Jamie James knows a thing or two about obsession. "There are thousands of people (we know who we are)," he writes, "who would take a lively interest if a pair of socks turned up in an old chest in Harar that could be proved to have belonged to Arthur Rimbaud." Where's Harar?
You've guessed it: though cognizant of Rimbaud's stature as a forerunner of the Surrealists, the amour fou he shared in his gilded teenage years with the much older, not-pretty-at-all Paul Verlaine, and his part in inspiring Frederick Ashton's bewitching ballet "Illuminations" (to the Benjamin Britten score), I am not one of James's thousands. But as Daniel Mendelsohn's delicious New Yorker review of Bruce Duffy's biography "Disaster Was My God" recently proved, reading about Rimbaud can be great fun. No less was to be expected from Jamie James, whom I edited (full disclosure!) at Connoisseur in the 1980s and whom I count today as a friend. In years past, I have delighted in his account of a visit with Jorge Luis Borges, his exposé of waste at PBS, and his book-length study on the topos of the harmony of the spheres. Since 1999, James has been living in Bali, whence occasional bulletins and curiosa flow, always in his trademark deadpan style, encyclopedically informed, tartly undeceived.
And so it is with "Rimbaud in Java," which James conceived as a novel but retrofitted to nonfiction, recognizing the futility of attempting to project himself into a mind as unfathomable as Rimbaud's. Instead he starts out by serving up just the facts, ma'am, slim pickens as they are. As Rimbaldians (ahem!) know, their idol sailed to Java as a fusilier in the Dutch Colonial Army. The fabled isle was the apogee of his life's journey. No sooner had he arrived, however, than he deserted, leaving a lacuna in his biography that James fills with an imaginative excursus on the Orient in the 19th-century European mind. Sprinklings of sex, pulp fiction, bogus science, and a cameo by Queen Victoria add spice to James's rijsftafel of guilty pleasures. In addition, there are wonderful images, many of them rare, from his private collection, plus generous helpings of Rimbaud's orphic poetry and prose as rendered in James's punctilious English. No, he has no translation for "baou," but then, neither has anyone else. James picks it up, pokes it, and turns it over, but in the end the vocable just sits there, on Rimbaud's page, as inexplicable as his thoughts and images.
Whether "Rimbaud in Java" will win Rimbaud new readers, as JAmes says he hopes, is anybody's guess. I felt no such exploratory urge, honestly. On the other hand, the book may very well inspire readers to dig deeper into the Jamie James bibliography. Next on my list: "The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge."