Friday, December 9, 2016

French Lessons: Seminal Works by Mallarmé and Camus

by John Simon

New York Times

December 9, 2016

France has always been the cynosure of the world’s culture watch. What happens there has influenced philosophy and the arts throughout the world. Just why this is so is hard to say. But Stéphane Mallarmé’s poetry and Albert Camus’s prose fiction — notably the poem “One Toss of the Dice Never Will Abolish Chance” (1897) and the novel The Stranger (1942) — set the tone for much that followed. Now we have two new books about them: R. Howard Bloch’s One Toss of the Dice and Alice Kaplan’s Looking for ‘The Stranger.’

Each has a significant subtitle: Bloch’s The Incredible Story of How a Poem Made Us Modern, Kaplan’s Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic. Despairingly, I defy anyone to fully explicate “Dice,” whereas “Stranger” has already been analyzed to a fare-thee-well. Bloch’s book is really two books. First, an account of Mallarmé’s uneventful life as a not very stimulating English teacher, early on in the provinces and later in Paris, until a relieved early retirement and premature death in 1898 at the age of 56. This includes an introduction to his work, progressively more difficult, as well as amusing anecdotes about the man and his contemporaries. Second, a translation of “Dice,” plus a dubious attempt to explicate the poem, and questionable claims for its influence on just about every major writer thereafter, including scientists and philosophers.

We get a detailed interpretation of the 20-page “Dice” as translated by the noted American poet J.D. McClatchy, who unfortunately takes some minor liberties, as well as mistranslating “parages du vague” (“region of vagueness”) as “region of waves.” I wonder also about the title’s rendering “A Throw” as the somewhat misleading “One Toss,” perhaps just to differ from Gordon Millan’s fine biography, correctly entitled “A Throw of the Dice.”

The poem employs everything from huge to tiny print, and is to be read across pairs of facing pages as single units, with the long title winding its way, word by single word, through the whole work. Much blank space surrounds the slender text, meant to evoke an all-embracing nothingness. It seems to involve a shipwreck, symbolizing the ultimate failure of a poem meant to be experienced as sound, meaning and look on the page. Mallarmé, like the alchemists, wanted to achieve the “great work,” but, rather than to create gold, to transform the whole world into a book or poem.


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