Like the oceans of waste we pump out every day, there are faraway graveyards of thrown-away books, untouched or unseen for millennia. The carcasses of discarded volumes form the very ground on which we walk and stuff the furniture on which we sit. Geologists have determined that the combustion in the bowels of the Earth is powered not by the decay of uranium-238 and potassium-40, but by an inferno of trammeled copies of GQ and Teen Vogue. Rummage sales are the mass execution yards where John Grisham dies a million deaths in effigy.
It is easy to forget that text and books have not always been so disposable, given the ubiquity of mass-market paperbacks and an amount of digitally published text much larger than any person could ever possibly read. In contrast with the decadent, gimmicky “deluxe editions” you see coming out of publishers like Penguin there are many traditions of textual production that do much more in terms of substantively thinking through the relationship between text, image and the book as physical object.
This sets the stage for Stéphane Mallarmé and the retranslation of his major late work “Un coup de Dès jamais n’abolira le hasard” (“A Roll of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance”) from Seattle-based Wave Books. A 19th-century French poet (1842-1898) in the league of Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, Mallarmé held massive influence through his poetry, his prose and criticism, his editorial work on various publications, including a short-lived fashion magazine, and his salons. The regulars of his philosophical, literary meetings included Paul Verlaine, W.B. Yeats and Rainer Maria Rilke. Many critics of the 20th and 21st centuries hold him up as an antecedent of some of the most important theoretical developments in critical theory and literary criticism.
His poem, “A Roll of the Dice,” is a “typographical extravaganza,” to use Brian Kim Stefans’s phrase from his review of French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux’s 2012 “The Number and the Siren: a Decipherment of Mallarmé’s Coup de Des.” Mallarmé’s instructions for the 1897 edition to his publisher, Vollard, were meticulous and exacting, although never executed either in his lifetime or after except for one undertaking in 2004 and, now, the efforts of translator Robert Bononno and Ypsilanti-based translator and designer Jeff Clark (Quemadura Studio). They bring Mallarmé’s radical vision to life in their powerful and beautiful edition.
The words are set in different sizes, italicized or not, in descending and scattered movements across the page. “The ‘white spaces’ (les blancs), in effect, assume importance, are the first that strike our eyes; versification has always required them, usually as an encompassing silence, such that a poem… occupies, centered, about a third of the page: I don’t disregard this method, merely disperse it,” Mallarmé says in the preface to his poem. In some literary historical accounts, this emphasis on movement and speed anticipates the Futurist and Dadaist avant-garde movements of the twentieth century.
Taking his cue from the Mallarmé’s instructions for the Vollard edition, Clark substitutes the “vaguely nautical” lithographs by Odilon Redon with his own illustrations. These illustrations, he explains, are “randomly-lit, burst-mode photographs of black-and-white laserprints” that lend an impersonal and austere air to Bononno and Clark’s impressive translation. The result, coupled with the “extended weight of Helvetica” that Clark opts for in the English text, is a gorgeous work that prompts questions of aesthetic unity involving the book itself as an aesthetic object. All the while, these questions are given body and made exciting in their eminently recognizable contemporary English.
Mallarmé consciously positioned his literary project, embodied both in “A Roll of the Dice” and his thirty-year-in-the-making “utopian enterprise” titled simply “Le Livre” (The Book), as a sort of atheist inheritance of what David Roberts calls the “Catholic tradition of mystery” in his book “The Total Work of Art in European Modernism.” It was through a “numerologically structured ceremony of public reading” that Mallarmé sought “to found a new poetic religion that would be secular modernity’s answer to Christianity,” says Adam Kotsko in The New Inquiry.
Roberts also describes how Mallarmé’s aim stands in contrast with another aesthetic paradigm of 19th century – Richard Wagner’s concept of the total work of art, or the Gesamtkunstwerk. Wagner sought to unify all modes of aesthetic representation in the theater through his ambitious operatic works. Mallarmé, by contrast, aspired to the creation of a book that incorporated everything through an act of poetic “dematerialization, abstraction, and generalization,” Roberts says. But if their ideas are antithetical (this is an incredibly complicated debate that I can’t delve into here), they at least share a drive toward unity and totality. “Everything was made in order to end up in a book,” Mallarmé remarked in conversation with Jules Huret, which Turkish novelis and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk cited in a 2008 interview with Carol Becker in the Brooklyn Rail.
Although Mallarmé worked “(to invent) a style of critical prose as well as poetry” that emphasizes “ellipses, discontinuities, and obscurities,” Barbara Johnson explains in her review of a biography of Mallarmé in the London Review of Books, “(this) is not to say that Mallarmé’s late, most stylistically radical books have nothing to do with the desire for coherence.” “(Along) with his fragmentation of all the usual modes of meaning, he also imagined that ‘The Book’ would put everything back together in a higher synthesis. This impersonal, prismatic, grand oeuvre would also be a key to all mythologies, the ‘Orphic explanation of the earth.’”
This is what’s at stake when Clark approaches this book as a designer. His task is to animate Mallarmé’s ambitions through the interplay between translation, typography, illustration and how these are all packaged in the book’s overall design. And it is crucial to note that Mallarmé’s hopes play out in real-life, material books.
“The reason ‘A Roll of the Dice’ and its presentation are different from highly collectible, lavishly produced book-of-the-month club limited edition type stuff is that Mallarmé was fussing over trim size and paper stock and typography because he placed a lot of hope in this particular poem. And so not only every word of this poem was hyper sought-out by him and agonized over, but he carried that sort of intensive work into the actual material embodiment of the book,” Clark said.
The final product of Clark and Bononno’s labors is a vindication of books whose physicality and materiality have something to say, books that are more than chic “fetish objects” (Clark’s words). But this is not done in the service of a large profit margin, as partly illustrated by how Mallarmé’s “fussing” over the paper and typeface of his book no doubt exasperated his publisher. Mallarmé’s poem, and Clark and Bononno’s amazing rendering of it, confronts questions of the possibility of totality in art and how this process plays out on an object made out of ink-spattered paper glued to cardboard that circulates in a market.
“Hopefully she (the reader) will come away with a sense that every part of the book is yet another extrapolation of the ideas that are at stake in the poem itself,” Clark said.