on One Toss of the Dice by R. Howard Bloch (Liveright / W.W. Norton)

On the death of Stéphane Mallarmé in 1898, 22-year old Paul Valéry wrote an homage to the poet who had pointed the way to new possibilities for poetry. “Je sera la tombe de ton ombre pensive,” he wrote, “I will be the tomb of your pensive shadow.” Fifty-one years later at age 73, a year before he died, Valéry was still extolling his master in an essay published in 1944. “He felt it to be his duty to write the essential undertaking of mankind,” Valéry wrote, “which he stated in familiar terms when he said that ‘everything would finally be expressed’ and that ‘the world had been created so as to end in a beautiful book.’”

MallarmeCover.jpgIn 1897, Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés, his latest attempt at making the “beautiful book,” was published. In One Toss of the Dice, R. Howard Bloch tracks the poet’s lifelong development of his revolutionary poem. Mallarmé had long referred to his supreme project as The Book and spelled out its goal in his essay, “The Book”: “Let us have no more of those successive, incessant, back-and-forth motions of our eyes, traveling from one line to the next and beginning all over again … Otherwise we will miss the ecstasy in which we become immortal for a brief hour, free of all reality, and raise our obsessions to the level of creation.”

Bloch’s subtitle, “The Incredible Story of How a Poem Made Us Modern,” is hyperbolic. The story is quite credible and the poem didn’t make us modern so much as indicate, along with other significant artworks, that we were headed that way. Nevertheless, for years Mallarmé took notes for the poem, drafting and changing lines as if saying, “I haven’t written the poem yet, but if I did it would sound and look something like this.” His colleagues were both shaken and charmed by his notion of language as aspirational and disruptive. Endearing to his friends, Mallarmé hosted a salon every Tuesday at his apartment on the Rue de Rome. Manet painted his picture in 1876 at the very moment Mallarme’s great poem-reverie “The Afternoon of a Faun” was published.

MallarmeManet1876.jpgDespite his radically novel notion of poetry, Mallarmé was no poète maudit like his predecessor Baudelaire. He was born in 1842 to an established middle-class family, married and remained faith to his German sweetheart, was father to two children, enjoyed domesticity and its furnishings, worked for most of his life as an English teacher outside of Paris, wrote prolifically about fashion, and published a modest amount of poetry. But his childhood was painful: his mother died when he was five, his father remarried and became detached, he was shuttled back and forth between relatives, rejected the religious orthodoxy of his family, was an indifferent and disobedient student, and watched his dear sister die when she was fifteen.

At age 24, Mallarmé slipped into a three-day trance state during which God appeared to him in the form of a huge bird “which bore him under ‘the bony wing of his old and menacing plumage’ to a ‘realm of shadows.’” After that experience, he wrote to his friend Henri Cazalis, “I am no longer the Stéphane whom you have known – but a capacity of the spiritual Universe to look at itself and to develop itself through what was once me.” The authority of a declamatory first person was erased and replaced by the governance of language itself, an innovation that has persisted to our times.

MallarmeShawl.jpg“Rupture, melancholy, skepticism, anxiety, self-criticism, spiritual failure, nihilism, and despair, alongside the perceived loss of individual autonomy as well as the failure of science and technology and of liberal institutions …” -- no, not the beginning of the Trump era, but what Bloch describes as “modernity, as it took shape in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth.” According to Bloch, “Mallarmé may have thought himself a vessel of the crisis of faith as it worked itself out between the Enlightenment and the end of the nineteenth century. Yet, he emerged in the 1860s from the psychological and moral extremity of his midtwenties not disenchanted but invigorated.”

But his masterwork is a disaster poem, a seaman’s narrative of a shipwreck: surging waves, sea storm with thunder, gale winds, poor visibility, the hazard of reefs. (Sailing was one of the poet’s lifelong pleasures.) The reader is forced to plunge into this calamity, lose one’s bearings and face the dilution of comprehensibility. Mallarmé regarded Wagner as his artistic rival and sought to lay his poem out on the page like a musical score. One can also think of the scattered phrases as the debris of a wreck, drifting without destination.

MallaemeNotes.jpgOne Toss of the Dice comprises a useful biography of Mallarmé, occasional passages on significant political and cultural events, and J.D. McClatchy’s translation of the poem (and its prose preface) laid out on the page with the vast white spaces, changes in type size and face, and arrangement of words across and down the page without regulation by left and right margins. Bloch then provides a final commentary on the poem’s techniques, effects, and significance. "'One Toss of the Dice' was not meant to be read aloud,” Bloch writes, “much less memorized. It was meant to be seen and to be taken in as much as a feat of graphic design as of aural effect.” Aurally, it challenged sense: “Jules Renard famously quipped that Mallarmé’s poetry was untranslatable, even into French.”

Ultimately, followers such as Valéry preferred to be modern in their own ways and cooled to Mallarmé’s near-religious insistences. “I loved Mallarmé, hated him, and looked in myself to find something else,” Valéry admitted. In his essay “Fountains of Memory,” he aimed directly at Mallarmé when stating, “But for me, the great task in poetry, now that so many experiments and exciting novelties have enriched almost to excess the treasury of expressions and possible forms of verse, is finally to seek more skillful compositions.” Even so, it had been Mallarmé who had “exercised and exalted the most spiritual of all functions of the Word, which neither demonstrates, nor describes, nor represents anything at all, and therefore does not require, nor even allow, any confusion between reality and the verbal power of combining for some supreme end the ideas that are born of words.

[Published November 8, 2016. 320 pages, $27.95 hardcover]