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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good translation, but it's not what it says on the tin, 9 Nov 2010
lexo1941 (Edinburgh, Scotland) - See all my reviews
This review is from: I Promise to be Good: The Letters of Arthur Rimbaud: 2 (Modern Library) (Paperback)
The back cover of Wyatt Mason's translation of the letters of Arthur Rimbaud promises that this is a 'complete English-language edition' of Rimbaud's letters. It's volume 2 of what was clearly intended by Random House to be a complete edition of Rimbaud in English, the first volume being 'Rimbaud Complete', Mason's bilingual edition of the complete poetry and prose. I personally have no problem with Mason's translations of Rimbaud, although Rimbaud is no less untranslatable than any other poet. What I have a problem with is the suggestion that this book is a 'complete English-language edition' of Rimbaud's letters, because it isn't, and it even points out that it isn't. There is in fact no one genuinely complete edition of Rimbaud, who was notoriously careless about making sure that his stuff was properly published. The Rimbaud scholar Steve Murphy is currently at work on what will probably be the definitive edition of Rimbaud in French; in the meantime, the closest there is to a Complete Rimbaud is the one-volume Bibliotheque de la Pléiade edition, edited by Antoine Adam in 1972. It's a compact leatherbound book of about 1250 pages and it contains every poem, every piece of prose and every letter written by or to Rimbaud that was known of in 1972, at any rate. Although the Pléiade edition has been the default standard Rimbaud for decades now, it's unsatisfactory in many ways (chiefly to do with Adam's insufficient annotation of the texts) but it does have the virtue of containing the thirty-odd letters written by the adult Rimbaud to his trading partner Alfred Ilg, which Wyatt Mason's edition entirely omits.

Rimbaud's letters to Ilg are mostly concerned with matters of trade and internal Ethiopian politics, but they also tend to be long, chatty and detailed, far longer and far more informative than most of the letters Rimbaud wrote as an adult. Mason omits them on the grounds that Rimbaud's work as a trader is not of much interest to the reader, and the Ilg letters are almost exclusively concerned with trade; well, I for one would prefer not to have my mind made up for me. Mason makes much play in his introductions to both this book and the earlier volume of the poetry and prose that Rimbaud's real life has been obscured by myths, but he seems not to realise that by failing to publish that part of Rimbaud's correspondence that fleshes out our sense of his career as a trader in Africa, he merely reinforces the myth that Rimbaud was a failure as a trader; the function of this myth is to support the romantic notion that Rimbaud's later career was an abject failure, and therefore was in some mysterious way a punishment for his abandonment of poetry. There is, in fact, little evidence to suggest that Rimbaud was a bad trader. His letters home are full of conventional expressions of contempt for the local population and occasional derision for the more incompetent of his colleagues, but the letters to Ilg convey an alert interest in local politics and a hard-headed business brain. It's true that Rimbaud never got rich from his trading, but then few did, and he seems to have been no more naive than any of his peers. The real loss in omitting the Ilg letters is that the omission downplays the extent to which Rimbaud was implicated in French colonialism. Mason's focus on Rimbaud's personal feelings, as opposed to his practical dealings, reinforces the image of Rimbaud the poet or ex-poet whose business dealings are a mere failed sublimation of his frustrated poetic ambitions, and obscures the extent to which Rimbaud had genuinely abandoned poetry and was cheerfully signing on to French imperial ambitions in the area.

So, readers who want to obtain something approaching an accurate picture of Rimbaud will need to have some French. In the meantime, this book is a great read but it is not what it claims to be.
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I Promise to be Good: The Letters of Arthur Rimbaud: 2 (Modern Library)
I Promise to be Good: The Letters of Arthur Rimbaud: 2 (Modern Library) by Wyatt Mason (Translator) (Paperback - 25 Nov 2004)
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