I Was Somebody Else


Our Correspondents

JetaisIts authorship mistakenly attributed to its copy editor and issued in a single edition of five hundred by a suburban publisher of quickie romances, the posthumous memoirs of the celebrated French poet Jean Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1933) must count among the more obscure byways of literary marginalia.

Having faked his death in 1891 to escape mounting debts and increasingly credible threats of violence from rival traders in the Gulf of Aden, Rimbaud lay low for more than four decades. While his former friends and colleagues were elevating his poetic works and mysterious youth into a cult, he kept his distance. He stayed busy, variously occupied as a beachcomber on the Côte d’Azur, a croupier at Monte Carlo, a phony “fakir” in a traveling carnival, a roving photographer with donkey on the Belgian coast, a promoter of spurious miracle sites in the Borinage, and finally twenty years as “Beauraind,” an intermittently successful music-hall ventriloquist. 

He lavishes many pages on his dummy, Hugo, with whom he seems to have enjoyed the most intimate and rewarding relationship of his life. Together they traveled incessantly, from the North Sea to the Mediterranean and from the Rhineland to the Bay of Biscay, lodging in rooming houses and train-station hotels, sharing—he would have us believe—meager breakfasts and suppers of coffee and rolls, surviving the war and the thieving practices of theater managers. It did not always go well for them. 

It seems that Hugo was given to making Delphic pronouncements of his own accord, without consulting his nominal master, and that these mystified and sometimes enraged audiences. While Beauraind would be trying to contrive some lighthearted, crowd-pleasing patter about the weather or local politics, Hugo would seize the occasion to rant, going on for marathon bravura stretches about the abolition of property or the erotic powers of the big toe or the unknown crevices of the human mind or the revelatory capacities of ergot poisoning. He might deliver a speech made up entirely of brand names or discontinuous movie dialogue or even lapse into pure glossolalia, making noises that sounded like machine parts or frog choruses or unknown languages. When this happened, Beauraind would drink a glass of water or whistle a tune, hoping to redirect the crowd’s attention to his own apparent virtuosity. 

Theater managers were less than charmed by these outbursts. Frequently the pair were booted out into the street, denied payments owed, forced to pilfer from church poor boxes into order to survive. Occasionally it did happen that audiences—usually students or striking laborers—would appreciate a performance, applaud vigorously, and call the two back for an encore. Hugo would then, with unfailing perversity, play the fool, and Beauraind would be forced to improvise for the both of them. He writes that on such occasions “my mind would be bleached of inspiration, and all I could summon up was some idiot wordplay about the length of women’s skirts.” Then the crowd would hiss, the manager would threaten to cancel their remaining dates, and ventriloquist and dummy would bicker until dawn.

But they soon made up again. Theirs was, if not exactly a marriage of true minds, at least a union based on profound mutual dependency. Here and there the author waxes candid about the loss of his muse, his years of despondent wandering, his inability to confront the much-touted brilliance of his younger days. When he spotted Hugo in a pawnshop in Lille in 1911, though, something happened. He is unable to account for the “electric charge” he received when he picked up the wood-and-cloth dummy. He held in his hands the genius of poetry itself. The dummy was somehow him, and at the same time something profoundly alien. Those outbursts were murder, commercially, but they were balm to his ruined soul. He wishes he could have transcribed those rants, but memory dissipated when they left the stage, and Hugo never repeated himself.

The end, when it came, was brutal. They were traveling, as was their wont, illicitly, clinging to the rear platform of a train, hoping to make it to the south for carnival season, when the engine stopped to take on water. Just then a giant eagle swooped down, seized “that beloved face” in its talons, and flew away in the direction of the setting sun. At the close of the book the former poet is wandering around an unspecified provincial town, wearing dark glasses to hide his grief, unable to stop his hands from manipulating that absent jaw.

Luc Sante’s most recent book is The Other ParisHe is one of the Daily’s correspondents, reviving his blog on pictures, Pinakothek. Luc was interviewed in our Spring issue. (He contributed the portfolio, too.)