The author of the novel The Last King of Scotland talks about his love of the poem Brise Marine by Mallarmé.
Author and 2007 Man Booker judge, Giles Foden was born in Warwickshire in 1967 but grew up mostly in Africa. After taking an English Literature degree, he was Harper-Wood Student in Creative Writing at St John’s College, Cambridge. In 1993 he became assistant editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Between 1996 and 2006 he worked on the books pages of the Guardian. The Last King of Scotland, his debut novel and subject of the recent Oscar-winning film, won the 1998 Whitbread First Novel Award. Author of two other novels, Ladysmith and Zanzibar, and a work of narrative non-fiction, Mimi and Toutou Go Forth, he is currently completing a novel about the weather forecast for D-Day. Awarded an Arts and Humanities Research Council Fellowship in the Creative and Performing Arts at Royal Holloway, University of London in 2006, he was recently appointed Professor of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.
Giles Foden comments on his choice:
One of Mallarmé’s earliest poems (1865/66), Brise marine is the best introduction to this most difficult of writers. Its theme of doomed longing for the exotic, born of world-weariness and jaded appetite, has appealed to me since youth. Like Baudelaire’s Le Voyage and Rimbaud’s Bateau Ivre, the poem belongs to the 19th-century tradition of poetry of departure. It brings to that mainly lyrical vein a harsher modernist sensibility and some brilliant technical devices. Mallarmé understood the exotic to be an illusion even before you set off: the masts are already toppled while the ships are still in harbour, and that is brought out by grammatical ellipsis.
All that can be relied upon is song, that evanescent precursor to poetry which true poetry nevertheless contains. But keeping the song in the poem is not a matter of will and it’s not in the nature of song to save or succour you anyway: in fact, the potentiality of the blank sheet of paper is as defended as a fort in the interior.
Yet still the heart hears that sea song, still we are drawn on. To reach even the coast, even the hinterland . . . I’m off!
I have loved this poem since being introduced to it by a charismatic French teacher, Rene Filho, when I was about sixteen. It was the right time. Having spent so much of my early life abroad – not in France, but in Africa – I had even then a strong sense of that doubleness which Brise marine conveys so well, that apperception of being in two places at once, of being provisional, an oscillator.
Half-Irish, and shuttling between Africa and a school in England, I learned early that even if the notional homeland is boring and repressive, the exotic other is not necessarily all it’s cracked up to be either. When first I came to have a shot at dramatizing such oscillations myself, in The Last King of Scotland, I kept Brise marine lightly in mind, connecting the deepening seam of adventure/escape narratives (Poe, Verne, Buchan, Rider Haggard), of which it is also a part, to a particular post-colonial moment.
La chair est triste, hélas ! et j’ai lu tous les livres.
Fuir ! là-bas fuir ! Je sens que des oiseaux sont ivres
D’être parmi l’écume inconnue et les cieux !
Rien, ni les vieux jardins refl étés par les yeux
Ne retiendra ce coeur qui dans la mer se trempe
Ô nuits ! ni la clarté déserte de ma lampe
Sur le vide papier que la blancheur défend
Et ni la jeune femme allaitant son enfant.
Je partirai ! Steamer balançant ta mâture,
Lève l’ancre pour une exotique nature !
Un Ennui, désolé par les cruels espoirs,
Croit encore à l’adieu suprême des mouchoirs !
Et, peut-être, les mâts, invitant les orages,
Sont-ils de ceux qu’un vent penche sur les naufrages
Perdus, sans mâts, sans mâts, ni fertiles îlots …
Mais, ô mon coeur, entends le chant des matelots !