Prophet of Modernity

By Powell, Nicholas | The Spectator, November 28, 1998 | Go to article overview

Prophet of Modernity


Powell, Nicholas, The Spectator


Prophet

of

modernity

Nicholas Powell on a bold exhibition which marks the centenary of Mallarme's death The opening of Stephane Mallarme's poem `Brise marine' - `La chair est triste, helas! et j'ai lu tous les livres./Fuir! la-bas fuir!'- is one of the best known quotes in French literature. Yet few poets have ever been hailed as major or historical whilst being so rarely read and so little understood. Conveniently but misleadingly labelled a Symbolist, a recurrent nightmare for lyceens doing French Lit., Mallarme (1842-1898) has long fallen into the shadow of his more accessible and more picturesque contemporaries and friends Verlaine and Rimbaud (he was, admittedly, friends with virtually everybody).

Many French efforts to penetrate a work left incomplete -- Mallarme dreamt of a crowning magnum opus he referred to as `Le Livre' - have had unhappy results. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1952 preface for Gallimard's edition of Mallarme, for example, merely projected his own contradictions onto the poet, in whom he conveniently detected a sense of revolt searching for an issue. Recent criticism has contributed little more, judging by the verbose essays in the catalogue of the exhibition which the Musee d'Orsay is boldly and conscientiously staging to mark Mallarme's centenary. The show itself, however, running until 3 January in a series of rooms just opposite the two-hour-long queues waiting with Disneyland stoicism to enter the Van Gogh and Millet exhibition, is a delight. For the organisers' declared intent is not to 'explain' Mallarme but to provide a chronological and thematic look at his life and work.

The exhibition reveals the multiple aspects of a writer adulated as a prophet of modernity by avant-garde French writers, artists and musicians of his day: even Victor Hugo, who was no chicken, called Mallarme `mon cher poete impressionniste'. It also shows a man with unerring taste in music and painting (Mallarme once declared he preferred Monet's cathedrals to Sisley's churches), who wrote brilliantly about the theatre and who, through his determination and inventiveness, did, in the end, change the course of French poetry virtually single-handed.

Mallarme's mother died when he was five and he was packed off to a Paris boarding school which was so snobbish that, for self-protection, he invented a title for himself, le comte de Boulainvilliers. This sad early family life is evoked with a clutter of sepia photographs. The poetry, meanwhile, is available both in the form of manuscripts in a tidy, tightly controlled hand, and in beautiful recitations on earphones parked at strategic points throughout the exhibition. Obscure the poetry may be; it sounds sublime. Mallarme's relationships with artists are evidently what lend themselves best to visual presentation, beginning with Edouard Manet's magnificent portrait of the poet lolling on a sofa, cigar in hand and a dreamy expression on his face. A great admirer of Mallarme, Auguste Rodin gave him a number of plaster casts, including 'Nymphe', 1886, also on show at the Musee d'Orsay. The poet, in return, gave Rodin advice on how best to work, quoting himself as an example: producing the same quantity, at the same time every day, and never reading what he had written the day before. Paul Gauguin, who etched a portrait of Mallarme in 1890, presented him with a statue upon returning from his first trip to Tahiti, three years later.

In 1891 James McNeill Whistler, an especially close friend, also produced a fine etching of Mallarme, now in the Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow. Claude Monet, too, was close to Mallarme, who championed the Impressionists both in friendship (he presided over a well-attended salon at his home on the rue de Rome every Tuesday evening) and in the press. …

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