Modern poetry's most dauntingly impersonal, critically depersonalized figure gets a ""life"" -- his first in 50 years --...


A THROW OF THE DICE: A Life of StÉphane MallarmÉ

Modern poetry's most dauntingly impersonal, critically depersonalized figure gets a ""life"" -- his first in 50 years -- that's respectful yet honest, original in findings and interpretations. Millan (French Studies/Univ. of Strathclyde, Glasgow), editor of Flammarion's critical edition of MallarmÉ's works, traces his subject's literary evolution in tandem with the early loss of his mother and sister, and his refusal to join the family line of comfortable civil servants. Millan also describes the consequences of the poet's ensuing relegation to lycÉe-level English teaching: endless penury aggravated by his extravagances; years of provincial exile; school authorities' harassment, even after transfer to Paris, for his appearance in avant-garde publications as well as chronic classroom ineptitude. If Millan's portrait of the young poet shows him to be at times ""incredibly unfeeling"" and flawed by self-pity, ""blind prejudice and downright snobbery,"" the mature MallarmÉ, who died at 56 in 1898, emerges as a devoted father, husband, friend -- and, of course, artist. Millan provocatively suggests a temperament ""fundamentally lyrical"" and not by nature intellectually disciplined, as MallarmÉ's remarks on resisting his innate ""gushing exuberance"" confirm. The poet's love of sonorous effect ultimately served to chart a fated discrepancy between sound and sense that reflected far broader disharmony between aspiration and limitation -- a discovery of ""Nothingness"" (MallarmÉ's word) whose only refutation is ""the Glory of the potential and the inventiveness of the human spirit."" For Millan, the poet's language captures ""the quintessential, perpetually vanishing, haunting yet ultimately untranslatable quality of life itself,"" a point he illustrates by quoting shorter poems (accompanied by his own incisive translations). Some will wish for more emphasis on larger projects like HÉrodiade, yet certain sonnets resonate here with new associations that are biographically derived but not merely biographical. A clear but by no means simplified portrait of a fundamental modern author.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 1994


Page Count: 400

Publisher: "Farrar, Straus & Giroux"

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1994