Saturday, June 24, 2006

Annotation on A Tomb for Anatole

A Tomb for Anatole (Pour un tombeau d’Anatole) is a fascinating translation of fragmentary notes written by French poet Stéphane Mallarmé after the sad but not altogether unexpected death of his son Anatole at the age of eight. The boy had never really been completely well from birth and his mother’s pregnancy had been difficult. By the medical standards of the late 19th century, Anatole had been diagnosed with children’s rheumatism, his symptoms being joint pain and a perpetually swollen abdomen.

Paul Auster, who translated Mallarmé’s fragments, comments in his introduction “This is one of the most moving accounts of a man trying to come to grips with modern death—that is to say, death without God, death without hope of salvation…” This comment made these fragments even more despairing for me to read. It is difficult enough to consider the death of any child, even more so the death of one’s own child. However, it is most difficult to read of such a painful loss knowing that the parents did not have any kind of faith to support them and, as Auster writes, “In this time of crisis even art failed Mallarmé” since he was unable to finish the long poem his notes suggest he would have written. The intended poem would have had four parts. Some of the fragments state for which part they were intended.

Auster describes the framents as “a kind of ur-text, the raw data of the poetic process” and most of them are just that. Auster also writes a disclaimer with which I would, in part, disagree:
Although they seem to resemble poems on the page, they should not be confused with poetry per se. Nevertheless, more than one hundred years after they were written, they are perhaps closer to what we today consider possible in poetry than at the time of their composition.

I would propose, rather, that some of these fragments are poems in and of themselves merely written at least 50 years ahead of their time. In my reckoning, nine of the 202 fragments could certainly qualify as poems by today’s standards, more if one is open to a much more abstract consideration of a poem. One such fragment poem is number 7 “what has taken refuge / your future in me / becomes my / purity through life, / which I shall not / touch— //. Mallarmé believed that his son was not really dead as long as the boy lived within his memory, creating a sense of the sacred within himself.

A sense of presence beyond death is conveyed in fragment number 30 “brother sister / not ever the absent one / -- / will not be less than / the one present—//.” This brief but concise poem of five lines quietly expresses the poet’s attempt to rationalize his loss by the very life of his daughter and does so perhaps more effectively than had the poet employed the conventions and constraints of his time.

We see denial demonstrated in fragment 93 which was designated for section 2 of the poem never written “the pious / burial of the / body, makes myste- / riously—this / admitted fiction— //” where being laid to rest becomes “fiction,” unreal for the poet. I would disagree with Auster’s insistence on breaking the lines awkwardly in the English translation for the sake of mirroring the original French. I would have broken “mysteriously” as “myster- / iously.” But, Auster is not claiming any of these fragments as poems so his decision to keep the translation letter for letter as it appears on the page in French makes sense authentically.

Fragment 129 speaks to me as if it were the title poem:

no death—you will not
deceive him—
--I take advantage of the fact

that you deceive him
--for his happy
--but on the other hand
I take it back from you
for the ideal tomb

I agree with Auster’s assertion that Mallermé would not have completed his intended long poem for that would have been Anatole’s entombment and not entombed he lives on, even beyond his loving father.

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