Jacques Roubaud–Life Mastered and Measured into a Masterpiece

Casebook: The Great Fire of London by Jacques Roubaud

Peter Consenstein

Critical mass has occurred. The proof is before your eyes and your love of literature will cause you to take notice. Jacques Roubaud has simply produced so much work and has distorted the shape of so many literary genres (poetry, the novel, and the autobiography) that the reader can no longer avert his or her eyes. Dalkey Archive Press took notice and translated some of Roubaud’s work, just as they translated some of the works of his mentor, Raymond Queneau. The work of the group Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), to which Roubaud has belonged for almost thirty-five years, is also opening many eyes. The Atlantic Monthly recently published an article recognizing the group’s work; Phyllis Rose adores how the group’s literary techniques “critique” (51) traditional literary points of view. The essayists contributing to this casebook have noticed and feel obliged to write, to analyze, to celebrate, and to report to the American public that a unique and innovative literary voice is making pronouncements. We are contributing to the fruitful dialogues currently taking place between French and American “littérateurs.” The eclectic and experimental qualities of Roubaud’s writing, paired with an endearing and compelling lyrical voice, have enticed these researchers who have now dedicated much ink and time to figuring out Roubaud’s work. Personally, Roubaud’s poetry enveloped me in 1984, and, thankfully, I have not been able to free myself; his inventive work on verse, his application of mathematics to meter and the resulting rhythms, and his will to make sense of his personal life through poetry are captivating. The more one delves into his work, the more one learns not only about his life but also about the life of literature, its formal secrets, and its architectural aesthetics. Jean-Jacques Poucel, who dedicated his doctoral work to Roubaud, cannot free himself from the connections he sees between Roubaud and the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé; he is clearly entranced by Roubaud’s zeal to question the foundations of genres. Jean-Jacques Thomas has appreciated Roubaud’s knowledge of linguistics and the poetry that results. As well, he recognizes how the troubadours and French medieval literature participate in Roubaud’s very contemporary prose. David Bellos underlines the ethics that connect Roubaud to the practice of writing, ethics that are sorely missing in contemporary literature and in the postmodern ethos. Finally, Elvira Laskowski-Caujolle, a mathematician, feels an obvious kinship with the mathematics Roubaud weaves into his intricate tales; she celebrates how Roubaud has transformed the language of mathematics into literary prose. Our casebook, very much a communal effort, will bring you to revisit all of literature with a new eye, and we warn you that once literature reinvents itself before your eyes, critical mass will again occur as methods of restructuring our worlds become obvious and inviting.

Five of the six branches of The Great Fire of London (hereafter GFL), an autobiographical story, are written and published, and one more is forthcoming.1 Each branch has its own title; Destruction is GFL’s sub-title and subject of the current casebook. Jacques Roubaud’s first published book, Appartenance, appeared in 1967 and was written between 1963 and 1965. GFL was published in 1989 and was written between 1985 and 1987, or a bit more than twenty years after Appartenance. Today, Roubaud is still writing and publishing, so it is safe to say that GFL arrives during the middle years of Roubaud’s writing career. Temporally speaking, it is the chef d’œuvre and this essay reveals how its main components, themes, and approach to writing are indicative of how the entire œuvre functions. In the latest published branch, La bibliothèque de Warburg, Roubaud defines a “chef d’œuvre” as “the work in which all of one’s constraints are put into play” (249). Thus I am revising the common notion of a “chef d’œuvre” as an author’s best work. To view it as a chef d’œuvre makes the title of the first branch, Destruction, quite curious. Called a “grand book: large and ambitious . . . personal and touching” (Vuillemin), the entire autobiographical project called “one of the most audacious and troubling of the last few decades” (Kechichian), and even a “non-œuvre . . . and the most extraordinary of contemporary literature” (Gendre, my translation), GFL offers an entry point into a highly constructed, complex, and original literary œuvre. It has not been the focus of a large body of criticism, which makes the current casebook the most important study of GFL to date (see Ferrari).

It is fair to begin by comparing Roubaud to authors such as Anthony Trollope, Henry James, Lewis Carroll, Raymond Queneau, Vladimir Nabokov, and Herman Melville because he mentions these authors in the preface of GFL (2), when searching out possible exemplars for his own writing project. At the same time, take heed of Roubaud’s own estimation of the comparison: he fails. Now the trick is to figure out the meaning of his warning, if there is one, and to understand what Roubaud destroys. Must one study the works of the above named authors to fully grasp Roubaud’s œuvre, or should she take the author at his word? Jacques Roubaud cannot help himself; when mapping out a rueful and intriguing scriptural labyrinth, the trickster is underfoot. Comparing him to the great authors is unavoidable for two reasons: first, because he himself put the idea into play; and second, because the reader (opponent? partner? unknowing companion?), now entwined in a literary snare, senses the largesse of a vast literary enterprise. If possible, it is just that—Roubaud calls it his Project—which he is destroyin

“Intertwining,” “Rhythm,” “Doubling,” “Destruction,” and “Oulipo” are the headings of this essay for two reasons. First, they are important themes and constructs of GFL and second, since I am treating GFL as Roubaud’s chef d’œuvre, they are apparent, to one extent or another, in all of his texts: these notions inflect upon other areas of study and creativity in which this author engages. As with all of Roubaud’s work, these headings relate as much to his life as they do to literature itself; they frame Roubaud’s understanding of both. By calling GFL Roubaud’s chef d’œuvre and then dividing my essay according to the above titles, I hope to provide the student of Roubaud’s work with markers and entry points, the beginnings of a methodology, relating to any of his books one might pick up.


Intertwining is possibly the best word to depict Roubaud’s enterprise. Roubaud is a poet, mathematician, professor, member of the group Oulipo, “pensionnaire,” linguist, novelist, translator, researcher, theorist, contemporary troubadour, knight at King Arthur’s round table, “anglomaniac” (GFL 271), and self-avowed homo lisens (see auto portrait), and all of these elements are not only apparent in GFL but have various intertwined literary manifestations of their own. First, I will briefly describe how the notion of intertwining governs (functions as a literary constraint) the writing of GFL and then situate it within the author’s œuvre. In fact, the governing principles of GFL, its literary constraints, are the first and most concrete signs of its uniqueness.

The first of two of the most visible constraints is the fact that it is always written at the present moment (see David Bellos’s “Pact of London”) even when the author refers to the past, and the second constraint, representative of intertwining, determines the book’s inner divisions. The first six chapters, divided into numbered and titled subsections, compose the “story.” The story is followed by a section entitled “Insertions” that contains six “interpolations” (also divided into numbered subsections) that refer to the first six chapters; in other words the first interpolation is from chapter 1 and that is, in fact, its title. The six final chapters are “bifurcations” that retake elements of the story and the interpolations. Clearly, the act of intertwining motivates GFL’s architectural construction, and such intricate book-making is even more enticing when, as we know, the author’s life, the book’s content, is shaped by these forms as much as the book is shaped by his life. The author’s life, made up of both public and private events, is also a metonymy for an “author’s life”; GFL is all about writing.

The intricacy of the intertwining sheds light on both past and future moments in literary history, which, given that it is written entirely at the present moment, reflects what the present moment always does. A story made up of branches (interpolations and bifurcations) reflects the literary past, as in Lancelot’s search for the Grail, just as it reflects futur(istic) fiction that is hypertextual. Roubaud is, in his typical fashion, aware of the implications of his creation. In a book chapter entitled “Necessity and Conditions for a Hypertext: In Relation to the Composition of a Work Entitled The Great Fire of London,” Roubaud indicates that when naming the books that compose GFL branches, he was referring to the medieval tales of Lancelot and “not a priori to ‘hypertextuality,’ unless it was a premonition” (293). Running into complications that include the need for further insertions and interpolations and complexities beyond what he had foreseen at GFL’s beginnings, Roubaud concluded that the use of “hypertextual procedures had become indispensable” (296). At this point he elaborates upon which constraints would structure a possible hypertext of GFL.2 So technological changes bring us to a moment where, if we read in a hypertextual environment, the role of the reader has a direct impact on the text and where the relationship between writer and reader is in a state of transformation; GFL reconnects these moments with “original” texts of Western literature, the tales of the Knights of the Round Table. The originality of GFL does nothing but raise questions that we cannot pretend to answer here: If the book is a “monument to its obliteration,” as Dominic Di Bernardi states in his afterword (330), then what is being said about the life this autobiographical story recounts? If the reader, in a hypertextual encounter, creates a unique text, is the life recounted herein somehow modified? What we are seeing slowly develop is, regarding GFL, an intricate and inextricable relationship between Roubaud, author and persona in his own literary universe, and all of literature, and each and every reader.

This particular author’s life has a stated goal: the construction of a “project” that becomes an œuvre. GFL is the highly controlled and ordered destruction of that project, a “novel” about its own abandonment (see both J. J. Poucel’s “Reciting from Memory: Destruction in Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London” and Bellos’s essay for further discussion on the novel), a subject that I will continue to address. As with all large-scale projects, there exists an emotional attachment. The original project was an “alternative to self-chosen extinction” (GFL 1), a clear indication of how writing sustains this author’s existence. GFL is a “novel” about that project, but since that project is a “poetry project” (GFL 142) what role can the novel play? GFL is an example of poetry, according to Roubaud’s concept of poetry, even if it is prose. This is because it is measured and counted—a foundation for rhythm—just like the syllables in verse or the lines of a sonnet, and its patterns and near repetitions are just like a rhyme scheme. The “cardinal principle” of the poetry project was to broaden his “notion of form” (GFL 142) or to advance what he called in the original French version an “extension formelle” (189) of poetry. The project, therefore, intertwines different genres and writing procedures.

GFL (all branches) and Roubaud’s poetry, another major branch of his overall œuvre, are intertwined in their use of mathematics, and both create experimental and rhythmic structures. Among his long list of books of poetry—Appartenance (1967), Mono no aware (1970), Renga in collaboration with Octavio Paz, Edoardo Sanguineti, Charles Tomlinson (1971), Trente et un au cube (1973), Autobiographie, chapitre dix (1977), Dors précédé de Dire la poésie (1981) Quelque chose noir (1986) La pluralité des mondes de Lewis (1991), Mille et tre, deux in collaboration with Micaëla Henich (1995), La forme d’une ville change plus vite, hélas, que le coeur des humains (1999), see bibliography for more details—the first, Appartenance, is a formal reworking of the sonnet, and it deserves our attention for the way in which it uses mathematics to construct a unique and experimental book of poems and because it too perpetuates a constructive destruction.

Published in 1967 with the Greek letter epsilon as its title, Appartenance contains the following forms of the sonnet: short sonnets, interrupted sonnets, prose sonnets, short prose sonnets, sonnet of sonnets, and paragraphs of sonnets. Some sonnets are “monometric” while others are “heterometric.” The book is prefaced by a “User’s manual” (a possible precursor to Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual?) in which Roubaud proposes four different ways of grouping the poems and reading the book: 1) some sequences of poems follow the order in which pawns form a diagram on a Go-ban (board) (see Roubaud, Lusson, and Perec), each diagram of poems remaining independent of the others; 2) the poems belong to “paragraphs” grouped and listed in one of the book’s appendixes; the numbered paragraphs belong to sets carrying mathematical symbols as titles; 3) the poems correspond numerically to a specific game of Go, also represented in the appendixes; as a result, each poem has a black or white circle representing the black and white stones (pawns) on a Go-ban next to its title; 4) each text can be read in isolation, at which point the other reading modes are ignored. The 361 texts composing Appartenance are highly intertwined within the book just as they are weaved into the history of the sonnet. Each poem’s meaning changes in relation to the group to which it belongs much as the various forms and nationalities of sonnets intertwine and affect one another in relation to the formal history of the sonnet.

In Poésie: (récit), the fourth branch of GFL, Roubaud spends approximately 100 pages discussing Appartenance and admits to an obsession with the sonnet, to being hounded by what he calls “sonnetomania” (423), a mental disorder that caused him to read at least 150,000 sonnets (434). Another result of sonnetomania, a malady whose offshoots resemble an intertwining labyrinth of branches and twigs, is solid research. In 1990 he published an anthology of sonnets, Soleil du soleil—Le sonnet français de Marot à Malherbe, as well as his “State thesis” (thèse d’état), “La forme du sonnet français de Marot à Malherbe—recherche de seconde rhétorique,” earning him a second doctorate. What then, quickly stated, is the goal of such extensive work on the sonnet and what are the results? Commonly attached to the word sonnet is the notion of fixed form: the French version is a fourteen-line poem usually divided into two quatrains followed by two tercets. Roubaud’s research revealed national patterns–ones that distinguished the English sonnet from the French, the French from the Italian, etc.–that destabilize the fixed nature of the form. In Appartenance Roubaud works consciously to further “distort” the sonnet form (Poésie 446). Based on examples of sonnets as inventive as Gerard Manley Hopkins’s curtail-sonnet and his own mathematical axiomatic theories, Roubaud distorted the classic sonnet form in Appartenance. Does he “destroy” the sonnet? No, but he succeeds in shaking so violently the pillars of a fixed form of poetry that they will vibrate forever. The mathematical complexities over time and place (Sausage’s diachronic and synchronic? perceptions of linguistics and the history of language?) of the sonnet allow for further variations and distortions and transform the reader’s memory, or previous conception of, that form. Indeed, Roubaud has opened the door to those who wish to advance and participate in literary experimentation by exposing and practicing means of distortion that respect the past and reject the notion of tabula rasa. No sonnet, past or future, seems stuck in place, but rather feels as if it belongs to (Appartenance) a vibrant history. Roubaud’s intertwining of the sonnet back through and around to the sonnet’s history takes place on a different level in GFL. There he weaves, he interpolates and bifurcates through all that he can recall of his own history. As his chef d’œuvre, GFL models an intertwining that directed the construction of Appartenance, his first book of poetry, and that gives his autobiographical story its unique shape and tone.

Rhythm, Walker, Counter

In Poésie: (récit), the fourth branch of The Great Fire of London, Roubaud states that “the sonnet-form is an extremely memorisable poetic form” (417), a declaration that touches upon his sonnetomania and on the more theoretical branch of Roubaud’s work that touches upon form, rhythm, language, literature, and memory. In GFL the reader senses just how inherent to Roubaud’s sense of self his theoretical premises are. In his self-portrait—chapter 4 “Portrait of the Absent Artist”—Roubaud describes himself as both a “walker” (97) and a “counter” (102), and both of these occupations manifest themselves in his mnemonic and poetic constructs (see Jean-Jacques Thomas’s “Swing Troubadour: Roubaud’s Self-Portrait” for further study into the self-portrait). When walking, “I meditate space by striding over the earth . . . time more or less comes into my possession; ambulation converts time into space” (97-98). Walking functions as a means of measuring time and space, of locating one’s being within the physical world, and the metaphysical overtones of this activity are quite distinguishable within the coincidence of time and space. Regarding counting, he reveals that “Counting is the meter of my life . . . my metronomical truth” (102) and further that “the accumulation of numbers is my life” (104). Through walking and counting, a profound measure of, and location within, the physical world is occurring.3 The combination of walking and counting allows the writer to map his world, to order it and extract from that experience an order, a harmony, and a fictive and well-governed world. The literary constraints governing GFL and Roubaud’s books of poetry result in mathematical patterns that create construct and rhythm (and much more according to Dr. Laskowski-Caujolle in her essay “Roubaud’s Destruction: A Mathematician’s Prose”).

In La vieillesse d’Alexandre, a book that studies the role of the Alexandrine, a classical French verse, in twentieth-century poetry, Roubaud theorizes about the nature of rhythm and arrives at a definition of a theory of abstract rhythm that reads: “the abstract rhythm theory (A.R.T.) is the theory of the sequential and hierachised combinatory of discreet events viewed only in relation to the ‘same’ and the ‘different’ ” (69-70). “Discreet events” could be syllables in a verse, stanzas of a poem, paragraphs in a chapter, chapters in a novel, novels in a series, etc. Once placed within the structure of a consciously applied mathematical pattern, these discreet literary events fall into a rhythmic order; such order often gives rise to elegance. By “same” and “different,” the building blocks of rhythm, reference is made to patterns of repetition that are interrupted. The rhythm theory that plays a role in giving GFL cadence, movement, and harmony, also offers the author a tool for adding variety, a tool that frees him.

Walking and counting, physical characteristics of the “absent artist,” are inherent to Roubaud’s theorizing, play a role in creating his entire œuvre, and are integral to the mapping out of his autobiographical story. Walking and counting give rhythm to thought and are the activities in which he partakes when composing interior poetry before committing it to paper. Mathematical patterns, a by-product of walking and counting, are also at the base of classical mnemonic systems that Roubaud discusses in three other books, L’invention du fils de Leopepres, Sphère de la mémoire, and Quel avenir pour la mémoire? These books study the history and philosophy of mnemonics as well as current trends in the neurobiological study of memory (see Consenstein, Literary Memory). Roubaud’s interest in memory goes beyond writing the six branches of GFL, although they are obviously informed by his studies. In La bibliothèque de Warburg he defines his writing of these six branches as “not an autobiography but of a Memoir. The vocabulary of the Ancients is closer to what I have, at this moment of commencement, in mind: to write a Memoir but of a particular type; a Treatise on the Faculty of Memory based upon one example, mine” (40).

Many threads of Roubaud’s intertwining œuvre are weaved into GFL and although they do not permit the reader or critic to state definitively “this book is a . . .,” they do allow us to understand the extent to which it participates in current research on memory and consciousness and takes advantage of such work to create experimental literature.

The form of GFL, its numbered paragraphs and sections, its interpolations and bifurcations, its insistence on the present, succeeds in crystallizing or in formalizing memory; it is a literary form (picture) of how memory works. A possible conclusion from such an enterprise is that one’s everyday habits, when they are consciously recognized, can ignite the invention of a literary form that in reverse fashion enriches one’s everyday habits. In other words, walking and counting engender a reciprocal action: their part in the practice of writing GFL stimulates the author’s memory, helps him to harbor forth memories that needed some cerebral massaging in order to surface.

GFL, states Roubaud, is “a treatise of memory” (73) whereas in 1979 he states that “poetry is the memory of language” (110) in the article “Le silence de la mathématique jusqu’au fond de la langue, poésie.”4 Memory and its relationship with language and the literary genres that compose the language arts are at the heart of Roubaud’s writing, just as his heart lives by the rhythm of those arts. An intertwining “autobiographical story,” interwoven through with complex rhythms that hover above his entire work, as should a true chef d’œuvre, demonstrates what poetry is. The relationship among poetry, storytelling, and memory is inextricable, and numbers are what glue them together and demarcate the literary terrain. In The Princess Hoppy Roubaud allows the Labrador, a dog, to pronounce the following words about numbers:

From a very tender age, I was enraptured by numbers, in all their manifestations; not only the modern number, the abstract number, the arithmetical number, the rational, real, complex, quaternionic, Cayleian, non-standard, supernatural, rhythmic, Peanian, Russelian, Geralducian, Conwayian, Badiouesque, Fregean, Benabian, Lussonian, Quenellian, Nelsonian, cardinal, ordinal, finite or transfinite number. . . . A poetics of numbers exists, which I would like one day to come back to.

What a tremendous fate is that of number: integer or fractional, imaginary or real, it always carries with it the divine utopian character. It ceaselessly, almost, contradicts the oblivion of not being anymore. In prison, through a succession of lines written in blood on the walls, it becomes patience, and revolt. At the hospital window, it is the glowing hope of getting better. It is everywhere the negation of disorder, of confusion, of iniquity. At night, . . . under the constant threat of the four Interior and Exterior Dangers, I count. And counting the telltale number is my consolation (119-20).

Through counting and walking, an ordering of the world occurs, one that constructs a process of discovery of interior and exterior endeavors. Numbers have their own poetics, offer hope to the afflicted and imprisoned, and console those who bereave. These reverse and reciprocal actions bring us to the subject of doubling.

The Doubling Effect

In La boucle Roubaud writes “To relive, some ‘episodes,’ some limited segments of the past . . . reversibly, [to relive] the odyssey . . . that is a life . . . is what we do every day in sleep (dreaming) or in an awakened state (remembering)” (30). Remembering the past is like the return trip of a voyage, it appears different and alike at the same time. Remembering, or living life in reverse, differs from a reverse action in mathematics in which converse logic verifies the results of an equation. To verify his past through the mathematical literary constraints he has designed is paradoxical because in the mathematical world the process is enlightening, sensible, and confirms hypotheses, whereas in life the process is mysterious, often confounding, and disturbing (see Roubaud’s La pluralité des mondes de Lewis). Coldly applying mathematical constraints to the writing of remembrances, consciously entering into a insoluble paradox that forces the troubling temporality of existence to meet the eternity of mathematics, is to enter into a tangible crease in the plane of the now. It is like walking through the looking glass (Roubaud has a great appreciation of Lewis Carroll and has translated Hunting of the Snark). Such an experience illuminates the ethereal quality of the instantaneous just as it renders GFL itself a text whose temporality is itself questionable, even though each branch is bracketed between specific dates.

Roubaud calls his particular fashion of expressing the past through writing to “mimic . . . the spontaneous and universal functioning of memories” (La boucle 29), much as Cicero, Quintilian, the writers of the middle ages and the renaissance did through their memory arts (mnemonic techniques). Those techniques were by nature “doubled” because they usually involved attaching a memory to an outside object such that once the object is recalled, the memory comes along with it. Such acts of memory mimic the functioning of memory because remembering is to force or forge a meeting of the past (an original event) and the present (the same event recalled). To put the past into written words is at the core of Roubaud’s duality, or his doubling over, of his personal past as well as his written past. The image his writing hopes to create goes in “two directions,” forward and backward in time. He disdainfully compares such activity to the “ordinary” linear reading of a book because memory is “divergent and discontinuous” (31): Roubaud is explicitly conscious of the paradox he has chosen to study.

Just such a paradox is at the heart of Roubaud’s concept of poetry, and Roubaud’s concept of poetry is at the heart of his Project, which he is destroying with the six branches of GFL. As previously stated, Roubaud believes that poetry is the memory of language: it records a language’s semantics as well as its syntax. Poetry remembers language because it overtly posits the separation between meaning and form through the application of meter (see Roubaud, “Le silence”). That separation creates a contrast highlighting language’s syntactical patterns as well as its semantics. The choice to write the six branches of GFL in prose is capital because it is both integral to the Project’s destruction and to embracing the paradox of using mathematics to write the past. Roubaud writes that “the prose of memory” transforms the “project’s riddle into the novel’s mystery” and it “translates the project’s poetry”; it is a “prose which translated memory” (GFL 154). The prose found in these branches of his story “translates” memory and “transforms” enigmas. Prose is less constructive and creative than poetic language because it does not have poetic language’s capacity to record memory and to construct enigmas through the rigorous and historical mathematical constructs that are embedded in verse. Roubaud’s writing about writing, his metalanguage, is heartfelt and revealing because it is about not just the art of writing but also the art of being and knowing one’s past; it is about one’s ability to grasp who one really is. Roubaud’s metalanguage discusses the writer’s inability to truly know the past, while the language arts, language itself, only highlight the weakness of our dominant methods of communication. It is in this context that his writing often expresses a sense of melancholy.

The prose of GFL “was to be harmonious . . . a fallen poetry . . . whereas the mathematics of the project was the rhythm of the world” (154). The mathematics behind the novel created “rhythmic forms” and “shifting yet nevertheless recurrent arrangements” (154). Memory itself cannot do that, it is too sensitive to the ethereal and atmospheric present moment, which is why memory became for Roubaud but a “shadow figure, corhythm”; the project’s duality, soldered deep into the writing, is “between memory and rhythm” (154). As with his mentor, Raymond Queneau, Roubaud’s formal experiments with the language arts, with writing, endeavor to benefit from the function of language. He succeeds in that endeavor because these experiments, in which the past is filtered consciously and intelligently through the lattices of mathematics, help him to retrieve and better understand memories swallowed up by forgetfulness.

Roubaud’s notions of doubling address the duality of the present moment, the duality of prose and poetic languages, the duality of memory and rhythm and how language resolves, snakes through and thus intertwines the apparent paradoxes these dualities engender. An autobiographical story and the chef d’œuvre, GFL actualizes the duality of the present as each of its present moments recalls the past; each moment glistens with temporal dimensionality. Further along in GFL Roubaud states clearly “by double, I mean both an object (of thought, or of prose, or of poetry, or images), and its ‘style’ ” (164). In all of these cases of doubling, the capacity of language and literary genres to recall and express memories is put into question and into play. This theme, or line of questioning, is apparent in virtually all of his books. For example, in Dors; précédé de Dire la poésie Roubaud calls the writing found in the selection Dire la poésie (The Speaking of Poetry) “prose that exists orally” (33), which appears to contradict the title. Dire la poésie is formal and experimental poetry. It is twenty pages of prose without punctuation, except for the occasional period and capital letters signaling new paragraphs. The eighty-seven paragraphs vary in length from three to fifteen lines with word groupings of variable length divided by blanks of silence; it is a unique form of writing that confuses prose and poetry. It too engages two forms of doubling: the duality of silence and voice as well as the dual moment where memory meets the present. In fact, Dire la poésie is the print form of performed or recited poetry that is not simply read aloud, but it is rather the exteriorizing of interior, memorized, poetry. It contains poetry about itself, poetry that is “infinitely private,” poetry that “in the best of all cases” approaches a “spectacle of yourself” (23). As in GFL, the silences between the moments of spoken prose are the secret, defining moments, those which mark the breaths and manifest the mathematics of rhythm. The silent spaces of rhythm shape the elocution of memory. Silence, the absent artist, silence, an absence, is weaved into Roubaud’s prose: “Poetry in the novel assumed rhythmic status, but prose, by removing the mathematics of constraints, pushed it toward an entirely different mode: absence” (GFL 156). Silence fills the final blank page of chapter 5; it forces a rhythmic break, a meditative repose as the project and its destruction forge new paths. (See Poucel’s discussion of the palindrome in his essay as another example of Roubaud’s doubling).


Beyond what has been stated, Roubaud’s doubling over is a tactical approach to writing; it is an umbrella theme that covers many of the pitfalls of writing about the past while continuing to write in the present moment. The six branches of GFL discuss the author’s life and his decision to renounce a greater literary project that he believed was doomed to fail. But how can anyone looking upon Roubaud’s extensive œuvre seriously consider such a construction a destruction? Clearly, the word destruction takes on new meaning in relation to Roubaud’s œuvre, especially in light of its doubling and intertwining characteristics. The doubling often has palindromic overtones, which suggests that we consider the destruction as the author’s effort to connect the beginning to the end and thus create a form that allows the reader to enter where and when he or she likes. The œuvre-palindrome is itself a doubling in which what is said forcibly says something else when viewed from the opposite direction. Roubaud’s destruction, given its palindromic and reversive qualities, might also be a mathematician’s destruction, one by which he reevaluates or verifies his own work. Such procedural writing permits the author to find the paths left mistakenly unexplored and search for signs of potential creations. It also allows the student of memory to discover the forgotten.

In 1969 the collective “Change,” which included Jean Pierre Faye, Jean-Claude Montel, Jean Paris, Léon Robel, Maurice Roche, and Jacques Roubaud, published an issue entitled “La destruction” of their journal Change. The journal’s opening tract, another “mode d’emploi” (5-6) (user’s manual), announces that any formal change—economical, political, or philosophical–begins with a destruction. Society’s fundamental changes coincide with sorts of “demolitions,” or what Jean Pierre Faye calls “the danger and virulence of invention.”5With the publication of GFL, Roubaud tests these precepts with his life and writing. The fact that the chef d’œuvre is autobiographical and that it the plays the role of a highly ordered destruction has its obvious literary importance, but its societal and political importance cannot be discounted. The consciously constructed chef d’œuvre stands guard over the œuvre, over the life contained within, and although it calls for a destruction, a destruction based to some degree on the mistrust of memory, the ordering of memory is the base of the attempt to reconstruct. To extrapolate, Roubaud models a serious approach to change, his literary journal’s title; society’s institutions and foundations are in need of change, but without reordering, verifying, and mistrusting even one’s own accounts of the past, that change provides no future.

Roubaud insists upon the order in his destruction: “I assure my destruction through memory. . . . I strive to put order in this destruction; to construct its destruction” (GFL 211). He struggles against “real, perverse, and polymorphous forgetfulness” with what he terms “reasonable destruction” (250). The targets of the destruction are not necessarily society and the genres of literatures, although these are unavoidable “collateral damage.” The main target of destruction is his own memory, a destruction that allows him to reconstruct himself: “Once set down on paper each fragment of memory . . . becomes, in fact, inaccessible to me . . . everything happens as if a transference had occurred, something in the nature of a translation, with the result that ever since, the words composing the black lines of my transcription interpose themselves between the record of memory and myself, and in the long run completely supplant it” (GFL 197-98). Writing down memories for Roubaud is inherently a destruction, the “black lines” of transcription will “completely supplant” his memories. Here, destruction is a reflection of the biological memory process where the brain, having ignited a memory, will then recategorize and restore it, and thus modify and restructure the original remembrance. The act of remembering destroys and re-creates: “I’ve devoted myself to the enterprise of destroying my memory” (GFL 198). The original recollection is a “ghostly simulacrum” (198) of what is newly written down. Roubaud’s writing reflects and intertwines with biology, an event that transforms this version of destruction into an organic destruction that emulates the eternal generation and regeneration of plants and species:

Among the images that biologists have proposed to explain the phenomenon of memory, I’ve retained the following . . . : each recollection, or sequence of recollections, like a trace in the brain, is similar to an arrangement of snow crystals on the ground. . . .

[R]ecollecting tends to destroy memory; and this happens far more swiftly and radically each time that recollection crosses the boundaries of the body to be brought to the light of speech or writing (even more clearly in the case of writing, which tends to supplant the first trace of memory with another, just as long-lasting, albeit different). Recollection . . ., even if it is an act that erodes, corrodes, disturbs, displaces, weakens the object of its attention, simultaneously preserves it . . . from another destruction, which is destruction “for all practical purposes,” that is, inaccessibility. . . .

The specific recollection no longer exists; it has left its place of origin; if I reminisce, what I call up is its outward trace, the sound of its story comprising a new trace in my thought, which is completely substituted for the original trace-recollection. . . . (248)

In Roubaud’s case, writing participates directly in the processes of memory, which means that it participates in the processes of being and existence.

In La bibliothèque de Warburg Roubaud pinpoints the moment when he decided to abandon his larger project, another aspect of destruction. 24 October 1978, only five weeks before the day he had planned to begin the project’s writing stage (5 December 1978) is the day Roubaud renounced his project. He goes to bed that evening after having spent the day rereading his notes, after having reduced those notes to “fourteen pages of tight lines, in six colors” (303-04), and after having torn the project into pieces and thrown it in the trash. But earlier in this text that treats the period after the publication of Appartenance, Roubaud admits to a prior crucial moment in relation to the project’s abandonment:

My entry into the Oulipo decided the rest of my life as a player of language (and, I realize, a posteriori, a good part of the years that preceded it). Not only by shattering, little by little, a number of my previous ideas about the composition of poetry (without forgetting prose), about the nature of literature, of language. . . .

My Project had been affected by it more deeply than I could have believed.

When hastily conceiving at the beginning of the seventies of the idea about how I was going to write the novel that the Project demanded and whose imposed title would be The Great Fire of London, I am still under the influence of my first impressions of Oulipo (246).

The decision to renounce the project, the actual shredding of the papers, gave birth to the book we now study and all of its branches. That destruction is a well ordered destruction influenced by the original project, which was itself greatly affected by the goals and practices of Oulipo. Just like previous explanations of Roubaud’s destruction, where the processes of memory, writing, and creativity are apparent, the author’s adherence to the Oulipo involves a conscious and collective approach to rewriting the literary past. The literary past, in this case, can be viewed as a plane of collective memory. It is useful therefore to conclude my essay by discussing Roubaud’s participation in the Oulipo.


Roubaud became a member of Oulipo in 1966 after having published Appartenance. He submitted the manuscript to one of the Oulipo’s co-founders, Raymond Queneau, who at that time headed the editing board of Gallimard, a major French publishing house; Queneau defended Roubaud’s submission and invited him to join the group. Queneau and François Le Lionnais founded the group, whose longevity makes it unique in the history of French literature, in 1960. Phyllis Rose quotes Harry Mathews, an American author and long-term member of the Oulipo, who asserts that the group is “relatively uninterested in literature that purports to describe the ‘real’ world or that even pretends to be the product of sincere feeling” (49), a provocative statement that espouses a novel approach to literary production. The group is interested in writing experimental literature stemming from innovative architectural design and inventive linguistic games that avoid chance. Most important to the group is literary development that offers potential. Members draw upon mathematics in creating these experimental forms and the initial creation of the form does not suffice; in their meetings the authors present both the constraint and an application of it. One of Roubaud’s most important and earliest theoretical premises concerning the group was published in 1981 in the Atlas de littérature potentielle. Entitled “Two Principles Sometimes Respected in Oulipian Works,” the one-page essay states that 1) “A text written according to a constraint must speak of this constraint”; and 2) “A text written according to a mathematizable constraint must contain the consequences of the mathematical theory it illustrates” (qtd. in Motte12). These principles can guide research into Roubaud’s œuvre and are apparent in GFL.

GFL reckons with memory, and its principal constraints, as previously stated, include writing an original story about the past in the present moment and then retaking that story in the novel’s interpolations and bifurcations. The story speaks about the constraint because memory itself acts much like the constraint: an event occurs (the story), it is stocked, categorized, and linked to other events through neuronal networks. The brain’s categorization, linking, and ability to recollect strikingly resemble interpolations and bifurcations. In relation to the novel’s mathematical equations, it does reveal consequences of its underlying theory (Caujolle’s article does an excellent job of revealing that information). Without extrapolating further, the goals and theories behind Oulipian writing, similar to Roubaud’s own notions about the composition of poetry before joining the group, permit him to expand his own literary experimentations by thinking and acting collectively6

GFL puts into practice some of the author’s more recent theoretical premises about the Oulipo. In 1991 he stated that “the Oulipo is a novel, it is an unwritten novel by [Raymond] Queneau” (“L’auteur” 83). Consequently, let’s look upon what Queneau predicates about the construct of a novel in his article “Technique du roman.” It is clear that Queneau feels it necessary to predetermine certain elements of the novel before writing it, a set of decisions that usually precedes the writing of poetry. He predetermined the number of chapters in his novels based upon various numerological concerns, a circular structure determined the movements of his persona, and in one of his novels, Le chiendent, almost all of its sections respected the rules of classical French dramaturgy; the rules of the three unities—of time, place, and action—predetermined content. In order to build upon the three unities, Queneau added a fourth that pertains only to the novel: it must be a “purely narrative” story (30). The narration was composed of “pure conversation . . . interior monologue, reported monologue, voiced monologue . . . journals of notebook entries and newspaper clippings, or dream sequences” (30-31). In some of his novels, specific chapters represented rhythmical pauses in the narration. The appearance and reappearance of persona was not “left to chance” (32): in Le chiendent a game of chess guided the appearance of persona; in Gueule de pierre the “force lines” stemming from the “triplicity” of the three sons and the three reigns guide the appearance of the persona and determined their names. In Les derniers jours persona follow each other—appear and reappear—in groups of two. Therefore, as a member of the Oulipo, Roubaud felt as if he were playing a predetermined role in an unwritten but well planned novel. Roubaud cannot know exactly what his role is, but he can be sure that there is a rhythm to it, that he is linked to one or more members of the group, and that his contributions to the group are reflections and determinations of other contributions.

In his discussion of the Oulipian author, Roubaud again grapples with the notion of a chef d’œuvre: it is the crowning jewel of an Oulipian author because it is “fabricated” (“L’auteur” 88). A fabricated chef d’œuvre is a text in which the constraints used throughout an Oulipian author’s work are laid out, organized, in an Oulipian manner, which means that the chef d’œuvre borrows from the œuvre in order to gain new potentiality, much like the group Oulipo is Queneau’s fabricated and unwritten novel, his chef d’œuvre wherein each member of the group plays a role with numerological undertones. Oulipo is Queneau’s chef d’œuvre because each member plays a role that interrelates with those played by the other members; it is a social and socialized group, an entity in which creativity depends upon the group. In a circular style, the group appears innovative and experimental, but is truly returning to the sources of literary inventiveness, practiced by the grands rhétoriqueurs and the troubadours. Roubaud’s own role is intercalated three layers deep into this fabrication. First, as a member of Oulipo he is a persona in an unwritten Queneau novel (playing an unknown role that Queneau predesignated for him); second, he is the main persona of GFL, his own fabricated chef d’œuvre; and third, his chef d’œuvre lays out the constraints of all his other texts, the capillaries of his intertwining œuvre.

Such are the processes of creating a world: the Oulipo is “itself an original form of the Wittengensteinian union of language games and life forms” (“L’auteur” 83). If he is an Oulipian author, Roubaud must “be the one who reads Alice in Wonderland (by Lewis Carroll), composes Alice in Wonderland and is Alice at the same time” (“L’auteur” 85), a sensation one gets when reading GFL. Oulipians write the written in the language prescribed to them (by Queneau?), objective, full of play, mathematical, and life creating, the life of writing: “the world constructed by the creators of the Oulipo is the one where one writes the written” (“L’auteur” 85). It is the active participation in the world the author creates. Roubaud works consciously at playing the persona prescribed to him in Queneau’s unwritten novel that is the Oulipo. Deeper and deeper into his own fabricated chef d’œuvre in which he is the persona he has prescribed to himself, he recognizes that mathematics are not the most important element of Oulipian writing. In La bibliothèque de Warburg he writes:

The Oulipian project is not above all about the invention or reinvention of constraints; it is about potentiality. Constraints must play a subordinate role to forms. . . .

Rather, potentiality would be for me associated with the notion of a formal, explainable and generalisable project, of which one particular example is form and the other particular example is texts written under constraints.

Potentiality being the essential of the Oulipian project, I think that it would be good to soft pedal the link between Oulipo and constraints. (242)

Roubaud now insists upon the existence of a semantic constraint that “establishes itself during composition” (244). One of the group’s earliest hopes was that their newly invented constraints be practiced by other authors, that their new forms become “life forms,” as was the sonnet, and so it is fair to say that the group has failed to provide writers with such a form. This does not mean that the Oulipo has failed to influence other writers or raise consciousness about the formal conventions of literary creativity. Herein could very well lay their potential. Roubaud accepts that failure and decrees that they must then create “a transmittable life form” (“L’auteur” 86). At this stage of the group’s existence, it is entirely satisfactory that authors and readers now grasp and struggle with the idea that form is a crucial means of transmitting life.

In his view, the role of mathematics in creating such a form “seems not to be able to be of much help” (“L’auteur” 86). Sitting down every morning, following one of the ten Japanese styles (GFL 164) that he organizes “oulipianly” (“L’auteur” 86) is one of the constraints through which he transmits his life: he is the life that he writes that is his life. The Zen nature of the palindromic existence he leads is powerfully spiritual and eminently worth emulation. It is not the result of practicing one approach to spirituality or a manifestation of one philosophy: it is the result of many varied influences, as Western as they are Eastern.

Roubaud’s latest thoughts on the group Oulipo (see Faye) show how belonging to a group of authors who practice formal literary invention establishes the author’s theoretical grounding. His adherence to the group reveals to the reader how he interprets the literary past and where he directs the literary future. Working with Oulipo and with memory at the same time forges a personal, timeless, rigorous, and original relationship with literature’s history.


Intertwining, rhythm, doubling, destruction, and Oulipo are the subjects covered in this essay because they are driving forces behind Roubaud’s writing. They are engines of his writing process while at the same time they sustain his own emotional attachment to it; these guiding principles help him to avoid voluntary self-destruction. If Roubaud’s quantity of work is indicative of anything, it is that he spends a lot of time writing. So if he is to discuss his life, then a large part of the discussion must be about the activity of writing. By slowly defining what makes his œuvre unique, we see that Roubaud is an important theorist about writing under constraint, which is a particular brand of writing that is prevalent and influential at the end of the twentieth century. His entire œuvre is a writing project whose dimensions and impact have yet to be measured. GFL is an example of writing under constraint that is compelling not only for its formal mysteries and experimental art, but because it is so personal. Rarely does a reader feel such proximity to the process of writing; rarely does a reader experience someone else’s present moment or feel so involved in someone else’s private, yet so public, life. One senses that Roubaud has had the perspicacity and audacity to mark a capital moment in literary history, one that looks both behind and ahead, one where the book, the real great fire of London, might be destroyed. If Roubaud raises questions about what is at stake for the contemporary author, then his answer is to liberate the search temporally (the Grail) and to take stock of the formal arts of writing. But without an inventive and personal relationship with those arts, without integrating such research into one’s memory, the result is vapid and cold, it is not transmissible. Literature is a human and humane enterprise that is always contemporary.

The Essays

“Reciting from Memory: Destruction in Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London” by Jean-Jacques Poucel studies the question of genre in GFL and concludes that it is a particularly nuanced piece of postmodern writing. Elvira Monika Laskowski-Caujolle, in her essay entitled “Roubaud’s DESTRUCTION: A Mathematician’s Prose,” emphasizes the hypertextual qualities of Roubaud’s text, those which permit readers to choose differing reading strategies. She also succeeds quite well at explaining Roubaud’s mathematics to nonmathematicians. David Bellos in his “The Pact of London” emphasizes the notion of pact that Roubaud has made with the writing process. Bellos reveals that Roubaud’s pact is with himself and his commitment to writing the self. Jean-Jacques Thomas in “Swing Troubadour: Roubaud’s Self-Portrait” appreciates how Roubaud succeeds at swinging through time and through varied realms of knowledge to deal with profound personal loss through the art of writing his own self-portrait. In fact, Thomas claims that Roubaud has slowly construed a “philosophy of progressive discovery of the truth in memory.” Together, we present to the reader an author acutely aware of the present moment in literary history, in linguistics, and in life. We hope it entices you to continue your pleasure in reading the works of Jacques Roubaud.


1Six is a motivated number and not chosen by chance. Roubaud and his mentor Queneau have studied and advanced mathematical hypothesis concerning the “sestina,” a poetic form composed of six six-verse stanzas followed by a tercet. It is believed that the sestina’s complex rhyme scheme governs the writing of the GFL series. The five branches are Le grand incendie de Londres (Paris: Gallimard, 1989), La boucle (Paris: Gallimard, 1993), Mathématique: (récit) (Paris: Gallimard, 1997), Poésie: (récit) (Paris: Gallimard, 2000), and La bibliothèque de Warburg (Paris: Gallimard, 2002).

3The word mezura represents a concept in troubadorian poetry that relates to the application of poetic form to measure the expression of love. Roubaud has shown an affinity to the word in his discussion of troubadorian poetry in Les troubadours. As well, his earliest essay on the writing project he destroys in GFL was entitled Mezura—no. 9 (…). Finally, he wrote a book of poetry entitled Mezura in which the number dictates the versification.

4The article’s title happens also to be the title of section 80: “The silence of mathematics deep into the very heart of language comma” (155).

5See Poésie, etcetera: ménage for his tongue-in-cheek discussions of the role of language, poetry, and memory in contemporary society.

6See my article “Memory and Oulipian Constraints,” www.oulipo.net, and Motte. In addition, Roubaud has contributed numerous articles to the Oulipian bibliothèques, listed in the bibliography.

Works Cited

Change 2 (1969). Paris: Seuil, 1969.

Consenstein, Peter. “Memory and Oulipian Constraints,” Postmodern Culture 6.1 (1995).

—. Literary Memory, Consciousness, and the Group Oulipo. New York: Rodopi, 2002.

Di Bernardi, Dominic. Afterword. The Great Fire of London. By Jacques Roubaud. 1989. Trans. Dominic DiBernardi. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991. 323-30.

Faye, Jean Pierre. Poésie, etcetera: ménage. Paris: Stock, 1995.

Ferrari, Guillermina De. “Representing Absence: The Power of Metafiction in Jacques Roubaud’s Le grand incendie de Londres.” Symposium 49 (1995-1996): 262–73.

Kechichian, Patrick. “Écrire de mémoire.” Le monde (des livres) 24 May 2002.

Motte, Warren F. trans. and ed. Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature. 1986. Normal, IL.: Dalkey Archive Press, 1998.

Queneau, Raymond. Le chiendent. 1933. Paris: Gallimard, 1968; The Bark Tree. Trans. Barbara Wright. New York: New Directions, 1971.

—. Gueule de pierre. Paris: Gallimard, 1934.

—. Les derniers jours. Paris: Gallimard, 1977 [1936].

—. “Technique du roman.” Bâtons, chiffres et lettres. 1950. Paris: Gallimard, 1965. 27-33.

Rose, Phyllis. “Dances with Daffodils.” Atlantic Monthly April 2002: 49-51.

Roubaud, Jacques. “L’auteur oulipien.” L’auteur et le manuscrit. Ed. Michel Contat. Paris: PUF, 1991. 77-92.

—. La bibliothèque de Warburg. Paris: Gallimard, 2002.

—. La boucle. Paris: Gallimard, 1993.

—. Dors; précédé de Dire la poésie. Paris: Gallimard, 1981.

—. The Great Fire of London. 1989. Trans. Dominic Di Bernardi. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991.

—. “Nécessité et conditions d’un hypertexte: à propos de la composition d’un ouvrage intitulé Le grand incendie de Londres.” Littérature et informatique. Ed. Alain Vuillemin and Michel Lenoble. Paris: Artois Presses Univeristé, 1995. 293-300.

—. Poésie : (récit). Paris : Gallimard, 2000.

—. The Princess Hoppy. 1990. Trans. Bernard Hoepffner. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1993.

—. “Le silence de la mathématique jusqu’au fond de la langue, poésie,” Poésie 10:3e trimestre (1979): 110-24.

—. Les troubadours. Paris: Seghers-Laffont, 1980.

—. La vieillesse d’Alexandre. Paris: Ramsay, 1988.

—, Pierre Lusson, and Georges Perec. Petit traité invitant à la découverte de l’art subtil du Go. Paris: Christian Bourgeois, 1969.

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