A Season in Hell

Cover_A Season in HellThe Gold Coast, in my younger days, was not a city that welcomed serious readers. It’s a long, skinny strip of a city pressed up against the South East Queensland coastline, a city predicated on beachfront tourism and theme parks and being a nice place to retire. I often introduce it to American friends as a nightmarish version of Miami that lacks all the class, which is possibly unfair, but I lived there for a very long time and I am very bitter about the experience. In my memory Gold Coast bookstores were characterized by their focus on the holiday read, easily digested books that could be burned through on a one-week getaway. When other serious readers recoil in the face of an airport bookshop, I feel a strange sense of nostalgia for the bookstores of my youth whose approach was startlingly familiar.

In my early teens, when my reading tastes focused on the biggest names of the big-name doorstop fantasy genre, this wasn’t that big a deal. By the age of eighteen the anemic F&SF and Modern Literature sections started to grate against my nerves. Finding books I wanted to read involved months of hunting, requesting special orders, or travelling to Brisbane where real bookshops could be found. Had Amazon existed when I was eighteen, it’s entirely possibly I would have a very different relationship to fiction in addition to the kind of credit card debt that could cripple a small nation. Fortunately, it did not, and so I became a hunter of books, squirreling away the odd and unusual finds for later consumption.

I was twenty and an aspiring poet when I came into possession of the coolest book I would ever own. It was a cloth-bound hardcore edition of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, illustrated with a series of photographs from Robert Mapplethorpe, and it was precious despite the fact that I understood very little of what was written or how to read the black-and-white photographs that accompanied the text. It was a puzzle that needed to be understood, and I’d frequently carry it with me, rereading it again and again on busses and in food courts and the foyer of the local unemployment office where I’d alienate the staff by insisting “writer” was a viable job and that my part-time post-graduate studies were going to get me a full-time career.

I’m not entirely sure how I came to own the book, but I can make some reasonable guesses. It would invariably come from a remainder bin outside of one of the book chains, literary detritus going cheap, as many cool things on my bookshelves tended to be. I can still remember the yellow sticker with the marked down price – a $50 book picked up for five or ten dollars. Being young and ignorant of the ways of publishing, I regarded this as a lucky bargain, rather than a sign that so few people wanted this treasure that it was effectively being thrown away.

Where it came from is the simple part, the real problem is the how I acquired it: did I buy it or was it bought for me? Either is equally likely, and since it’s now one of those books that has passed from my collection, it’s impossible to tell for sure. At twenty I bought books of poetry on reflex, regardless of who wrote them. It was a trained response learnt after the frustration of seeing nothing but Shakespeare’s sonnets and Jewel’s A Night Without Armor in the poetry shelf of the local bookstores. Poetry was stuff found in second-hand shops, where at least the discarded school readers could be unearthed, rather than acquiring it shiny and new in bookstores.

More likely, however, is that the book was bought for me. Trading books of poetry and art and music was the default mode of courtship in my twenties and there are still large chunks of my bookshelf that are inherited from relationships with women better-read and more artistically aware than I. My first serious relationship seems like one long exchange of obsessions and fandoms – Mapplethorpe’s photography for my obsession with Neil Gaiman’s Death comics; Angela Carter’s fiction for a taped copy of Ani DiFranco’s Living in Clip live album and the back catalogue of Lou Reed – and there are times when I think it ended simply because there were no more obsessions to trade. My second serious relationship was much the same, perhaps, for my twenties were a shallow time (my thirties, perhaps, are just as shallow, but I tend to date less now). I remember many aspects of those relationships with despair and anger and regret, but I can never regret the books and music and art they introduced me too.

And for many years A Season in Hell was a talisman against the city I lived in. I never quite understood the book, but I studied it and read about it and tried to comprehend it’s mysteries. I sought out biographies of Rimbaud and webpages devoted to his work, I read lit papers about his works and sought out the rest of his poetry, and I started searching for more about Mapplethorpe and photography in general. I discovered Sontag’s On Photography and Barthes’ Camera Lucida, and proposed academic creative projects that revolved around both works that never seemed to stay on focus as I dragged my heels through the writing phase. I made a terribly academic. My interest was always in the reading and the discussion of the books, never in the writing about them. Once I understood, or found a new lever to try and unearth some new kernel of understanding, I was ready to move on.

And through it all Rimbaud’s book remained the coolest book I ever owned, until one day I was in Brisbane and I didn’t own it any longer. I was older and hopefully smarter, and by then I knew the magic that came with the names of the author and the photographer, but as I unpacked my book collection A Season in Hell was gone. I have my suspicions where it might have gone – I’d moved out of a relationship a few months prior, and many things went missing because I packed fast and bailed out like I was jumping off an burning airplane– but I was never in a position to really confirm that and so its absence became a mystery. It might be with a former significant other, it may be sitting in some box I never bothered moving out of my parents spare room, it may be sitting in a local second-hand shop, just like the beat-up jacket and CD singles I found a few weeks after the break-up and didn’t have the discretionary cash to reacquire.

I hope, wherever it is, it’s being appreciated by the people who own it. I hope it continues to be the coolest book in someone’s collection, even if it isn’t the coolest book in my own. Then again, perhaps it can’t be, if it’s the book you’re still in possession of. Perhaps it loses some luster when it’s something you can pull down off the shelf and reread with relative ease. My version of the book exists only in memory, attached to a time and a place, and it’s probably more precious and more awesome because of that. The things you get to keep are never quite as precious as the things you allow yourself to lose, even if they gain value in other ways through the years of familiarity.

These days it would be relatively easy to replace. I can find a copy second-hand on Amazon without too much difficulty, and while they’ll never be as cheap as my first copy, they’re not unreasonably priced. Presumably, if I put in the effort, there would be other options available online. For some reason, I choose not to do that. I guess I’ve gotten used to it being owned by someone else, and I don’t really need my copy anymore. It wouldn’t be the same.

But it was an awesome thing to have owned once, and I’ve never really owned anything quite like it. And I probably owe someone a thank-you for that, even if I can’t remember who and I have no idea where they are now.

  1 comment for “A Season in Hell

  1. Friendless
    18/04/2011 at 11:12 PM

    I grew up in the wasteland between Brisbane and Ipswich, and it never ever occurred to me that books were things you could find out the name of and then go buy. To me, they were either at QBD or the library or they didn't exist. When I was 15 I got the local newsagent to order in "The Lord of the Rings" for me, and he mentioned that he'd heard it was a pretty heavy read.

    It was only when I got to university that I got exposed to the books and music (and every other form of experience) that existed, and started seeking out what I'd been missing. It was a continual process of becoming less blind.

    The best book I ever read, which I now own a treasured copy of, is Christopher Alexander's "The Timeless Way of Building" which is ostensibly a book about architecture but is more about how form is derived from functional requirements and the environment. It's written in a beautiful poetic fashion reminiscent of "The Prophet", or something like that, but I find its common sense to be far deeper than any poetry.

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