A tale of two Charlevilles

A po­etic quest from out­back Queens­land to north­ern France

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - MURRAY LAU­RENCE

DRIV­ING idly around Ire­land re­cently, we pass a sign to Charleville and I think: Oh, three Charlevilles! But I de­cide to let it pass and fo­cus on the other two. One will be fa­mil­iar to Aus­tralians, while the other is in the Ar­dennes, north­ern France, and is the true ex­cuse for this story.

Am­a­teur his­to­ri­ans of Qan­tas like to say that it was con­ceived in Clon­curry, born in Win­ton and grew up in Lon­greach, but that leaves out Charleville.

The first Qan­tas air­mail flight took off from Charleville in 1922, on what be­came the air­line’s first sched­uled route — Charleville to Clon­curry via Lon­greach and Win­ton — and the town con­tin­ued to be of im­por­tance in the air­line’s early years.

As well, Charleville was a com­pul­sory check­point on the 1934 Lon­don to Mel­bourne air race, while other pioneer avi­a­tors, in­clud­ing Amy John­son and Ross and Keith Smith, landed there through dire ne­ces­sity.

On the banks of the War­rego River in south-cen­tral out­back Queens­land (to have a stab at its po­si­tion), Charleville is a town I have trav­elled through of­ten on jour­neys to rel­a­tives scat­tered along the Tropic of Capricorn be­tween Lon­greach and Bar­cal­dine.

The town’s pride is the her­itage Ho­tel Corones, fa­mously known as the Raf­fles of the in­land, while its his­toric avi­a­tion links live on in the Royal Fly­ing Doc­tor Ser­vice base it hosts.

Stay­ing there once at a not ex­actly Raf­fles of the in­land mo­tel, I mar­velled at a plaque at shoul­der height mark­ing the great 1990 floods. At the time al­most all of the west was in se­vere drought, the fight­ing War­rego re­duced to pits of dried mud and the Matilda High­way, from Cun­na­mulla to Charleville and on to Bar­cal­dine, run­ning through a scorched, sheep-rav­aged desert aban­doned even by emus.

The floods re­turned in 2010, prov­ing what those of us de­scended from the bush know to be true: it is, as Dorothea Mackel­lar put it, ‘ ‘ a land of drought and flood­ing rains’’.

My­mother’s par­ents were both from out­back Queens­land; her ma­ter­nal great- great- grand­mother, Marie Rens ( she used other names, of­ten Josephine and Widow Rens), had come from France with her 12- year- old daugh­ter Jeanette in 1827.

Life was chal­leng­ing oceans away from the court of em­press Josephine (thus the name) and the aris­to­cratic fringes she claimed to have oc­cu­pied, and her rea­sons for ex­il­ing her­self at 40 to Aus­tralia re­main ob­scure.

Jeanette mar­ried Gil­bert Cory, a Hunter Val­ley farmer, and pro­duced 10 chil­dren, sev­eral of whom be­came pioneer set­tlers in the 1850s on land in the vicin­ity of Stone­henge, which surely ev­ery­one will know to be a dot more than 400km north­west of Charleville, be­tween the Bar­coo and Thom­son rivers.

This re­ally is re­mote, arid coun­try of never-end­ing hori­zons; 160 years ago its iso­la­tion would have been as for­bid­ding as that of Aus­tralia from France.

Trav­el­ling by train across north­ern France last sum­mer, through a har­mo­nious land­scape of ver­dant, well-tended farm­lands and vi­brant vil­lages, I thought of Marie Rens and her past in what is now Bel­gium. I was head­ing to Charleville- Mezieres ( as it is known to­day) in search not of her ori­gins, but those of her com­pa­triot Arthur Rim­baud ( 18541891), the en­fant ter­ri­ble of French lit­er­a­ture whose po­etry, rev­o­lu­tion­ary in its vi­sion and form, has in­flu­enced artists and dream­ers from the French deca­dents and sur­re­al­ists to Pi­casso, Brett White­ley, the beats, Bob Dy­lan and Jim Mor­ri­son.

You leave the sta­tion at Charleville and walk on to a spa­cious square where stands a bust of our hero. A poem, To Mu­sic, is set right here: ‘‘On the square, tai­lored into mea­gre lawns/where all’s as it should be, flow­ers, trees/ Chesty bour­geois sti­fling in Thurs­day-evening heat, pa­rade their small- town spite and jeal­ousy . . .’’

This verse, writ­ten when he was 15, fe­ro­ciously satirises all of the fa­mil­iar go­ings-on and per­son­ages of this hum­drum place, let­ting us see why the in­scrip­tion on the bust is laugh­able: ‘‘To JeanArthur Rim­baud, His Ad­mir­ers, The State’’.

Rim­baud’s ad­mir­ers have been plen­ti­ful, but here is a prizewin­ning pupil who out­raged the adults in his life with his ir­re­deemable at­ti­tude to every­thing that un­der­pinned the cer­tain­ties of French provin­cial so­ci­ety. He was of­ten in trou­ble with the law and ran away re­peat­edly be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing at the age of 20.

Charleville’s heart is the com­pletely unan­tic­i­pated Place Du­cale, a mag­nif­i­cent ver­sion of the Place des Vos­ges in Paris, at­test­ing to a past aris­toc­racy with vi­sions way be­yond the provin­cial.

The poet is re­mem­bered at the splen­did Musee Arthur Rim­baud in a 17th-cen­tury mill­house on quai Arthur Rim­baud, which runs along the pic­turesque River Meuse (beau­ti­ful in a way that our poor War­rego, bat­tered by all man­ner of nat­u­ral and man-made as­saults, can but dream of) and in the grave­yard where stand his tomb and that of his long­suf­fer­ing mother, Vi­talie, known by choice as Widow Rim­baud.

Rim­baud’s Charleville, de­spite his pref­er­ence for ex­ile, qual­i­fies as one of France’s im­memo­rial fic­tional places along with Balzac’s Paris, Proust’s Com­bray and Sartre’s Bou­ville.

His hy­brid ori­gins, ur­ban and ru­ral, peas­ant and bour­geois, jump from his verse, along with his fa­mil­iar­ity with, and an­tipa­thy to, ev­ery­day things, scenes and peo­ple of his home town.

The col­lec­tion A Sea­son in Hell was writ­ten in 1873, fol­low­ing a pe­riod of vagabondage in France and Lon­don with a fel­low trou­ble­maker, the poet Paul Ver­laine (who ac­tu­ally shot Rim­baud dur­ing one dis­tur­bance).

Rim­baud de­scribes the prose poem Sec­ond Delir­ium: Alchemy of the Word as ‘‘the his­tory of one of my mad­nesses’’. ‘‘I got used to hal­lu­ci­na­tion, pure and sim­ple: I would see a mosque where there was a fac­tory, a drum-corps of an­gels, coaches on the roads in the sky, a draw­ing room at the bot­tom of a lake; mon­sters, mys­ter­ies; hor­rors . . .’’

Rim­baud was not yet 20, and his imag­i­na­tion, lin­guis­tic dex­ter­ity and alien­ation from the self-sat­is­fac­tion of life in Charleville were at fever pitch.

On the eve of leav­ing for­ever, he com­posed Il­lu­mi­na­tion’s daz­zling, dream-like po­ems, which teeter on the edge of chaos. They rep­re­sent his fi­nal gift.

Rim­baud died in Mar­seilles at only 37 af­ter pi­caresque wanderings in Ethiopia and Yemen in the guise of ex­plorer, gun-run­ner and Ara­bist. His dot­ing sis­ter Is­abelle ob­served that on his death bed he ranged from the orac­u­lar to the ob­scene, still, as ever, push­ing open win­dows to a wider world.

As I walk about this at­trac­tive Charleville, con­tem­plat­ing the poet’s au­da­cious, short life and bril­liant writ­ing, I re­call that many ex­tra­or­di­nary peo­ple have emerged from out-of-the-way places and ev­ery­day fam­i­lies.

I won­der, though, whether the other Charleville could have pro­duced a Rim­baud. My an­ces­tors who set­tled in the Queens­land out­back were salty, hard­work­ing types who prob­a­bly would have re­garded a Rim­baud in their midst as a rav­ing rat­bag.

Fi­nally, a role for the third Charleville: Charleville, County Cork, Prov­ince of Mun­ster, Ire­land, gave its name to Charleville, Queens­land. A link with France is em­bed­ded, nev­er­the­less, in the name of the Ir­ish town, and also in the name Mun­ster. Trans­la­tions from the French by Martin Sor­rell, 2001.

STURT KRYGSMAN

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