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One Toss of the Dice

The Incredible Story of How a Poem Made Us Modern


R. Howard Bloch (View Bio)
Hardcover: W.W. Norton & Co., 2016.

One Toss of the Dice

It was the forerunner of our digital age, improbably a French poem about a shipwreck published in 1897 that, with its mind-bending possibilities of being read up and down, backwards and forward, even sideways, launched Modernism.

éphane Mallarmé’s “One Toss of the Dice” a daring, twenty-page epic of ruin and recovery, has for over a century tantalized everyone from physicists to composers to graphic artists.  In this detective-like work of literary history, renowned scholar R. Howard Bloch decodes the poem still considered among the most enigmatic ever written.

Creating a shimmering portrait of Belle-Époque Paris with a cast of exotic characters—Napoleon III, the Lumière brothers, Whistler, Rodin, Berthe Morisot, even an expatriate American dentist—that recalls Roger Shattuck’s classic The Banquet Years, Bloch positions Mallarmé as the spiritual giant of late nineteenth-century France.

Featuring a new translation of the poem by J. D. McClatchy, One Toss of the Dice reveals how a masterpiece shaped our perceptual world.

"Bloch regards "Un Coups de Dés" as the culmination of Mallarmé’s life, ideas, and intentions, and as he relates the poet’s story, persistently connects it to the poem, which he characterizes as epic. In it, Mallarmé, Bloch argues, sought to make words and images simultaneously portray action and emotion, thereby anticipating the simultaneity of Einsteinian physics, cubist art and literature, and today’s hypertext, whose common aim is to dispel time. The biography of a person and a great book, this is altogether extraordinary." — Booklist (starred review)

"'One Toss of the Dice,' as Yale Professor R. Howard Bloch contends in this new hybrid of biography and literary and cultural criticism, which is as lucid and readable as Mallarmé’s masterwork is demanding, set off a seismic convulsion that has extended far beyond the world of the printed word." — James Sullivan, San Francisco Chronicle

"A relaxed and accessible book about Mallarmé’s poem of 1897, ‘Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard’ (‘One toss of the dice will never abolish chance’) and its place in belle époque Paris. The professor’s erudition and light touch need no Barnum-style booming…. Bloch provides an attractive summary of Mallarmé’s literary career, personal life and character…. Bloch is an enthusiastic and plausible communicator who thinks this one poem by Mallarmé is as important to modernism as Picasso’s ‘Demoiselles d’Avignon’, Stravinsky’s ‘Le Sacre du printemps’ and Eliot’s 'The Waste Land'. He compares ‘Un coup de dés’ to Thomson’s discovery of the electron and to Einstein’s breakthroughs in physics. He suggests a convincing parallel — not overstretched — between Mallarmé’s final great poem and the development of moving cinema pictures by the Lumière brothers." — Richard Davenport-Hines, The Spectator

"Bloch is to be congratulated on capturing pleasurably an entire era, largely through adducing a stream of mostly entertaining stories, some famous, some surprising. In the process, he also reveals an impressive erudition, covering a good many fields…. [One Toss of the Dice] reads engagingly." — John Simon, The New York Times Book Review

"Mr. Bloch’s careful analysis of 'One Toss of the Dice' may not convince skeptics that Mallarmé was the catalyst of modernity, but it will surely give readers a new appreciation of the poet’s ambition and, at times, startling foresight." — Micah Mattix, The Wall Street Journal

"A deeply informed investigation into a radically innovative poet." — Kirkus Reviews

"Praising Stéphane Mallarmé’s 1897 poem 'Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard' (translated here as 'One Toss of the Dice') as 'the birth certificate of modern poetry,' Bloch meticulously reconstructs the events leading to its composition…. Bloch’s analysis of the poem’s verbal and syntactical acrobatics and its resonance with later works is enlightening. For most readers, this book will be an engrossing introduction to a work of literature whose artistic significance the author makes seem inarguable." — Publishers Weekly

"Howard Bloch brings Mallarmé's defense of verse and quest to find the music in 'a disenchanted, increasingly mechanized, and affectless world' magnificently to life. It is a tour de force by a brilliant scholar dedicated to the most mysterious of poets." — Arthur Goldhammer, Center for European Studies, Harvard University

"This was the poem that, in the 1920s, long after Mallarmé’s apparently obscure death, compelled T. S. Eliot to recognize that ‘every battle this French poet fought with syntax represents the effort to transmit lead into gold, ordinary language into poetry.’ And the rest of Mr. Bloch’s beautifully clear book explains How a Poem Made Us Modern." — Richard Howard

"Howard Bloch’s One Toss of the Dice is a remarkable tour-de-force. It a vivid evocation, at moments hilarious and at others poignant, of the astonishing world that gathered around the poet Stéphane Mallarmé. That world included such luminaries as Verlaine, Gide, and Valery, Manet and Dégas, Debussy and Clemenceau, each of whom is evoked with remarkable deftness and insight. And at the center, gathering momentum as the story unfolds, is Mallarmé’s creation of his supremely radical poem." — Stephen Greenblatt, Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard

"Mallarmé was the bridge, the poet who took us from what was to what would be. It is impossible to imagine twentieth century literature without him." — Paul Auster

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