When I claimed that Samuel Butler, in Erewhon, or Anatole France in Penguin Island* are hard to pin down, a little hard to understand, what I mean is that they are dedicated ironists, committed to not quite saying exactly what they mean. It can be difficult to understand their stance, or tell when they are joking or when they are merely joking (they are always joking).
I had been reading Stéphane Mallarmé alongside Butler and France, as if to remind myself what true difficulty looks like. Mallarmé challenges me to decipher individual sentences, or the use of specific words, words I understand in non-Mallarméan texts. And that’s in his prose that follows the usual rules of punctuation and paragraphing. What to do with this:
An excerpt from The Book, is what that is, from the 2001 Mallarmé in Prose, New Directions, pp 132-3. This particular piece is translated by Richard Sieburth, a champion of the more baffling side of Mallarmé. The title of this post can be found in the lower right-hand corner. Click to enlarge, I hope.
Mallarmé is constructing a text in a way that creates multiple meanings. The sentences can be read across, or down, or I can follow the lines. I can insert or omit phrases. The meaning of any particular section remains obscure, and the layering of possibilities only adds to my confusion. The effect overwhelms the sense. I see that Sieburth has written an article on this text – on the whole thing, 72 manuscript sheets – titled “Discard or Masterpiece? Mallarmé’s Le Livre.”
The only other time I have written about Mallarmé, I did the same thing I am doing here, scanning pages of the wildest things I could find. Mallarmé’s texts mostly do not look like this. His poems look like sonnets, his fashion writing looks like fashion writing. The sense is rarely much clearer, though.
Mallarmé’s writing – his prose as much as his verse – is essentially musical, with words chosen for their sound:
Whereas there was, when language reigned, a first attunement to the origin, in order for an august sense to be produced: in Verse, the dispenser and organizer of pages, master of the book. Visibly, whether it appears in the integrality among the margins and blanks, or dissimulates itself, call it Prose, but it’s still there if there’s any secret pursuit of music within the storehouse of Discourse. (“Displays,” Divagations, 1897, tr. Barbara Johnson)
The “secret pursuit of music” – in English, I have to take that on faith. Or, I can mouth the French here (bottom paragraph), and continue to scratch my poor head.
I mentioned the fashion writing, yes? Mallarmé wrote and published several issues of a fasion magazine, La Dernière Mode (The Latest Fashion) using a number of pseudonyms – Margeurite de Ponty, Miss Satin, A Reader from Alsace – in which he advises that the bustle is dead, but cameos are coming back into fashion, and bicycle pants should be partly covered by short skirts – “such a dazzle melts me, knocks me over, and pierces me” (M. in Prose, p. 95). He recommends perfumed soaps, by brand, and “the deliciously-named product Snow Cream.” He provides a recipe for mulligatawny, and ideas for the decoration of Christmas trees that would meet the approval of Martha Stewart (gilded walnuts!).
This glorious nonsense is drawn from the few pages of La Dernière Mode translated in Mallarmé in Prose. Why the whole thing, every issue, has not been translated is beyond me. I am not entirely sure of Mallarmé’s stance about fabrics and perfumes and top hats, either, but if I had to take my own stand, I would say that he means it, every word.
* Next week is Anatole France week! It is as if I am determined drive off my readers. Come back, come back! France is not so bad!