Death in the Family

A Tomb for Anatole

by Stéphane Mallarmé, translated with an introduction by Paul Auster
North Point Press, 202 pp., $13.50 (paper)

Has too much importance been given to the tomb-in-words that Mallarmé intended to erect for his son, Anatole, dead at eight, and too little to the poetry in which the father actually did immortalize his child? Mr. Auster tells us that the 202 fragments, recently republished with his translations, are not poems but “notes for a possible work: a long poem,” and, indeed, two of them are entitled “Notes,” and others contain reminders such as “idea there,” “general effect,” and “etc.,” as well as blank spaces for words in blocked-out lines. Yet fragments of these fragments are poetry.

The evidence that Mallarmé projected an epic work is more solidly supported in the fragments themselves than in any testimony about it, least of all the memoir by Mallarmé’s daughter published in 1926 from which Mr. Auster quotes two not-altogether-relevant sentences: “In 1879, we had the immense sorrow of losing my little brother…. I was quite young then, but the deep and silent pain I felt in my father made an unforgettable impression on me: ‘Hugo,’ he said, ‘was happy to have been able to speak [about the death of his daughter]; for me, it’s impossible.’ ” Fragment 129, however, reveals something of Mallarmé’s conception:

non mort—tu ne le
tromperas pas—
—je profite de
ce que tu le trompes
—pour son heureuse ignorance à lui
—mais d’autre part
je te le reprends pour le tombeau idéal

(no death—you will not
deceive him—
—I take advantage of the fact that you deceive him
—for his happy ignorance
—but on the other hand
I take it back from you for the ideal tomb)

That “the dead,” including Anatole, do not know they are dead (“—pour son heureuse / ignorance à lui“) is one of the recurrent themes of the fragments. Another is the merging of identities, of the son continuing to live in the father. (Reading these fragments, one thinks constantly of Stephen Dedalus’s line about Shakespeare playing the ghost in Hamlet: “To a son he speaks, the son of his soul, the prince, young Hamlet, and to the son of his body, Hamnet Shakespeare, who had died in Stratford that his namesake may live for ever.”)

Another of Mallarmé’s themes is that of his guilt for failing to endow his son with a stronger body, of wanting to form him to continue his own task (“the man / you would have been”), of wanting too much from him (“héritant de cette / merveilleuse intelli- / gence filiale,” which reminds us of Rodin’s comment after Stéphane Mallarmé’s funeral: “Combien de temps faudra-t-il à la nature pour refaire un cerveau pareil?“). Still another theme is that of the boy’s clothes:

trouver absence seule—

—en présence

de petits vêtements

(to find only absence—
—in presence

of little clothes)

and

petit marin—

costume marin
quoi!

—pour grande
traversée
une vague t’emporta

(little sailor—
sailor suit
what!

—for enormous
crossing
a wave will carry you)

The explanation for the considerable …

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