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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,1 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 interest in Mr. Auster’s versions of the Anatole fragments can only be that despite much that is “obscure,” “elliptical,” and “unintelligible,” some lines are more direct and immediate than any to be found in Mallarmé’s certified poetry, where, of course, he would never have published such raw expressions of emotion as:

je le veux, lui—et


non moi—
(I want him, him—and

not myself—)

and

maladie à la-
quelle on se
rattache, dési-
rant qu’elle
dure, pour l’avoir,
lui plus longtemps

(sickness one
clings
to, want-
ing it
to last, to have him
longer)

and

moment où il faut
rompre avec le
souvenir vivant,
pour l’ensevelir
—le mettre en bière,
le cacher—avec
les brutalités de
la mise en bière

(moment when we must
break with the
living memory,
to bury it
—put it in the coffin,
hide it—with
the brutalities of
putting it into the coffin)

In the introduction, Mr. Auster translates the passages from Mallarmé’s and his wife’s letters referring to Anatole and his illness (“childhood rheumatism” complicated by an enlarged heart), the false convalescence, and the fainting fits that began shortly before the death (presaging the poet’s own death, following an attack of suffocation). Writing to a friend who had sent Anatole a parrot, Mallarmé complains of being unable “to do anything literary,” yet bedizens his descriptions of the bird, Sémiramas, whose “auroral belly seems to catch fire with a whole orient of spices.”

The introduction might have said something about the characteristic forms of the fragments, their short—never more than six syllable—lines, the frequency of sequential pairs for the continuation of meaning and subject (as in 1 and 2 below) as well as the occurrence of larger sets (3, 4, and 5), and the use of some of the same indicia as in the manuscripts for the so-called “Livre de Mallarmé.” Mr. Auster’s translations are smooth enough, but “clearly/dearly” seems to inject the wrong tone:

(1
… . .
   you who will see
clearly, o my—dearly
(2
beloved…
(1
(… . .
   vous qui verrez
bien, ô mon—bien
(2
aimé…)

and “knees” and “need” seem knock-kneed:

   knees, child
   knees—need
to have the child here

(genoux, enfant genoux—besoin
d’y avoir l’enfant)

The fragments expose the poet’s imagination engendering possibilities, if not of overcoming Anatole’s death in art,

je ne veux pas fermer les yeux—
qui me regar-
deront toujours

(—I do not want to close his eyes—
that will look
at me always)

then of creating his survival through poetry, the reality in the image. Leo Bersani^2 has suggested that Mallarmé could not write the poem because “of a reluctance to reduce life to the trivializing nobility of a redemption through art.” But in this otherwise well-phrased indictment of the aesthetic of art elevated to religion, the word “reluctance” implies a voluntary act of decision. Mallarmé, as these cris de coeur show, was stricken beyond the power of his art to help him:

tu peux, avec tes
petites mains, m’entraîner
dans ta tombe—tu
en as le droit—
moi-même
qui te suis moi, je
me laisse aller

(you can, with your little
hands, drag me
into your grave—you
have the right—
I
who follow you, I
let myself go)

  1. 1

    The fragments were first published in Paris in 1961 as Pour un tombeau d’Anatole, Jean-Pierre Richard, editor.

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