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Stéphane Mallarmé's The Book and Un Coup de dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard

Stéphane Mallarmé
The Book
Translated by Sylvia Gorelick
(Exact Change, 2018)

Stéphane Mallarmé
Un Coup de dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard /
A Blow of Dice Never Will Abolish Chance

Translated by Holly Cundiff with illustrations by Odilon Redon
(Lucia/Marquand, 2018)

To take just the 72 pages of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Le Livre (originally posthumously published in French in 1957), at once fragmentary and yet feeling so completely itself, every time we encounter it, it seems a more astonishing piece of work. I always loved the way it was so majestically presented, collecting notes and drafts along with typeset pages, the poet dressed as scribe or priest of poetry, leaving the assembled audience every fifteen minutes of reciting in order to reshuffle the remaining pages, so that CHANCE would enter each time he re-appeared on the stage. For this was not just a book, but The Book.

What it means for us now, in this present rendering, is a lively reading of life as art—conceived of in the most simple and elementary terms, whose juncture we have to determine and carry out ourselves in each of our individual readings, private or collective and public. That was Mallarmé’s magic, the private as shared, the non-journalistic as both poetic and unboring, so he crossed out almost every other word to make the text less immediately graspable.

Here is the thing: Mallarmé is always the most modern—the most complicatedly modern—no matter what. As for Le Livre, or The Book, Sylvia Gorelick’s newly translated rendering (after the Scherer and the Marchal editions, to which I was bravely clinging), is deeply intelligent. After perusing her introduction to find the (absolutely) confessional mode of Mallarmé:

I am me—faithful to the

It just gets me. Of course he was, and of course we all remember his saying as he gasped, dying “Destroy it – / It would have been beautiful” about his Hérodiade—and how glad we are it did not meet that fate. And indeed, it found the bizarre beauty at least we have.

Much of his words have come down to us through its enthusiasts: for example, Jacques Derrida’s essay “La Double séance,” we get Mallarmé’s

  where it seems
      —Such is the double session
And how not to be fascinated by its obsession with its own reading, and its
the verse existing in itself—

And Gorelick’s inclusion of the times of reading, arrows marking this way and that, prices, and the assistants—downright flabbergasting.

So, these sheets—how delighted I am Gorelick translates “feuille” as leaf, and leaves “page” as page. As she says, so importantly, of The Book, “Its movement is not linear, but differential and transversal.” Right on, and we all love the idea of its performance, its openness to transmutations and permutations:

the manuscript alone
is mobile—

Gorelick consulted a digitized version of the manuscript in the Houghton Library, and who knew, among us Mallarméans, that we could re-read the great Betrand Marchal’s interpretation of the written “pucel” as “fusil”! How interesting can it be that instead of “virgin” we see “gun”? Not just that, but that she has managed to maintain a “radical fidelity to the visual and spatial organization of Mallarmé’s manuscripts to communicate the profound discontinuity of the text—the relationships it has to its own obsessive revision and refashioning—its internal disjunction.” Wow. So that means that those of us, and we are many and manifold, who insist on proclaiming—not just writing and saying, but proclaiming—that we are here encountering the most modern of them all in this poet, and have yet more ammunition for our, not virgin, but guns.

It is wonderful to be able to place, in our minds and bookcases, side by side, the innovative typography of Un Coup De Dés Jamais N’abolira Le Hasard and a complete translation of The Book, Mallamé’s complicated and compacted rendering of his view of text, humans, and world. I am always surprised at how this event, this astonishing object of Mallarmé’s poem, un Coup De Dés, so written about and for many good reasons: it changes shape and volume and complications depending on each interpretation and rendering. Take Howard Bloch’s 2016 brilliant One Toss of the Dice: The Incredible Story of How a Poem Made Us Modern. In Holly Cundiff’s translation it feels all a freshly given: and the very great Redon is the perfect accompaniment, so Mallarmé turns out to be, as the French would say, CHANCEUX! Fortunate: actually, both of them this time around.

When we start wondering where poet Max Jacob’s “LeCornet à dés” or Dice Cup ever came from, here it is. Mallarmé’s major epic poem with its major innovative typography ends:

All Thought transmits a Blow of Dice

Whatever Mallarmé began with these dice thrown, with this inscription of chance into a living text, visually and verbally, each time it is newly given to us, we can only be immensely grateful.

To say nothing of the illustrations by the remarkable Odilon Redon, painter of flowers and floating eyeballs, and here, a Child’s Face with Rainbow Above (Tête d’enfant, de face, avec au-dessus un arc-en-ciel) (1900), just as it says (and such a child’s face!). And Woman Wearing a Toque and a Mermaid’s Tail (Femme coiffée d’une toque et rejetant le buste en arrière) (1898)—indeed all of that is true, but so is the “mermaid’s tail,” as well as what the French say. Since the poem has its shipwreck and so its water, the mermaid belongs here, as does much else. And the final illustration really does it for the dice, which are wonderfully floating above the head and below her (and she is gorgeous). No less interesting is the fact that Mallarmé originally wrote a letter inviting Vuillard to illustrate this poem, and that the invitation was refused. Redon greatly suffices.

What a feast of Mallarmé we are treated to, with really persuasive translations of two major and important texts of this poet, who is without any doubt, quite certainly, the most important carryover from the poetry of the nineteenth century to our present and our future, in poetry and in life. Chance will not rule anything out but that small play of dice and work guarantees a large fate for poetic work seen in detail and in the overall constancy of what matters most.


Mary Ann Caws

is the Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her many areas of interest in twentieth-century avant-garde literature and art include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso. Conceptually, one of her primary themes has been the relationship between image and text.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2019

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