Sunday, June 15, 2008

Sir Richard Burton: Rimbaud in reverse

Some years ago I began to read A Rage to Live, a huge biography of Sir Richard Burton and his wife Isabel. On the first page I looked at there was an account of how Burton got his distinctive facial scar during an attack on his party by Somali tribesmen in 1854:
The barbed spearhead of the javelin, thrust with precision and power of a warrior who had hunted and fought with such a weapon all his life, entered Richard’s left cheek travelling in a downwards direction. It pierced the roof of his mouth, transfixing the top jaw to the lower, dislodged some back teeth, and punched an exit through the right cheek.
I was reminded of this because, last week, Channel 4 broadcast Victorian Sex Explorer, a documentary on Burton presented by the actor Rupert Everett. This anecdote wasn't covered as it concentrated on Burton's army career in India and the scandalous rumours that followed his undercover work in a male brothel there. However, neither this nor the African action had prompted my interest. For all the undoubted attraction of Burton's adventures, what intrigued me is that Wikipedia's selected bibliography of books he either wrote or translated runs to 43 volumes. Everett does discuss contradictions in Burton's life but this was not one of them. Is it a rage to live that leads to such productivity? Perhaps Burton was a Rimbaud in reverse: giving up the world in order to write. It's odd how fascination with his life depends on such abnegation.

It's a fascination borne on habitual denial. We see it everywhere in literary discussion. Not long ago in the Christian Science Monitor, Diana Sheets complained that:
Literary fiction ... has become relativistic and solipsistic, donning the vestments of social justice at the expense of truth. It celebrates interior thought or consciousness while denigrating the discomforting landscape of the real.
Indeed, it is so discomforting for Sheets that she offers no real world examples. Instead, she instructs fiction writers to "dispense with solipsistic preoccupations of self and love and family – and reclaim classic virtues and the work of examining the world at large."

But then look what happens when those making such injunctions condescend to offer examples: a creative writing student in a lecture by the Bulgarian-born author Ilija Troyanov reports his demand that writers "avoid 'ego-lit' and write about something entirely foreign" which the student claimed staked out "the ground between him and Peter Handke ... and other explorers of internal worlds." As I pointed out at the time, if Troyanov's demand isn't utter nonsense, the example is.

By coincidence, Troyanov has a novel newly published in translation and, believe it or not, The Collector of Worlds is about Sir Richard Burton. From what I've read about the contents, his writing career is not featured.


  1. Anonymous9:26 am


    FYI, I'm waiting to get some answers back from Troyanov right now for a Q&A to be posted on The Book Depository website in a week or so. Hopefully, we'll learn more about "The Collector of Worlds" (and its author) then ...

  2. Is it accidental that there are far more biographies of Burton than critical studies? His life is undoubtedly fascinating but those countless books are rarely stylistic marvels. Is it permissible to quote from my own new book about the Victorian travellers, "A Corkscrew is Most Useful: The Travellers of Empire" which, willy-nilly, is dominated by the figure of Burton? I write on p46-7: "Burton's style of writing was as idiosyncratic as the man. Mannered, facetious in the fashion of mid-Victorian studied levity, studded with literary quotations in a variety of languages, sometimes desperately overworked, it can be exhausting. His books are often ill-constructed, piled high like some load-bearing camel, whose burden the reader watches, heart in mouth, fearing that one more package heaped on its back will send the whole lot crashing down..." To put it more concisely: he wrote too much, probably too quickly, but he remains a fascinating figure, driven, impassioned and larger than life. Perhaps if he had written elegant miniatures like Chatwin's "In Patagonia", we wouldn't have been interested.



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