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Review of For Anatole's Tomb
Will Stone, The Guardian, Saturday 4th October 2003Previous review of 'For Anatole's Tomb'... To the 'For Anatole's Tomb' page...
Fury against the formless
The emotional derangement generated by the death of one's child must be almost impossible to bear, with even the most resourceful religious medicine having little effect. There are few poets with the ability to tackle such an emotive subject successfully, and it is no surprise to find that works in this vein are rather thin on the ground. Jon Silkin's "Death of a son" is a rare example, as is the work of the French writer Louis-René des Forêts, who lost a daughter.
A more famous instance is For Anatole's Tomb by Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-98), as it has come to be known. Now published in a parallel text edition translated by Patrick McGuinness, these fragments came out in France only in 1961, after 210 sheets of pencilled notes towards such a poem were found.
But before assessing Mallarmé's contribution to this sorrowful fold, one must mention his predecessor Victor Hugo, whose loss of his daughter Leopoldine in a drowning accident is perhaps the best-known example of such a calamity in French literature. To make matters worse, Hugo found out his daughter was dead only after reading about the accident in a newspaper.
Mallarmé was renowned as a writer of tombeau poems, elegies for the likes of Baudelaire, Poe, Gautier and Verlaine, in which he sought to liberate these revered figures from death. This resurrection would be achieved by means of a strictly policed poetic language employing the symbol as a means of expressing an "otherness" lurking beyond perceived reality. Mallarmé's verse would lead these venerated heroes into a kind of Orphean spiritual afterlife.
When his eight-year-old son Anatole died in 1879 after a grave illness, Mallarmé the poet was caught between the infectious desire to write such a tombeau for his son and the insupportable reality as a father of his child's sudden demise. Matters are complicated by Mallarmé's suspicion of his implication in his son's death on account of a hereditary blood disorder. This conflict is the key to the poetic fragments designed to be eventually gathered together as the tombeau for Anatole.
As McGuinness states in his assured introduction:
"Caught between accepting, as a poet, the boy's death, and resisting, as a father, the death of a son, Mallarmé finds two impulses - the paternal and the poetic - at odds with each other: the father mourns the life and fights the death, while the poet, 'complicit' with illness and death, prepares to write the tombeau." For Anatole's Tomb, argues McGuinness, takes us to the centre of these conflicting imperatives, showing how they undermine both the writing and the mourning.
McGuinness goes on to develop these themes further in an illuminating afterword, explaining both the system behind the poem fragments and the background to much of what is alluded to in them. Without this, the cut-and-paste method of Mallarmé's notetaking could prove mildly exasperating to the casual explorer, who may not necessarily be familiar with his habit of writing poem fragments and thoughts on tiny scraps of paper, a tactic that he habitually used in the development of his poems.
But this surely is the beauty of such an honest, unaffected work - that it can be read with equal satisfaction by both an admirer of Mallarmé and someone who has read little or nothing of the poet before. It is truly rare to find so much to be gained from an unfinished - or as McGuinness interestingly suggests, "unbegun" - work by a poet whose courage and assertiveness, though present, are perhaps somewhat concealed elsewhere in his work.
"Fury against the formless" declares the poet early on in the book, a clarion call that could sum up his entire oeuvre. Isolated in the desert of the white page these four words have an unexpected impact on the reader. Trapped between raw emotive expression and lyrical assurance, the poem fragments seem both restless and passionate: as if determined to scratch the wound, but also metaphysically coherent and vital.
One is consistently made aware of the raw conflict between distraught mother, guilt-ridden father and the poet readying himself to write. Again and again Mallarmé describes the mood of the mother at a loss in her mourning, desperately urging the boy to live, and therefore interrupting the poet's plans:
'You can with your little hands, drag me into your grave - you have the right -
- I myself who am joined with you, I let myself go -
- but if you wish, the two of us, let us make... an alliance -
- a hymen, magnificent - and the life left in me I will use to...
- so not mother then?'
As McGuinness points out, a marital struggle is taking place in which, each time there is a chance for some consolation in the grief, further blockage comes, and further questioning. Yet the emotional grind creates an unforced, even sublime poetry.
Also present is the idea that the child will not be dead as long as the parents believe that he is not dead, in other words that somehow death is controlled by those who remain, rather than by death itself, and only on their acceptance does the final negation occur. Disturbingly, in this context the poet is at odds with the boy himself, since he cannot begin his "purification" of the boy unless he is dead, and the boy refuses to die. The passages where the doomed child rises from the bed as the hopeful and yet horrified parents look on are striking and memorable. Mallarmé talks of "walling in" the boy before he is actually dead, almost as if he is embalming the body prematurely.
This collection has a curious intimacy and poignancy. It is hard to believe that these poem shards were written well over 100 years ago, since they seem so contemporary and accessible, despite any initial obscurity. The translation is careful but confident, finding the right balance between faithfulness to the French and sustaining a creative thrust in English. Without such equilibrium, the poems might have lost some of their vitality. This is a rare chance for this unique text to reach an anglophone audience. That it should seem so relevant and well disposed to our time, having leap-frogged an entire century, is nothing short of remarkable.
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