reason did Rimbaud refer to his own experimental techniques as "verbal alchemy"; not only did he read widely in such esoteric fields, but also he held to a view of poetry as a kind of proto- scientific technique. As Robb points out, while Rimbaud is often cited for proposing "a rational derangement of all the senses" as part of the curriculum vitae of the seer, all too often, the "rational" is omitted.

Robb disabuses us at the outset that his biography will expose the myths and correct the misapprehensions surrounding Rimbaud's life. In place of any such simple geometry, he proposes that "there are at least as many Rimbauds as there are personae in his work". And yet, with the old canard that Rimbaud operated as a slave trader during his years in Africa still in the current Penguin Classics edition of his work, this biography serves as both a corrective and an interpretive text. Robb examines all the crucial moments in the poet's life: his political activities in the wake of the Paris Commune; his relationship with Verlaine; their sojourn in London (during which, as Robb puts it, they became the "Adam and Eve of the modern homosexual lifestyle"); his circumambulatory relationship to his birthplace at Charleville in the Ardennes (and, by extension, to his domineering mother whom, with exemplary Freudianism, he styled "La Grande Bouche"); and his latter years trading, gun-running and exploring the Horn of Africa.

Robb has a particular hobbyhorse about the relative financial success of Rimbaud's African enterprises - and it is one that he rides well. At least two recent books have tackled the poet's African sojourn, but neither has sought to present quite such a well-rounded portrait of a man who was once an adolescent poetic prodigy, but who simply grew up and became something else. Robb's African Rimbaud is a tough, adventurous Frenchman, teetering on the cusp of postcolonialism. Like his soldier father, Rimbaud (a classics laureate) was an exegetist of the Koran and a respecter of cultural autonomy, while being quite prepared to act - in his capacity as a gun-runner - as an arbitrageur of violence.

Robb says that biographers tend to view their subjects from a parental perspective, bizarrely leapfrogging chronology to place themselves in the position to anticipate foibles and failings. It is the great strength of his own writing that Robb comes across as a peer of Rimbaud, magically transported from the early 21st century back to the late 19th. A felicitous and perceptive writer, Robb convinces us of his metier as a superb biographer-mathematician, possibly the best of his generation.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Women: still firmly in their place