There was nothing remotely tame about Mallarmé’s approach to publishing…
Portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé, Édouard Manet, 1876
French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé lived in culturally unsettled times. Bicycle riding had become fashionable, newspaper reading was up, and the book trade was undergoing a crisis of identity. But all this was logs to the fire for Mallarmé, who held a literary salon in his home on Tuesday evenings, where he and other poets discussed the arts during a long evening capped off with a monologue delivered by Mallarmé himself. In addition to poets, a number of painters attended these so-called Mardis. Édouard Manet and Berthe Morisot were regulars. Paul Gauguin, when not in the South Seas, was no stranger to the Mallarmé digs. James McNeill Whistler was often present, but not when Oscar Wilde, whom he loathed, happened to be around. With a priest-like gesture, Mallarmé would signal the moment when he wished to start the monologue and then hold forth, leavening his remarks with much appreciated humor and wit.
By profession, Mallarmé was a barely competent teacher in lycées. The Ministry of Education once evaluated his classroom performance as subpar, insane even, given his methods of teaching English by having students attempt translations of Shakespeare’s King Lear or Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. Though his students were unable to render a phrase like “bring me some bread and cheese,” he insisted that they attempt to translate literary passages by relying on intuition and attending to the sound of the language for clues to meaning.
Mallarmé’s true calling, in addition to writing poetry, was as an essayist and translator. He was given to imagining new possibilities for the book, and in the 1870s and 1880s, he worked to define what a book was and, in a utopian world, what it might become. He is known now as one of the innovators, along with Manet, of the livre de peintre, or artist’s book, in which an original text by a poet appeared on a facing page with an original print—often an etching—by a contemporary painter. This may sound fairly tame (especially in an age when books rarely have pictures and “looking at the pictures” is a standard description for reading that is childish), but there was nothing tame about how Mallarmé thought about publishing. He once described the book as “the Orphic explanation of the Earth.”
Earlier writers in France, including Victor Hugo and poet Charles Baudelaire, had hewed to the idea that a true book—some called it the “heroic book”—must have an architectural shape and a unifying vision. Hugo thought of his entire oeuvre as a kind of super book—his many poems, novels, plays, and other writings, all of them the building blocks of an overarching structure.