In his 1897 essay “Crisis of Verse,” Stéphane Mallarmé writes of a particular moment in poetry: Victor Hugo has died and “[a] French reader … cannot fail to be disconcerted.” Mallarmé adds, “Verse, I think, respectfully waited until the giant who identified it with his tenacious and firm blacksmith’s hand came to be missing, in order to, itself, break” (translation by Barbara Johnson). However, in this moment of breakage, of interregnum, is also the possibility of change. French poets may now diverge from the alexandrine to explore vers libre, free verse; Mallarmé still believes in form, but form is to be rediscovered, recomposed. “[N]othing will remain if not given form; a form we have reached the stage, precisely, of seeking out, faced with a break in the great literary rhythms … and their dispersal into shivers articulated in ways close to instrumentation” (translation by Rosemary Lloyd).
This moment of possibility allows for the evolution of Mallarmé’s Le Livre (The Book), an immensely complex lifework that was only first published in its entirety (in French) in 1957. Of Le Livre, Mallarmé wrote in a letter to Paul Verlaine: “[B]ut I am possessed by it and I will succeed perhaps — not in producing this work in its entirety … but to show a fragment of it completed, to make its glorious authenticity flicker from one position, indicating the totality of the rest for which a life is not enough” (from Sylvia Gorelick’s introduction).
Working directly from the more than 200 pages of notes and diagrams that comprise Le Livre, Sylvia Gorelick, a poet herself, translates, transcribes and most importantly, realizes Mallarmé’s intricate piece in English. She writes that she maintained a “radical fidelity” to the originals, which contain crossed-out and diagonal lines, underlining, and other typographical divergences. The result is just as experimental today as when it was written (even if the term “experimental” itself had yet to be applied to poetry in Mallarmé’s time).
Gorelick ensures that her process is visible, avoiding the common mistake of transcribers and translators who subvert the author’s intentions in order to make the work “legible.” Instead, Gorelick writes, “I have endeavored to communicate, in this translation, the profound discontinuity of the text — the relationship it has to its own obsessive revision and refashioning — its internal disjunction.” This includes respecting the visual impact of each page, which helps cohere the highly experimental text.
For so private a vision, The Book has a remarkably outward focus on its own public manifestation. It includes “mathematical calculations for the printing of the text and its theatrical presentation in a series of organized sessions (séances) in which the audience, partially chosen and partially aleatory, was to participate.”
It’s exciting to imagine, while reading The Book in all its crossings-outs, doubling backs, and stage directions, what a live reading/performance of it might be like. (A taste may be found in Federico Fellini’s film 8 ½: Toward the end, Guido Anselmi, a frustrated film director played by Marcello Mastroianni, imagines shooting himself in his despair. Then, as his enormous boondoggle of a set is dismantled, another character asks Guido, “Do you remember Mallarmé’s homage to the white page?” After that moment of imagined suicide, in that ultimate silence, Guido starts directing again. The film’s final act — a sort of public performance in which all the characters wear white — could approximate The Book beginning to take shape as a film within a film.)
Gorelick calls Mallarmé’s logic in his assemblage “luminous and hidden.” His imagined theatrical production is an expansive exploration into the full experience of poetry, including writing toward an overarching composition, led by a vision that includes erasure and repetition, juxtaposed with the minute financial details of printing, labor, and production, and, finally, reader and audience. The public aspect of this private work is important: Mallarmé imagines the number of audience members expanding and contracting, and at times even includes himself as audience; the annual number of readings of the work is considered, and the poet-reader is directed to stand this way or that. An archetypal hero is an element to be rotated in, then out, as other elements such as “ballets-parades” or “songs” or “the public square” are introduced. Even “assistants” are included, as well as how much the author “has the right to earn.”
The juxtapositions of astonishingly beautiful passages with streams of cost calculations are audacious, even breathtaking, and the typographical composition is key to holding it all together. Gorelick is right to respect it as completely as possible. The visual spaces of the page allow seemingly disparate parts to reveal themselves as essential elements of a poem, from money to poet to paper to reading to audience.
The session implies a volume the confrontation of a
fragment of book or volume —
volume with itself, be it: the development of the leaf,
in 3, a as to the text, in 3, in its quadruple aspect, (: :)
twice =8 (proving that it is that)
The public presentation is balanced with the physical manifestation of the book — audience members with number of pages and volumes, who attends, who listens, who reads. Mallarmé’s dream of an Ideal Book or Work (and which, as Gorelick points out in her introduction, it could be argued was never meant to be published) is rotating, combining and recombining, fragmentary, then whole, then shivering into its components again. And at its heart is poetry and the language that comprises it.
Always this word of a human
language and which designates someone
if it were spoken
“Everything becomes suspense, a fragmentary disposition with alternations and oppositions, all working towards the total rhythm of the white spaces, which would be the poem silenced; but it is translated to some extent by each pendant,” Mallarmé writes (“Crise de vers,” Lloyd). Gorelick has realized Le Livre as a new language so we may continue toward new and newer forms of poetry — that is true poetic innovation.
The Book by Stéphane Mallarmé, translated and with introduction by Sylvia Gorelick, is published by Exact Change and is available online and from indie booksellers.