#142: MALLARME’S TOSS OF THE DICE. In his book One Toss of the Dice: The Incredible Story of How a Poem Made Us Modern (Liveright, 2017), R. Howard Bloch attempts the unusual task of bringing one of the most challenging and difficult of modern European poems, “Un Coup de Des,” by Stephane Mallarme, across to the common reader. France in the nineteenth century had been a varied laboratory of attempts to break the stranglehold of the traditional alexandrine line; most of the attempts were aural, with a loosening of strict metrical forms and the early mastery of prose poetry by Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Mallarme’s attempt, in his final major work, broke away not only aurally but visually: in “Un Coup de Des,” lines break up, sprawled across the page divide, type size varies wildly to indicate continuation and discontinuation of syntax and time scheme; the empty space of the page becomes part of the composition, as does the placement of the words into visual suggestion, like figured verse. In his famous poem “Le Bateau Ivre” (“The Drunken Boat”) Rimbaud used the rhythm of his lines to suggest a wild ride; in “Un Coup de Des,” the words themselves are tumbled about, suggestive of a storm at sea, and Mallarme’s method is still considered out at the further shores of the techniques of modernism. Bloch’s book is broken in three: a biography of the poet, giving the circumstances that led to the writing of the poem; a splendidly attentive new translation of the forty-page poem by J.D. McClatchy, with the French text; and a final section of explication. I’m not at all sure I buy the book’s grandiose subtitle, but to have tackled so recondite a poem in so reader-friendly a manner is surely worth a round of applause.
There are some wonderful and amusing ironies in Mallarme’s life. France at the time was still trying to extricate itself, not just from the alexandrine, but from the influence, spiritual and practical, of the Catholic Church. In the deposing of the clergy, writers, poets especially, began to think of their task in sacerdotal terms, and to describe their roles as that of priests, seers, purveyors of mystic wisdom. This directly affected Mallarme’s use of language, in which the increasingly knotty and dazing syntax was in hopes of achieving a hieratic seriousness. He viewed his poetic work as something completely apart from everyday life, and his famous Tuesday evening salons were attended by the great and famous in an aura of awe and reverence: a visit to the guru. But Bloch’s book reveals that, while Baudelaire and Rimbaud, for instance, led lives of almost unrelieved emotional and financial chaos, Mallarme labored along in his hated job of teaching with all the assiduity of a good solid bourgeois, in order to support his family. In between intense, almost mystical bouts of composition, he published and wrote a ladies’ magazine with breathless descriptions of the newly available luxury goods; and Bloch’s account of the Tuesday salons shows that, for all his owlish hauteur, Mallarme had an easy sociable side, and a sense of humor to go with it. He was genuinely devastated at the death of his son Anatole, and in Bloch’s description of the services at Mallarme’s own death it becomes touchingly obvious that the man was very much loved.
I don’t know to what degree I will ever feel close to Mallarme’s work, though any reader of the French will happily acknowledge the masterly and beautiful music that it embodies; few poets in any language had a better ear than Mallarme. His distinctive combination of voluptuous language and emotional stasis, caught between the Absolute, the Ideal, and our muttering quotidian days keeps me at a distance; Mallarme never leaps free. His expression is about as little Cartesian as one can imagine, but lodged in Mallarme's soul--I want to say his brain--is that block of tortured logician so much still a mark of French thought. Some of the literature-as-religion stance I find deeply questionable; but Bloch demonstrates clearly that Mallarme’s seriousness was never a pose but an honest practice. The charm and irony for me of the book is that, while working intelligently and hard to show us that Mallarme was a great writer, Bloch meanwhile convinced me that he was a good human being, what we used to call a decent sort. An underrated virtue, but I’ll take it, and happily.
Poetry progresses in its means: I remember reading that when Keats (in “Ode to a Nightingale”) wrote “O for a beaker full of the warm south” many readers of the time didn’t understand what he meant. So it is frequently with the Modernists, Mallarme especially; reading through him, getting a grip on his syntax and his range of symbols, is a bit like acquiring a second language, and if any poet cries out for commentary, it’s Mallarme. To give only an example, I had many times reread his opening poem, “Salut,” which can mean either salute or salutation, without realising that the word can also mean “salvation”—which is completely relevant to the poem. Note the difference in specificity when McClatchy translates the title of “Un Coup De Des” not as it usually has been, “A Throw of the Dice,” but as “One Toss of the Dice,” using “One” for “A”: “One toss of the dice never will abolish chance.” There are several good older selected translations of Mallarme by C.F. MacIntyre, Roger Fry, Mary Ann Caws and others; but much the best is the recent full-dress edition of the Collected Poems published in 2011 by University of California. To translate Mallarme at all requires some degree of courage; to have attempted to replicate Mallarme’s rhyme scheme, meter and his mazy syntax, as Henry Weinfeld does in this editon, may border on the foolhardy. The method inevitably involves compromises and getting some distance from the literal, but Weinfeld’s successes are often marvelous and impressive, and far outweigh the setbacks. This edition (and it certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s a handsome book) has a full French text, the translations and a knowledgeable and helpful commentary. It’s great work and should, I hope, help Mallarme to a new generation of English-language readers.