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BOOK REVIEW / Brooding on fans, wrecks and stars: 'Mallarme: A Throw of the Dice' - Gordon Millan: Secker and Warburg, 30.00 pounds

STEPHANE MALLARME is, by wide consent, the most difficult French poet of the 19th century. The fewer than 70 poems he brought to publishable form are distinguished by increasingly elliptical syntax and a brooding fascination with a small number of obsessive objects - particularly cups and vessels of all kinds, fans, shipwrecks and stars.

Mallarme invests these objects with symbolic significance, a weight of unspoken meaning towards which they can only point. His art of indirection and suggestion was both pioneering and exemplary for the Symbolist movement of the century's last decades. His awareness of art's arbitrarily formal nature reaches a climax in his last work, Un Coup de Des (Throw of the Dice), whose lyric phrases in various specified sizes of type are deliberately dispersed across largely blank pages whose very whiteness is itself symbolic.

Art was, for Mallarme, what reality needed to give it form, but his poetry reflects the division between the two. 'Everything, in the world, exists in order to end up in a book,' he wrote. Much of his adult life was spent preparing for Le Livre, The Book, as he referred to it, which was to have contained man's previous history, particularly intellectual and cultural, transforming it into the epic needed by Western civilisation as it moved definitively beyond Christianity. Le Livre was not written. Mallarme's ambition and failure have become a haunting myth for much modern poetry, but his toughly obscure and delicate techniques have done much to guide its practice, while his thought lies behind a great deal of recent French philosophy and criticism.

This, the first full-length biography of Mallarme for 50 years, is therefore a very welcome book. The story Professor Millan tells is one which is already broadly familiar, and in attending to Mallarme's work he focuses on what was published or completed rather than on the unfinished works which have so fascinated recent scholars.

Mallarme was born to a middle- class family and educated with a view to his becoming a bureaucrat. The deaths of his mother and sister have often been taken to be psychologically formative, but Professor Millan rather downplays their significance, stressing instead the importance of friendships that linked his provincial world to the literary life of Paris. Mallarme rebelled against his family's wishes and became a schoolmaster, teaching English. 'His class is asleep. The pupils have no jotters and do not take any notes. The teacher does not return or mark homework. His classes are uninteresting and progress is slow,' was the view of a headmaster relatively late in his career: Mallarme's professional incompetence forms a running thread in this book, together with his perennial financial problems.

Millan might have made more of the degree to which the stress of teaching prevented Mallarme from writing as much as he wished. And he could have considered how far the division of the reading public into high and low, which was well advanced in France before Mallarme began, placed the serious writer in a new social situation, one inimical to creation. Mallarme's belief in the strong and lonely artist, reflected in the difficulty of his work, was in part conditioned by this change, and Professor Millan is too ready to take Mallarme's own word for his independence from society.

Millan documents Mallarme's rise from provincial obscurity to minor celebrity clearly and fully, and discusses sympathetically the central relationships in his life, particularly his marriage and his late affair with the actress Mery Laurent. But this is essentially a public biography, concerned more with outward event than inward transformation, as is reflected in the often too perfunctory account of Mallarme's work.

The book gives too flat a presentation of the dramatic shape of Mallarme's life, which was cut in two by his spiritual experiences in Tournon, where he had his first provincial teaching post. Suffering from insomnia, ill health, overwork and social estrangement, Mallarme experienced the intrinsic meaninglessness of language considered in isolation and the void of a godless universe in a way which can only be described as a negative mystical illumination. Out of that crisis the first entirely modern poetry emerged, and Professor Millan's book, useful though it is for establishing facts, fails to convey the true drama of a profoundly interior life of priestlike vocation and reticent intransigence.