If it seems unlikely that Joseph Conrad and Arthur Rimbaud should have met in Marseilles in June of 1875—then it is. Rimbaud, born October 20, 1854, was three years older than Conrad and had, most likely, by that time already completed the entirety of the literary writing for which he is known. He had been travelling in Italy, to learn the language, and was afflicted with sunstroke while walking between Siena and Leghorn—there was said to be a foot of dust in the road—where he was rescued by the French consul of Livorno, put up for two days at the Stella Hotel, given three francs and twenty centimes and found a berth on steamer heading for France. He disembarked at Marseilles and collapsed again.
While recuperating in the hospital he decided to enlist as a mercenary with the Carlist rebel army, which was trying to install their leader, the pretender Don Carlos, on the Spanish throne. Rimbaud signed up at a recruiting office in Marseilles, received a small amount of money and was given instructions as to how to join his regiment in Spain. The Carlists were about to suffer a series of bloody defeats; wisely, instead of crossing the Pyrenees, Rimbaud went to the railway station and used the money to buy a ticket to Paris; perhaps that had always been his plan. He had been in Marseilles about a week.
Conrad, meanwhile, born December 3, 1857, was not yet eighteen years of age and had just returned from his first trans-Atlantic voyage, from Marseilles to the West Indies and back again, in an ancient leaky barque called the Mont-Blanc. He went as a passenger, apparently, but may have worked the return passage, from St. Pierre in Martinique, as a member of the crew. He already had some experience in pilot boats, bringing ships in and out of the harbour. When the Mont-Blanc again sailed for the Caribbean, only a few weeks later, he went with her as an apprentice seaman. The ship called at St Pierre again, at St Thomas in the Dutch Virgin islands, at Haiti (presumably Port-au-Prince), before sailing for Le Havre with a cargo of sugar and timber. The young Polish sailor took a train back to Marseilles and spent the next six months ashore, doing what we do not know.
So there is just that week in June, 1875, during which the two could have met; it seems unlikely. Some of the time Rimbaud was in hospital; and signing up for the Carlist adventure must have occupied at least another day. The man with the wind at his heels might not have lingered long enough to satisfy hopeful literary speculations. Conrad, presumably, was busy anyway, preparing for his next voyage. But the Carlist connection is interesting because, in later years, Conrad claimed he had helped run guns to the Carlists, from Marseilles onto the Mediterranean coast of Spain, in a small ship he calls, in his reminiscences, the Tremolino (no ship of that name is known to have been in Marseilles at the time).
A further problem is that he locates this activity in 1877, by which point the Carlist cause was irretrievably lost and guns could not have been sold in the manner Conrad says that they were. It is possible, however, that he did take part in some sort of smuggling of contraband (brandy? cigars?) into Spain; but the motive was likely to have been purely commercial and not work in the service of some noble, if doomed, cause. It’s possible too that he did help run guns, not into Spain but into Colombia, or else one of the Central American republics, during his next voyage to the Caribbean: in a newer, smarter barque, the Saint-Antoine, in which he sailed as Steward between July 1876 and February 1877.
The Saint-Antoine visited Cartagena in Colombia and Puerto Cabello and La Guayra in Venezuela, as well as St Pierre, St. Thomas and Haiti; but Conrad recalled, many years later, a voyage in a ship that does not seem to have been either the Mont-Blanc or the Saint-Antoine: ‘an extremely small and extremely dirty little schooner, during a four days’ passage between two places in the Gulf of Mexico whose names don’t matter.’ Was this the gun-running expedition? Some people think so. Mind you, if it was indeed in the Gulf, rather than the Caribbean, the voyage must have been to, or from, somewhere in Mexico, Cuba or the United States, not Colombia or Central America. Vera Cruz, perhaps. Havana.
The putative Carlist adventure might then have been a conflation of two separate enterprises, one to sell guns to insurgents somewhere in the Americas, the other to sell contraband into Spain. On both adventures Conrad was in the company of the Corsican, Dominique Cervoni, the model for Nostromo, and a much younger man of the same surname who was thought to be, but was not, Dominique’s nephew. It was this man, César, who is alleged to have betrayed the Tremolino on her third and final voyage, causing Dominique to run her aground on the rocks of a Mediterranean island. This may be a fiction. Conrad, like Rimbaud, was a compulsive mythomaniac who nevertheless always attested to the truth of his fabrications. This is of course a common trait in writers.
Rimbaud’s next adventure, the next year, 1876, while Conrad was sailing on the Saint-Antoine, was into the east as a soldier in the Dutch Colonial Army. He enlisted in Brussels and, with a large amount of money in his pocket (300 florins), went by ship from Rotterdam via Southampton, Naples, Suez, Aden and across the Indian Ocean to Batavia on the island of Java. And thence to Samarang, a port the sailor Conrad would, a decade later, come to know. At Salatiga, in the hill country behind Samarang, where his battalion had gone for further training, Rimbaud deserted.
No-one knows what he did next (he might have gone to Australia); he said he spent a month ‘wandering through Java’. He can’t have gone very far; he was probably the Edwin Holmes who sailed as a crew member on an English ship, The Wandering Chief, which left Samarang at the end of August, only two weeks after Rimbaud’s desertion, bound for the Irish port of Queenstown. His own gun-running exploits were still in the future.
Meanwhile Conrad had found out that, if he wanted to continue to sail with the French merchant marine, he would have to register with the civic authorities—as a Russian citizen which, much to his disgust, he was. And that would mean that when he turned twenty-one he would become liable for Russian military service: onerous, long-lasting and, for Poles, inconceivably humiliating. This is probably why he joined an English steamer, the Mavis, in Marseilles and ended up, after a voyage across the Black Sea to Yeysk on the Sea of Azov to pick up a cargo of linseed, in Lowestoft, England.
It was June 10, 1878. Rimbaud was about to set out for Africa. He was still there in 1890, when Conrad made his epochal, disastrous excursion, partly on land, partly by water, up the Congo to Stanleyville (Kisangani) in the service of the Société Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo.
So they probably did not meet in person in Marseilles or anywhere else; but their trajectories, though opposite, are startlingly congruent. Rimbaud imagined a life which he then went on to lead; Conrad lived a life which he then went on to imagine. They are like mirrors; or strange attractors. And they certainly met on the page. Or at least, that’s where Conrad met Rimbaud.
On August 27, 1898, writing to his friend, R. B. Cunninghame Graham, Conrad remarked, surely ironically, in a postscript: ‘Can’t understand Rimbaud at all. You overrate my intelligence. Je suis bon qu’a lire Cyrano and such like cogioneries.’ Later, in 1899, he wrote ‘I happen to know Rimbaud’s verses.’ He had just praised an article that appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine in February of that year, called A Vagabond Poet, by Charles Whibley.
The history of the publication of Rimbaud’s writing is convoluted; but a few suppositions might be made. Rimbaud published Une Saison en Enfer himself in 1873 but it did not circulate widely; the entire edition, apart from six author’s copies, remained, unpaid for, with the printer in Brussels. They were worth a franc a copy. Verlaine published an incomplete edition of Les Illuminations in Paris in 1886. In 1895, he edited Rimbaud’s Poésies Complète, published by Léon Vanier, also in Paris. Three years later, in 1898, Oeuvres de Jean-Arthur Rimbaud, edited by Paterne Berrichon and Ernest Delahaye, came out from the Société du Mercure de France.
It was revised and enlarged as Oeuvres de Jean-Arthur Rimbaud: Vers et proses, revues sur les manuscrits originaux et les premières éditions, mises en ordre et annotées and republished by Mercure in 1916. Conrad might have known any or all of these, with the probable exception of Une Saison en Enfer. He might also have read Rimbaud’s scientific despatches from Abyssinia, published by the Société de Géographie in the late 1880s and the 1890s.
Conrad was of course a fluent speaker of French, in the habit of writing letters in that language, and widely read in its literature. Molière, Flaubert, Anatole France, Maupassant, Zola were (he said) among his favourite authors. The poet Saint-John Perse was a personal friend; he corresponded with André Gide for many years, knew Paul Valéry and Maurice Ravel after the war. He read Proust’s magnum opus in the early 1920s and proclaimed him a master, extolling his ‘veiled greatness’.
Conrad’s aunt, Marguerite Poradowska, actually his cousin by marriage, was a novelist living in Paris, writing in French (she was a niece of Dr. Paul Gachet) and might well have been the connection that led him to Rimbaud: but there is a five year hiatus, between 1895 and 1900, in their otherwise extensive correspondence. Poradowska apparently destroyed those letters Conrad had written to her, for reasons which are unclear, but which may have had to do with some sort of romantic entanglement that ended badly or failed. Hers to him are not extant either: perhaps she asked for them back and burned them too.
Nevertheless it is likely that Conrad was reading Rimbaud at the time when he wrote, not his earliest works—Almayer’s Folly (1895) and An Outcast of the Islands (1896)—but during the composition of his first sea tales, The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897) and Youth (1898), as well as Heart of Darkness (1899). Youth is the story that introduces Charles Marlow—‘(at least I think that is how he spelt his name)’—as narrator; he also narrates Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim (1900), as well as the 1913 breakthrough book (commercially speaking) Chance.
He, Marlow, is a kind of practical application of Rimbaud’s famous dictum Je est un autre and allowed Conrad to speak freely in another voice without implicating himself in experiences that were, to some extent at least, autobiographical. At least one of Rimbaud’s famous Lettres du Voyant was published in Verlaine’s 1895 edition of the poems and this is, I think, the text that Conrad is most likely to have read.
Of all of the early stories it is Youth that sounds most Rimbaldian on the ear. It is a lightly fictionalised account of a disastrous voyage Conrad made in 1881-2 on a ship called the Palestine (in the story she is the Judea). The Palestine was nearly wrecked twice even before leaving English waters; and off the east coast of Sumatra (she was headed for Bangkok), between the island of Bangka and the mainland, her load of coal spontaneously combusted and the crew had to take to the boats and row for their lives, leaving the ship burning then sinking behind them.
Conrad makes out of the story Marlow’s introduction to, not so much adulthood, as the title might suggest, as to the East. It includes rhapsodic passages that seem to me to have their source, not simply in Conrad’s memories of his younger days at sea but in the delirious verses of Le Bateau Ivre. I can’t prove this and I’m not going to try. But here is a representative section of the prose of Youth, taken from near the end of what is really quite a short tale:
‘And then I saw the men of the East—they were looking at me. The whole length of the jetty was full of people. I saw brown, bronze, yellow faces, the black eyes, the glitter, the colour of an Eastern crowd. And all these beings stared without a murmur, without a sigh, without a movement. They stared down at the boats, at the sleeping men who at night had come to them from the sea. Nothing moved. The fronds of palms stood still against the sky. Not a branch stirred along the shore, and the brown roofs of hidden houses peeped through the green foliage, through the big leaves that hung shining and still like leaves forged of heavy metal. This was the East of the ancient navigators, so old, so mysterious, resplendent and somber, living and unchanged, full of danger and promise. And these were the men. I sat up suddenly. A wave of movement passed through the crowd from end to end, passed along the heads, swayed the bodies, ran along the jetty like a ripple on the water, like a breath of wind on a field—and all was still again. I see it now—the wide sweep of the bay, the glittering sands, the wealth of green infinite and varied, the sea blue like the sea of a dream, the crowd of attentive faces, the blaze of vivid colour—the water reflecting it all, the curve of the shore, the jetty, the high-sterned outlandish craft floating still, and the three boats with tired men from the West sleeping unconscious of the land and the people and of the violence of sunshine. They slept thrown across the thwarts, curled on bottom-boards, in the careless attitudes of death. The head of the old skipper, leaning back in the stern of the long-boat, had fallen on his breast, and he looked as though he would never wake. Farther out old Mahon’s face was upturned to the sky, with the long white beard spread out on his breast, as though he had been shot where he sat at the tiller; and a man, all in a heap in the bows of the boat, slept with both arms embracing the stem-head and with his cheek laid on the gunwale. The East looked at them without a sound.
‘I have known its fascinations since: I have seen the mysterious shores, the still water, the lands of brown nations, where a stealthy Nemesis lies in wait, pursues, overtakes so many of the conquering race, who are proud of their wisdom, of their knowledge, of their strength. But for me all the East is contained in that vision of my youth. It is all in that moment when I opened my young eyes on it.’