Charles Nicholl, a British journalist, has written a number of works that involve the wedding of adventure with historical investigation. Some of his most critically acclaimed works include THE CHEMICAL THEATRE (1980), THE FRUIT PALACE (1985), BORDERLINES: A JOURNEY IN THAILAND AND BURMA (1988), and THE CREATURE IN THE MAP: A JOURNEY TO EL DORADO (1996). In 1998, SOMEBODY ELSE won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize. Although published in England in 1997, the book was not published in the United States until 1999. While Nicholl spends most of SOMEBODY ELSE reconstructing Rimbaud’s years after he had given up writing poetry, he does use part one, “The Runaway,” to describe the complicated and turbulent life he led while growing up. Out of his alienation from provincial French society, his tortured affair with the poet Paul Verlaine, his desperate need to escape all that was considered rational, Rimbaud wrote what can only be described as revolutionary poetry. Attempting to be true to his own words “One must be absolutely modern,” he became a beacon for many literary trends to come.
Nicholl makes use of Rimbaud’s poetry, historical documents, and personal remembrances in order to flesh out as complete a portrait of Rimbaud as possible. In 1880, Rimbaud left France to become a merchant in Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) and Aden (modern day Yemen). In part two, “The Trader,” part three, “The Gun-Runner,” and part four, “The African,” Nicholl gives the reader a taste for the exotic places that Rimbaud called home by exploring them himself. He also quotes from the letters that Rimbaud wrote to his mother.
Tragically, Rimbaud was forced to return to France in May, 1891. Suffering from intense pain in his right knee, doctors in Marseilles decided that Rimbaud’s right leg had to be amputated. The amputation did not stop the spread of disease and he died on November 10, 1891. Dead at the age of thirty-seven, Rimbaud left an indelible imprint on modern thought.
Nicholl has written a compelling work that adds greatly to one’s understanding of Rimbaud’s struggle to be “somebody else.”