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After long campaigns carrying the fight for e-books to the print-only diehards, I’d like to turn back for once to something that can never be put into electronic format and will forever remain print. And for very good reasons. And yet it had to wait over a century until 2004 before appearing in the form its author originally wanted. And it is available online.

The work is Un coup de Dés (A Throw of the Dice) , or in full, Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance), French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s brilliant, utterly original and deeply strange free verse picture poem, which first appeared in the review Cosmopolis in 1897. Initially baffling, the layout of the work seemed to mime its theme, a meditation on chance and fatality where a master rolls the dice on the tilting deck of a foundering ship, with a meandering stream of words that allows for random skips across the text.

“In this work of an entirely new character, the poet is forced to make music with words,” Mallarmé wrote. “A sort of unfolding leitmotiv comprises the unity of the poem: the subsidiary motifs arrange themselves around it. The nature of the characters employed and the position of the white spaces serve as notes and musical intervals.”

Mallarmé was unsatisfied with the original layout in Cosmopolis, constrained by the review’s pages, and Ambroise Vollard, art dealer and art book publisher, offered to publish the work as an art book with illustrations by the Symbolist painter Odilon Redon. They entrusted the typesetting to the house of Firmin-Didot, and proofs were sent to Mallarmé then returned with corrections, which were more or less concluded by the time of his death in 1898.

The work subsequently became famous, but was never realized in the form Mallarmé intended until it was painstakingly reconstructed by Michel Pierson & Ptyx in 2002 from the photographs of the original proofs with Mallarmé’s corrections held in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Only 90 copies were printed, with the exact specifications and typography that he had originally wanted, and the printer’s few errors corrected. Those copies are now held at various museums, libraries and private collections—exactly like rare works of art. Of course, there could always be another longer print run, but for now, those books are treated as individual precious objects.

And looking at the pages, you can see why, where Mallarmé uses the gutter down the centre of the double-page spread as a basic structural feature. This is work whose physical character matters almost as much as a sculpture or painting. The project’s website gives some idea of it, though. It can never be quite the same as reading the actual paper version, but you can get at least an impression of it. And you can see a translation of it, with an attempt at the layout in English, here.

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