“I’ve devoted myself to the enterprise of destroying my memory . . . I set fire to it, and with its debris I charcoal-scrawl the paper.” Part novel and part autobiography, The Great Fire of London is one of the great literary undertakings of the last fifty years. At various times exasperating, daunting, moving, dazzling, and challenging, it has its origins in Jacques Roubaud’s attempt to come to terms with the death of his young wife Alix, whose presence both haunts and gives meaning to every page.
Having failed to write his intended novel (“The Great Fire of London”), instead he creates a book that is about that failure, but in the process opens up the world of the creative process, which is at once an attempt to bring order to his ravaged personal life and to construct an intricate literary project that functions according to strict rules, one of them being the palindrome.
But rather than a confessional novel about himself and his wife, Roubaud follows in the tradition of the troubadours, where the objects of grief and love are identified obliquely and through literary artifice. At all times, Alix and his anguished loss of her are paramount, but usually couched or disguised by the writer’s obsessive need to filter that anguish through reflections of the art of writing.
The Great Fire of London consists of a main text (“story”) and two sets of digressions (“interpolations” and “bifurcations”). Although best to read the insertions as they appear (indicated in the main text with cross-reference markers), this is an interactive text in which readers can decide for themselves how they wish to proceed. Roubaud’s novel stands as a lyrical counterpart of those great postmodern masterpieces by fellow Oulipians Georges Perec (Life: A User’s Manual) and Italo Calvino (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler).