Navigating the lyric

Mallarme: - Collected Poems
April 14, 1995

Mallarme is a legend, an icon, and a reference point for countless later artists and theorists. He lives on so fully in the work of his successors that he can often disappear from view as an individual who once existed, and who dared to write and sign works of his own. Moreover, this afterlife extends far into cultures beyond France and into arts beyond literature.

Octavio Paz, for example, writing about Marcel Duchamp in the mid-1960s, takes his title, The Castle of Purity, from Mallarme's unfinished prose tale Igitur, looks at Duchamp's enigmatic "Large Glass" (1915-23) through the translucent pane of Un Coup de des, and sees Mallarme as supplying an international fellowship of radical artists with an indispensable lingua franca. If you are travelling back, as Paz was, from Delhi to Mexico City by way of Paris during the First World War, why not take Mallarme with you as a versatile navigational aid?

For no one knew more than Mallarme about the art of the new century, even though he was dead before the century began. The characteristic modern art work that he foresaw was open, plural, self-referring and haunted by a sense of its own gratuitousness; it was an animated semantic field shot through with death and vacancy; it was a depraved proposition, forever carrying within itself its own negation. Duchamp in "The Bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even", to give the "Large Glass" its full title, and Paz after him in poems and essays, were keeping Mallarme's promise, even.

The case of Pierre Boulez is still more instructive. Borrowing the title for his Pli selon pli (1957- ) from Mallarme's "Rememoration d'amis belges", Boulez recreates in vocal and instrumental sound one of the sustaining tensions of Mallarme's verse: between a welter of expressive inflections all striving towards simultaneity and a forward-flowing temporal pulse.

Mallarme had wanted to steal back from music the structural complexity and the power of implication that were, in his view, the birthright of poetry alone, and in a sense Boulez is simply mounting a counter-offensive, restoring to music a lost inheritance of its own and using Mallarme, somewhat perversely, to support his claim. Pli selon pli stages repeatedly the passage from the "intellectual word", as Mallarme called it, through vocal melisma towards "pure" music.

Yet the affinity between the two artists is much more impressive than any apparent rivalry between their chosen art forms. They are both experimentalists at work upon the farthest shores of intelligibility. They bring their quests for artistic meaning up against an undifferentiated, counter-semantic flux. Mallarme is profoundly present in Boulez's work, and Boulez must rank as one of the great Mallarme interpreters. No one has read the poet more creatively than this composer who often seems bent on supplanting him.

Mallarme is so readily available to modern audiences in these secondary, transposed forms that it is salutary to be taken back from time to time to the life he led and the poems he wrote. The authors of the two complementary works under review return with a will from posthumous Mallarme to the living man and his still astonishing works.

A new life of Mallarme was long overdue. Henri Mondor's Vie de Mallarme appeared in the early 1940s, and remained unrevised through a long period of scholarly activity in which countless new documents came to light and in which first Mondor and then Lloyd Austin produced the 11 volumes of the complete correspondence. Besides, it was difficult to extract a mere biography from Mondor's monumental work: he knew so much about his subject's milieu and had so many vigorous views on all aspects of his career and writings that key events often drifted away into the background.

Gordon Millan in A Throw of the Dice not only makes sensible use of the newly available documentation but maintains a rapid and uncluttered narrative line throughout. To those who want to know what Mallarme did between his modest birth and his sudden inconspicuous death 56 years later, this book may be recommended unreservedly.

Millan does not simply avoid excursions and disquisitions in the Mondor manner, or in the manner of Ernest Jones's Freud biography: he often distances himself from the poetry itself. Conscious that Mallarme's poems are disputed territory and that wearisome exegetical battles have been fought over them syllable by syllable, he settles mostly for a normalising and consensual critical tone, and in any case comments only briefly on the texts he quotes. His restraint is praiseworthy, and sends the reader back with exacerbated appetite to the astonishments of Mallarme's own writing. Millan's plain narrative teases us with the disproportion between a quiet life responsibly led and the scandalous verbal inventiveness which that life unaccountably fostered.

The only regrettable feature of this new biography (apart from its signs of haste in translation and proofreading) is an occasional air of condescension in Millan's own voice. It is almost as if he wishes to teach this excessively original writer - so excited by sex and so afflicted by death - the lessons in moderation and citizenship that Mallarme the biographical subject seemed often to enshrine. Mallarme is one of world literature's great elegists, and one of its great erotic poets. New readers coming to Mallarme by way of Millan's timely and provocative book will need additional instruments if they are to discover for themselves and feel on their nerve-ends just how powerful this verse is.

A fortunate coincidence brings one such instrument before the English-speaking public for the first time: a collected edition, with facing translations, of Mallarme's poems in verse and prose. The occasional verse is not here, and nor are the many short prose pieces that are poems in everything but name, but this handsome volume accurately reflects Mallarme's own choice of his "main" works and, towards the end, provides much useful introductory guidance in an extended sequence of commentaries.

Henry Weinfield's translations seem at first to suffer from an over-zealous quest for end-rhymes. He is aware that Mallarme as a rhymer has an insolent virtuosity rarely matched in the tradition of French verse, and that his line endings are almost always semantic as well as acoustic events. The problem is that rhyme can achieve its clinching power only if the earlier portions of each line prepare the way with appropriate concentrations of intellectual energy. This sentence from Mallarme's elegy for Gautier: "Nous sommes/La triste opacite de nos spectres futurs", in becoming "We are nothing, then,/ Save for the sad opaqueness of the future ghosts we bear", loses much of its grand formulaic authority. "Then" and "bear", which are here at the behest of their respective rhyme partners, are quite without content and "we are nothing. . . save for" adds a further twist of McGonagallesque redundancy.

Even strong, well-focused rhymes can play havoc with other elements of the line. Mallarme's celebrated "Aboli bibelot d'inanite sonore", when reborn as "Abolished shell whose resonance remains", loses its resounding absence of meaning in favour of an easy consolation alliteratively reinforced. This is, of course, "translation loss" as theorists of this essential activity nowadays call it, but in cases like these the loss of expressive force between languages is far from inevitable: it comes from a failure on the translator's part to recognise that fidelity to one feature of Mallarme's verse can exact a high price in infidelity elsewhere.

Despite this, Weinfield has put his finger on something important about Mallarme's writing, and this too has to do with the way the poems sound. Mallarme's verse jangles; it has an undertow of doggerel in it, even when its themes have an appearance of high philosophical seriousness; it drives sound and sense apart only to arrange a beatific reconciliation in due course. The overall effect is often that of poetic meaning being achieved, lost and sought again in conditions of extreme turbulence. Mallarme's texts come apart into fragments, and are resealed by an incantation that is itself subject to bizarre switches of tone and register.

Time and again, Weinfield gets this quality right: "But in the vacant north, adjacent to the window panes,/A dying shaft of gold illumines as it wanes/A nix sheathed in sparks that a unicorn kicks." "Adjacent to nonsense", one might be tempted to say, but the brute sensation of Mallarme's verse is well caught in writing like this.

Weinfield's translations could be much more accurate, and much less rigidly versified, but they represent a breakthrough all the same. Here at last is a translator who not only knows about the arts of teasing and titillation that this notoriously "difficult" poet displays, but can cope with the explicit sexual content of the poems: the Faun's afternoon reverie here takes place in a supersaturated erotic space, and Mallarme's flirtatious fans combine phallic and vulviform characteristics as never before outside the original French.

Millan and Weinfield take us back, then, to the fountainhead of the Mallarme legend. Their books, read together, offer a new opening chapter to the history of modernism in the arts, and welcome respite, for students of modern poetry in particular, from the contagious academic malady that Gilles Deleuze called "interpretosis".

But the major appeal of this life and these works is likely to be to an entirely different group of readers: those for whom Mallarme is as yet only a name. Such readers should prepare themselves all over again for the shock of the new. In the past 100 years European literature has produced almost nothing that is newer or more shocking than the mighty handful of poems bequeathed to us by this quiet man.

Malcolm Bowie is Marshal Foch professor of French literature, University of Oxford.

Mallarme:: A Throw of the Dice The Life of Stephane Mallarme

Author - Gordon Millan
ISBN - 0 436 096 X
Publisher - Secker and Warburg
Price - £30.00
Pages - 390pp

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