Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898) was a very great, difficult poet, perhaps the most obsessively pure of all. For him, everything in the world existed to end as a book (a statement attributed to, then adopted by, him), and that book, one way or another, would be a book of poetry. But Mallarmé the prose writer is a different story. In that capacity, he was more problematic, writing a gnarled, convoluted, studiedly obscure prose, not infrequently to the point of impenetrability. This is why his main collection of prose, Divagations (1897), remained not fully translated into English for 110 years. Now we have the first complete translation by Barbara Johnson, an unholy mess.[1]

A very large portion of Mallarmé’s prose is unlike any other. Difficult as his verse is, it is, with considerable loss to be sure, translatable. But the serious, artistic prose, with some...


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