Modernist Poet Mallarme – Now in Hebrew

Poet and translator Dory Manor has spent years trying to render into Hebrew the work of pioneering modernist poet Stephane Mallarme. The result: a new volume with a key to help readers enter this sophisticated literary salon.

When poet, translator and editor Dory Manor was asked a few years ago to name the writer or poet whose absence in Hebrew translation is most glaring, he replied without hesitation: Stephane Mallarme. He said that long before thinking that he would be able to translate him some day. Now a selection of Mallarme’s poetry, translated from the French by Manor, is being published.

The book, “Hara’am Ha’ilem” (The Silent Thunder) includes 40 poems. They include a respectable portion of Mallarme’s work; in his 56 years he wrote very few finished poems. The book was published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad, with the support of the French Institute and the project for the translation of great literary works.

Manet Mallarme

Stephane Mallarme ‏(1842-1898‏) is one of the central figures in contemporary  world poetry, but his name and work are almost unknown to Hebrew readers. Manor assumes that that is mainly because of the built-in difficulty in translating such pure and complex poetry, which aims for musical effect and does not make concessions to its readers. “This is demanding and profound poetry that does not compromise and does not ‘give discounts,’” as he puts it.

Moreover, says Manor: “Mallarme is one of those poets whose work is considered by many to be ‘untranslatable,’ like James Joyce’s ‘Finnegans Wake,’ for example. That is probably because of its difficulty and complexity, but no less because the main protagonist of his poetry is the language itself. I’m especially pleased that this wonderful poet, who had a greater influence on me than any other poet, can finally be read in Hebrew too.”

Dory Manor
Tomer Appelbaum

This month also saw publication of a book of Dory Manor’s own poetry. “Emtza Habasar” (“The Center of the Flesh: Poems 1991-2001”), edited by Dan Miron, includes works by Manor that appeared in his earlier books “Mi’ut” (Minority) and “Baritone,” as well as the libretto for the opera “Alpha and Omega,” and new poems.

Manor began publishing poems about two decades ago in the periodicals Av and Ho!, as well as in Haaretz. “The Center of the Flesh” also includes a collection of his translations to Hebrew of works by Mallarme as well as Charles Baudelaire, Federico Garcia Lorca, William Blake and others. Miron writes, in an afterword to the book that, “In terms of quality, Manor’s poetry is no less than ‘perfect’ ... like a certain type of statuette, the small physical dimensions of his poems does not subtract from them the expression of size and momentum of statues in city squares and streets.”

Fashion and gossip columns

Manor, 40, has been translating poetry from French for years. (Others he has rendered into Hebrew include Paul Valery and Paul Verlaine.) The translation of Mallarme is for him a direct continuation of his translation of Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du Mal.”

“Mallarme is considered, along with Baudelaire and [Jean] Rimbaud, one of the great pioneers of modernism in European poetry,” he explains, “and his work had a profound influence on generations of readers and poets, from Rainer Maria Rilke to Paul Valery, from Stefan George to T.S. Eliot. In his work, Mallarme wanted to ‘portray not the thing but its effect,’ and the influence of this revolutionary concept, which is very similar to the worldview of his friends the Impressionist painters, is still in evidence in the way we think about poetry.”

Mallarme was born in Paris, and lived there most of his life. His grandfather and father worked all their lives as government clerks and Mallarme expected to do the same, but he had a bent for poetry. He was a poor student and at the age of 13 he was even kicked out of his Catholic boarding school, due to lack of discipline and bad behavior.

Mallarme was 19 when he came he first encountered “Les Fleurs du Mal.” His early poetry was strongly influenced by Baudelaire: At the start of his career he worshiped and imitated him.

Mallarme’s life was full of tragedy. His mother died when he was 5. When he was 15, his sister, who was two years his junior, died. His father died when he was 21. A few months later Mallarme married Maria Gerhard, a German woman with whom he lived in London. The year they married they returned to Paris. They had two children. In 1879 their son Anatole died from an illness, at age 8.

Mallarme worked for many years as a high school English teacher, and he published translations of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry. He was active in poets’ circles, edited a fashion periodical, writing all of its articles under a variety of female pseudonyms, and for years he also wrote a gossip column about the Paris bohemian life for a British newspaper.

“He was a very sociable person,” says Manor, “a magnet for the Parisian bohemian community” of his era.

“Mallarme’s Tuesdays” became a concept in French culture. Every Tuesday at 8 P.M., the greatest artists of the period gathered in his Paris apartment on the Rue de Rome. They included Impressionist painters Edgar Degas, Pierre Auguste Renoir and James Whistler, composers Claude

Debussy and Maurice Ravel, and writers Andre Gide, Paul Claudel and others. Non-French writers who showed up included Oscar Wilde, Stefan George and Rilke.

“Mallarme would stand there leaning against the fireplace and talk and talk,” says Manor. “He was apparently an expert at the art of conversation, he bewitched them in his little apartment. It was there that arts started to be combined: Choreographers started to write dances based on poetry, artists started to paint based on literary works, and musicians to compose songs. He was the great connector, and the Symbolist movement in poetry was established in his home.”

You can decipher it

Mallarme’s poetry is very complex, and in the new book Manor presents, alongside the poems, a key that he created in order to help readers enter this sophisticated literary salon.

“It’s neither an explanation nor an interpretation, but a key,” says Manor. “It’s essential.” He adds that this is the first time he’s done such a thing with a translated work.

Manor admits that when you first read Mallarme there’s a feeling that it’s a riddle. “He really is very complicated, but this complexity has depth, and you can not only decipher it but you can also derive tremendous aesthetic pleasure and enjoyment.”

He says that you have to read Mallarme three times in order to derive from it what you can derive from great poetry. “The first reading is one of total darkness. You don’t understand who’s who, nor the syntax or how the sentence is constructed.” That applies to the French original, explains Manor, “perhaps even more than in Hebrew.”

He says he understand people who will put the book aside after the first reading. “It’s part of his work, to build a kind of defensive wall. It’s part of what he wants to do. But on second reading this fog begins to lift, and through the darkness, blocs of understandable text begin to be revealed. If you go on to the next stage − to the third reading − everything becomes clear in a way that causes great pleasure.

“That’s typical of reading Mallarme. It’s no coincidence that people said that he was the poets’ poet. There was a cult of people who admired him already during his lifetime; and even later and far into the 20th century. Poets like T.S. Eliot and Valery really worshiped him.”

Manor says that there are several ways of being a poet who is not understood. “I think about opposites: Two contrasts that I like are Mallarme, on the one hand, and Yona Wallach, on the other. Wallach has blockages in her poetry and a sense of association. I’m not always certain that I know what she’s talking about, but I’m certain that it’s beautiful. In the final analysis she wrote what was in her head. With Mallarme a similar type of vagueness won’t be the result of a whim. He’s always balanced, determined, he’s well aware of what he is doing. He’s one of the most aware artists I have encountered. He’s marvelously lucid.”

Absolute nonsense

Manor says that for years he tried to translate Mallarme and failed. “I came across him when I was 17 or 18 years old. I didn’t know that he was one of the fathers of modern poetry, but I read, and I didn’t understand what I was reading. As happens in such cases, I soon constructed an ideology for myself to the effect that it wasn’t that I didn’t understand, but that he was probably a charlatan who deliberately wrote complex things in order to demonstrate how clever he was. Today I know that that’s absolute nonsense. He’s a wonderful and very sensual poet. As aware and lucid as he is, he has beauty and innocence.”

His initial failure at rendering the poet effectively in Hebrew, he eventually understood, was due to his attempt “to translate Mallarme from the third reading, the deciphering reading. It was as if I had translated the interpretations instead of the poem. I understood the situation about three years ago. I simply understood that what I had to translate was the darkness, that first stage of fog, so that the Hebrew reader could perform the same act that I performed in French. I understood that I had to translate all the complexity, and at the same time to provide keys.”

It is said in jest of Mallarme that only someone for whom French is not his mother tongue can understand his poetry. But Manor says “that’s very true. The distance between his language when he writes poetry and everyday language is so great and so extreme, that only someone who studies French from outside can approach it with more virgin ears.”

Mallarme, says Manor, discovered new things about the language and therefore about consciousness as well. “Mallarme has a discovery that is the basis of much of modern poetry. He writes poetry in a way that resembles the way a composer writes a symphony. It’s hard to ask about a poem of his ‘What’s the poem about?’ The poem has a subject, of course, but his poem is its musical texture, its linguistic experience.

“Every word in a poem of his has its dictionary meaning but also the historical, etymological and musical meaning, its connection to other words, its sociological connections, the context in which people say it, if at all. All these things enter deep into a poem by Mallarme. Much more than the subject of the poem.”

Mallarme’s good friend Claude Debussy approached him one day after reading his poem “L’Apres-midi d’un Faune” and told him that he loved the poem and wanted to set it to music.

Mallarme replied that the poem was already set to music, that the poem itself as he had written it included all possible musicality. And if everything was in it, why set it to music? Debussy decided to write a symphonic poem without words,  based on Mallarme’s poem.

“Debussy wrote a very sensual and erotic symphony based on it,” says Manor. “The next stage in the development of the poem is that one of the most important classical ballets was created based on it [in 1912],. The lustful faun was danced by Nijinsky [who also choreographed it]. That was already after Mallarme’s death.”

Manor says that he translates every poet differently. “If Baudelaire is an accursed poet who writes inside a cloud of opium and describes his encounters with prostitutes and his syphilis, I translate him out of awareness of that. It’s different from translating Mallarme, who is a serious intellectual who thought about every word in the French language before writing it. I’m aware of whom I’m translating and try to find suitable Hebrew words for each of them.”

In the book’s introduction, Manor wonders which readers will be interested in

Mallarme. He predicts that his Hebrew translations won’t be set to music by rock stars and won’t be quoted in teenage blogs. Instead, he quotes Valery who once wrote, “Imagine what is necessary in order to become popular with three million readers. Paradox: It requires much less than what is required to become uniquely popular with 100 people.”