BOOK REVIEW / The patron saint of Difficulty: 'Mallarme: A Throw of the Dice' - Gordon Millan: Secker, 30 pounds

'HOW long will it take Nature to produce another brain like that?' were Rodin's words as he walked away from Stephane Mallarme's funeral. In his lifetime (1842-98), Mallarme was respected, loved, even revered by his peers and disciples, and ridiculed by the press on the grounds that his work was wilfully obscure, precious, incomprehensible, mad. In our own century, scholars and critics (French and Anglo-American) have elected him the patron saint of Difficulty. Behind the brain that produced some of the purest and most challenging poems of their time, or any time, and some of the most subtle and uncompromising reflections on poetry, Mallarme the husband and father, the Parisian litterateur, the kindly 'Mossieu' of the little hamlet of Valvins, has all but disappeared. Mallarme would probably not have minded; after all, he pronounced himself dead at the age of 22, to be resurrected in his visionary writings. Part of Gordon Millan's purpose in Mallarme: A Throw of the Dice is to rescue the poet's gregarious, retiring, dedicated, distracted personality from the myths and distortions, and to see the work as of a piece with the man who loved life and suffered. As Samuel Beckett said, in a very different context: 'Thanks, I suppose'.

Mallarme's was mostly an inner life, but, as he recorded much of this in his correspondence, we are mercifully spared too much 'reading back' from the poems. Millan also draws on earlier scholar-biographers, but they can't be blamed for the old-fashioned feel of his book. He briskly plays down the death of Mallarme's mother when he was five and of his sister when he was 15, insisting that too much commentary on Mallarme has seen his work as death-dominated - which, even on the least wilful of readings, it clearly is, albeit indirectly. Descended from an unbroken line of civil servants, and brought up by a sensible, devout, 'doting' grandmother, Mallarme was expected to follow them into secure drudgery. He was made of riskier stuff, rejecting the job of bureaucrat and the Catholic faith and, at the age of 21, marrying Marie Gerhard, a German governess who was - in the eyes of his family - clearly his social inferior. On the marriage certificate he capped his rebellion by giving his profession as 'Artist'.

What he in fact became was an indifferent teacher of English in a series of provincial lycees. He endured stupefying summers and crippling winters, longed for Paris and literary companions, was beset by financial worries (he was inclined to decorate his homes above his income), and tortured by ill-health and insomnia. From these years of isolation and anguish, from brushes with breakdown and insanity, from a long, dark night of spiritual-intellectual struggle, Mallarme emerged humbly triumphant, with a new and exalted vision of the human imagination, in the absence of God, at the centre of the universe, the poet 'proclaiming, before the Nothingness which is the truth, these glorious lies]'. The crisis brought, too, an acceptance of domestic responsibilities and rewards (he was the least Bohemian of poetes maudits), a renewed pleasure in what would prove to be the poles of his life: 'I have descended deep enough into the Void to be able to speak with certainty. Beauty alone exists and it has only one perfect expression, Poetry. Everything else is a lie - except, in the case of those who live the life of the body, for love, and for that love of the mind, friendship.'

It's a beautiful and dignified credo, to which he remained faithful. Poetry was the sacred mystery. His marriage seems to have been a companionate one; he was devoted to his daughter, and devastated by the death of his son at the age of eight. As for the life of the body, Millan believes he became briefly the lover, later the loving friend, of the mondaine Mery Laurent. He had a genius for friendship, often based on generous (and mutual) appreciation - of Manet, Berthe Morisot, Whistler, Paul Valery among many others; his legendary Tuesday evening salon began soon after his eventual move to Paris and continued almost to his death. Huysmans paid homage in a novel, Verlaine in a critical study; he enjoyed (though that is not the word) a little late celebrity.

Meanwhile he continued to dream of, and work towards, the Book: 'The Orphic explanation of the Earth which is the sole duty of the poet and the supreme literary game'. It would contain everything - alchemy, ritual, philosophy - what Mallarme called the history of Man. Only notes and fragments survive of this extraordinary Dream (capitals proliferate around this poet), while his mature published work in verse consists for the most part of sonnets, many of which begin from nothing more than an item of furniture, a woman's fan, a cigar, and are in a sense 'occasional' poems - written to answer an editor's request or please a friend. The 'lyrical drama', Herodiade, on which Mallarme worked all his life, remained unfinished at his death; the several hundred lines of it in the Collected Works are, in a way, another fragment. There is a substantial body of prose poems and - a genre Mallarme invented - 'critical prose poems', meditations on painting, the theatre, the dance, on fashion and, of course, on poets and poetry.

There is a 'philological study', Les Mots anglais; there are translations from Poe. There is the weird and wonderful experiment, Un coup de des (A Throw of the Dice). There is, almost, an embarras de richesse. But in order, we come to realise, that any of this should have been done, in order that Mallarme should have patiently gone on reinventing the possibilities of French verse and prose, the Dream, the belief that the real work had hardly begun, was crucial.

If Mallarme's life had a pattern, this play of deferral and creativity, corresponding to the play of confidence and self-doubt, elation and depression, takes us close to seeing it. But his friend Henri de Regnier's diary entry of 1894 (four years before Mallarme's death), quoted here, goes to its heart: 'The cosmic dreamer is the most meticulous of writers. This man who dreamt up another Bible is a producer of wondrous madrigals, and as for the frescoes he imagines, you could say that they result in delightful snuffboxes . . . Is he only going to be an astonishing precursor? . . His is the most astonishing literary adventure of the century. The very opposite of Hugo, where the infantile nature of his thought is compensated by a prodigious verbal capacity, whereas in Mallarme the hyperbolic imagination does not carry with it the weight of its own rocket.' Mallarme's escape from under the vast shadow of Victor Hugo had to be almost soundless; such was his diffidence. (Let Rimbaud go off like a rocket.) At the same time, he needed to believe that he might one day produce a Work comparable in scale and scope to Hugo's and as innovative as Baudelaire's; such was his pride.

Millan seems aware of the paradox, or contradiction, or oddity, but is hampered by his desire to defend Mallarme against a putative charge of failure. Nor does his book evince the feel for the epoch, or the milieu, that would make all this come across, or alive. He gives us the facts, and describes poems as 'lyrical outpourings'. His book is at best serviceable, at worst clumsy. That won't really do for Mallarme, who never wrote a clumsy or serviceable word in his life.