Mysteries of Mallarmé

A Throw of the Dice: The Life of Stéphane Mallarmé

by Gordon Millan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 389 pp., $35.00

Stéphane Mallarmé, who died in 1898, had to wait till 1941 for a biography. Its author was the great Mallarmé scholar Henri Mondor, who later produced the Pléiade edition. Mondor was writing in German-occupied Paris and, partly for this reason no doubt, his book glorified Mallarmé as stoic hero, victim of base ingratitude and incomprehension. The book was exceedingly long, Mondor having decided to describe this career, so outwardly uneventful, as part of the day-to-day chronicle of events on the Paris literary scene. It was not an absurd plan, but Mallarmé tends to become lost to view, and one wearies of Mondor’s assumption that anyone criticizing Mallarmé must be a fool or a knave.

The new biography by Gordon Millan makes a neat contrast, both in scale (it is not much more than a quarter the length) and in tone. For it is clearly Millan’s theory that, just because people are great writers, they must not be allowed to get away with things. His attitude toward Mallarmé is that of the candid friend or sympathetic social worker. When the young Mallarmé admits to a friend that his stepmother, whom he had written off as a penny-pinching Philistine, had acted with great tact and generosity, Millan comments firmly that “the apology was well deserved and long overdue.”

On the events leading to Mallarmé’s marriage Millan is even more downright. The story itself is fascinating and rather touching, being the only occasion when we observe the imperturbable Mallarmé confused and humanly bewildered. He was, in 1862, twenty years old. With great struggle, he had just extricated himself from a career in the civil service and had found an excuse to escape to England, to prepare himself as an English teacher. What is more—though his family did not know this—he was taking with him a mistress, a German governess two years older than himself, named Marie Gerhard. The two took lodgings near Piccadilly Circus, and for a week or two were happy, Mallarmé deciding that London, when invisible in fog, was the finest city in the world. Then Marie grew full of foreboding, terrified of becoming pregnant, and took it into her head that she might be wrecking Mallarmé’s future. She insisted she must get back to France, and he escorted her sadly as far as Boulogne. Without her, London proved unbearable and soon he had persuaded her to return—following which there was a series of goings-and-comings, Stéphane at one point conceiving a bizarre scheme that he should offer marriage to Marie once he was sure she would have the firmness of mind to accept him without it.

Gordon Millan comes down sternly on him at this point. His attempt to “pass himself off as a heroic martyr” in marrying Marie is, says Millan, altogether unconvincing. “Of the two, it was Marie who had demonstrated the greater maturity, Marie who had made the greater sacrifice and taken the greater risks.” These are very sensible remarks, and very likely, had we been on the…

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