Reading Jacques Jouet

Context N°14

by Warren Motte

From the perspective of American readers, Jacques Jouet’s writing is one of contemporary French literature’s best-kept secrets. That’s because until very recently none of his books had found their way into English translation—and the fault is ours rather than his, because Jouet himself has been producing smart, funny, vibrant, pungent literature in astonishing diversity and abundance for the last quarter century. Since inaugurating his career in 1978 with a book called Guerre froide, mère froide (Cold War, Cold Mother), Jouet has written sixty-odd major texts. Those works stride boldly across traditional generic boundaries, traversing a literary horizon that seems virtually endless. Jouet has produced numerous volumes of poetry, five novels to date, theater (his plays have been produced from Paris to Ouagadougou), short fiction, literary criticism, and even a work of lexicography. He has led writers workshops and articulated with a variety of theatrical troupes. As a member of the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Oulipo), a group of writers and mathematicians founded by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais in 1960, he has participated closely in what can now be regarded as the most successful—and long-lived—collaborative effort in the history of French literature.

As a reader I find that keeping up with Jacques Jouet can be daunting. John Coltrane once remarked that playing music with Thelonious Monk was a heady experience, but that if his attention flagged for even a moment, he felt as if he had fallen down an elevator shaft. I feel much the same way about reading Jacques Jouet, because each of his texts seems to come from a different angle, and launches out, engines full ablaze, upon a different literary trajectory. Clearly enough, having suggested the exceptional amplitude of his oeuvre on the one hand and, on the other, my own readerly bewilderment, I cannot pretend to offer anything like a normative, comprehensive account of Jouet’s career here. Instead, what I would like to do is to take a few soundings in his work, pointing out a few texts among the many he has written that might, for whatever reason, pique the interest of readers as yet unfamiliar with him.

I would like to turn to Jouet’s poetry in the first instance, because I am persuaded that, whatever sort of writing he may turn his pen toward, his literary imagination is above all a poetic one. In his novels, his plays, his short fiction, and even in his essays, he is constantly attentive to effects such as rhythm, the architectonics of image, and the fundamental materiality of words. In 107 Ames (107 Souls), published in 1991, Jouet offers a collection of 107 brief poems, each one devoted to a different—and very real—person. He chose those subjects blindly, as it were, recruiting friends of his to find willing subjects, and distributing questionnaires to those subjects, polling them about their age, their place of birth, their job, their income, and so forth. A final question invited them to describe a determinative event in their lives. Armed with those data, Jouet composed poems about each of them in a similar poetic form: three stanzas of six verses each. He used, moreover, a structure of internal rhyme that his fellow Oulipian Harry Mathews had unearthed in the first of John Berryman’s dream songs.

I think these poems are very excellent as poems, but I’ll say that once about Jouet’s writing, and then leave it as read. What interests me more particularly here is the manner in which Jouet puts poetry on stage in 107 Ames and the role that he scripts for it. Much of the material in these texts is mundane—necessarily so, since much of the information in the responses to the questionnaires is mundane, and since Jouet proposed to use that information, and only that information, in his poems. The people, the subjects of those poems, are likewise very ordinary folk for the most part. The lens in this collection is focused very carefully upon the quotidian, with all of its utterly familiar vexations. Moreover, that focus is apparent even in the conception of the project. In other words, one of the things Jouet is after in 107 Ames is to enable poetry to engage a dimension of the world that often proves refractory toward literary representation: the ordinary, the familiar, the everyday. We are creatures of the ordinary after all; we spend most of our lives in the domain of the trivial rather than in the realm of the heroic. We don’t generally dwell upon the ordinary, for, believing its terms to be obvious, we leave them unsaid. And in consequence our cultural forms are largely unequipped to represent it. What Jouet provides here is a glimpse of the world that we thought we knew, insisting very closely on crude detail in an effort to persuade us that the commonplaces of our lives deserve to be reexamined. It is a humanist poetics, in short, and such a stance subtends much of Jouet’s work from that point forward.

Navet, linge, oeil-de-vieux (Turnip, Napkin, Old-Man’s-Eye) deserves mention here, if for no reason other than its size. That work is a three-volume collection of poems which Jouet wrote during a four-year period. It comprises almost a thousand pages and was published in 1998 in one daring whack by POL, a Parisian publishing house that has provided a home to some of the most interesting and innovative writers working in France. Ours is a time and (more pertinently perhaps) an economy that does not particularly value poetry, and in light of that, POL’s gesture is all the more laudable. There are many kinds of poems in the collection. There is a long piece composed in alexandrine verse that Jouet returned to periodically during a four-year period, totaling 4,002 lines. There are several poems on the still-life that figures in the collection’s title, a sort of poetic fetish that Jouet kept on his desk during those years, consisting of a tur-nip, a linen napkin, and an old-man’s-eye (a biconcave lens used by landscape painters). There are examples of a form called an “addressed poem” that Jouet conceived, a text written with a specific person in mind and sent by mail to that person upon completion. Jouet has remarked, with tongue firmly in cheek, that such a form maximizes the chances of a poetic text being read carefully by at least one person. Whatever other projects he may be engaged in at any given moment, Jouet has for the past ten years made it a rule to write one poem a day. Tracing as it does four years of that experiment, Navet, linge, oeil-de-vieux can be read as a poet’s diary, one in which poetry is firmly cast—however quaint and outdated such an idea may seem to some readers—as a perfectly ordinary integer in the algorithm of everyday life.

Poèmes de métro (Metro Poems), published in 2000, displays a similar concern for the quotidian. Fascinated throughout his career by venerable poetic fixed forms such as the sonnet, the triolet, and the Malayan pantoum, Jouet chose to invent a new fixed form. He provided the definition of that new form in a text which is itself a metro poem:

A metro poem is a poem composed
in the metro, during the duration
of a trip.
A metro poem has as many verses as
your trip has stations, minus one.
The first verse is composed in your
head between the two first stations
of your trip (counting the station
from which you departed).
It is transcribed onto paper when the
train stops at the second station.
The second verse is composed in
your head between the second and
third stations of your trip.
It is transcribed onto paper when the
train stops at the third station. And
so forth.
One must not transcribe when the
train is in motion.
One must not compose when the
train is stopped.
The last verse of the poem is
transcribed on the platform of
your last station.
If your trip involves one or more
changes of subway lines, the poem
will have two or more stanzas.

There are several examples of metro poems in this collection, most notably a text of 490 lines and forty-nine stanzas composed during a sixteen-hour trip in which Jouet rode through every station on the vast Parisian subway system. Poèmes de métro is by turn intriguing, amusing, and, well, moving, in the broadest sense of that term. Once again, I feel that it is most compelling in the way it offers the poetic act itself for our inspection. In the ordinary way of things, there are few settings less apt to inspire creativity than a subway ride. We think of a trip on the subway—when we think of it at all, that is—as an essentially empty interlude that we endure in order to get somewhere else and do something. A quick (and carefully noncommittal) glance at the glazed faces of one’s fellow passengers will confirm this. Jouet’s experiment is intended to demonstrate that even such an apparently banal moment can be invested with meaning, more particularly, poetic meaning. Clearly, it is a form that someone living in, say, rural Kansas would find difficult to practice on a regular basis. But the subway itself is not the point. Jouet’s example argues that even the bleakest of our daily landscapes—a supermarket, a traffic jam, a dentist’s waiting room, for heaven’s sake—can be traversed poetically.

Jacques Jouet has grouped his novels and several pieces of short fiction under the general rubric “The Republic Novel.” Broadly speaking, each of the texts included in this ongoing project speaks in some fashion about contemporary society and the politics through which it is governed. That is not to say that these works are examples of a narrowly defined littérature engagée bound to a particular political orthodoxy. To the contrary, Jouet’s social critique is constantly mobile, playing upon the more egregious of society’s contradictions in a variety of perspectives. It is moreover principally ironic and interrogative in character, rather than prescriptive. His first novel, Le directeur du Musée des cadeaux des chefs d’Etat de l’étranger (The Director of the Museum of Gifts from Foreign Heads of State), which appeared in 1994, focuses on the man whose task it is to collect, inventory, and display gifts given to the nation over the years. As the syntax of the novel’s title suggests, one of the things Jouet examines here is a principle of accretion, as gift follows upon gift in the history of the Republic, and thus in the museum’s collection. Every gift has a story to tell, of course, and Jouet structures each of those stories in ways that make them ramify far beyond themselves. In that manner, his tale ramifies pleasingly both on the level of social critique and on that of narrative itself. For one of the lessons of this text is that narrative is infinitely protean, supple, and resourceful; it can be put to many different purposes; it can target many different ends—even ends that one might hardly expect.

La Montagne R, published in 1996, will soon appear in English translation as Mountain R. The central conceit that Jouet postulates in it will appeal deeply to ironists of any political stripe: the president of the Republic has decided to build an artificial, 5,000-foot mountain as a monument to the glory of his nation. The first part of the novel is devoted to the speech in which the president announces that project to the benighted masses. It is a hilarious, wonderfully trenchant example of the kind of flatulent “politspeak” that habitually assails us, both here and in France. The second part takes place after the project has failed, as a young female journalist questions her father (who worked on the mountain for many years) about his role in the building of the mountain. The third and final part of Mountain R takes place during a trial in which the people responsible for the project are brought to account. It focuses on the testimony of a writer named Stéphane who had been commissioned to write an official history of the Mountain R and who claims to be working on a novel based on the project. As perspectives shift thus, so too do our perceptions of political action, social imperative, and moral responsibility—whether the latter notion be construed on the national, the familial, or the individual level. In ironic and canny fashion, Jouet asks us to consider how we view monuments and how we tend to monumentalize our leaders, our progenitors, and the tasks we pursue, both individually and severally. Just as this mountain is flawed by its uncertain foundations, both in the literal and the figurative sense, so too are the relations between the young woman and her father, and between Stéphane and his art.

In the first instance, Jouet argues, we build our monuments out of words, whether those words be an inaugural address, conversations with family members, or a novel. To the degree that those words are used to obfuscate realities that are otherwise painful to utter, our monuments will be correspondingly fragile. Duplicity is, thus, centrally at issue in Mountain R. Yet it should be noted, too, that the novel is among the most duplicitous of our cultural forms. The best novels always say something other than what they appear to say; they speak most eloquently from the side of the mouth; they are cunning, double-dealing, and lavishly deceptive. It is thus with high good humor and considerable wit that Jouet invites us to speculate on both Stéphane’s novel and his own here, asking us a whole range of questions. Can the novel render an accurate account of reality through a construction that is necessarily a fiction? If storytelling is the gesture we use in order to come to terms with experience, what are the possibilities and the limits of that gesture? What kinds of truths do we look for in narrative—and what kinds of truths do we commonly reject therein? As we reflect upon questions such as those, it may become apparent that the readerly strategies we bring to the text are every bit as duplicitous as those that the writer has elaborated, with just this kind of reciprocal recognition in mind.

Fins (Ends), the most overtly Oulipian of Jouet’s novels to date, appeared in 1999 and focuses on two Parisian couples who grapple with the demands of marriage in a variety of comic—and sometimes painful—ways. Jouet uses two systems of formal constraint in Fins in order to provide his text with structural rigor. The first is based upon the sestina, the poetic form broadly practiced in the Italian Renaissance, involving the regular permutation of six rhymes. Here, the permutational integers are sentences, rather than rhymes. There are 216 paragraphs in the novel, each of them composed of from one to six sentences. The first paragraph contains one sentence, the second two, and so forth. In the seventh paragraph, another permutation begins, in which the order is shifted: 6, 1, 5, 2, 4, 3. The second permutation begins in the thirteenth paragraph, with a shift that is symmetrical to that in the second set: 3, 6, 4, 1, 2, 5. Jouet follows that pattern in Fins until all of the combinatoric possibilities of his algorithm (6×6 x 6 = 216) have been exhausted. The idea that a novel should have the formal rigor of a poem is certainly not a new one, and by his own account Jouet’s gesture responds to Raymond Queneau’s prescriptive brief for more structure in the novel. The effect of this particular device can be traced most directly in the area of narrative rhythm, and it serves to remind us too that any storytelling, as Italo Calvino argued, is combinatoric by its very nature. The second constraint that Jouet uses involves the notion of narrative closure. Each of the 216 paragraphs stages a brief narrative that “ends” somehow. Jouet has remarked that he wished to test the notion of a novel that ends—or might end—at any moment of its elaboration. Playing on the principle of narrative closure, Jouet plays in savvy manner on his reader’s semiotic desire as well, on our craving to hear always more, on our undoubtedly unreasonable—but thoroughly human—longing for stories to develop beyond the boundaries of the fictional worlds they construct.

Une réunion pour le nettoiement (A Meeting for Cleansing), published in 2001, focuses once again on that slippery construct that so deeply fascinates Jouet: the Republic. The setting is a meeting to discuss public sanitation, and initially at least issues such as garbage collection, sewer maintenance, and the suppression of vermin are batted about with the kind of otiose lustiness that is typical of meetings. It shortly becomes apparent, however, that other, more troubling kinds of cleansing are on the agenda as well. The members of this group are perhaps not quite what we assume them to be, and their goals may well be more broadly social than they pretend. Most of us wish to live in an environment that is reasonably (if not obsessively) clean, after all. But what happens when we extend that principle to our social environment? Most of us are pleased to have our trash picked up at the curb, since we have decided that that trash no longer has any value for us. But how might we react if our garbagemen took it upon themselves to police our society according to similar principles? As often happens in Jouet’s fictions, a situation that seems on the face of it familiar and utterly normal goes awry in dramatic ways. In view of recent developments in our own society and in others only a bit more distant, Une réunion pour le nettoiement would be far more comic if it were any less chilling.

La République de Mek-Ouyes (The Republic of Myass), Jouet’s most recent novel to date, also appeared in 2001, and once again the fate of the Republic hangs in the balance. Subtitled “Serial Novel,” it is a lengthy work of 822 pages. Its subtitle is more than mere posturing on Jouet’s part: the first half of La République de Mek-Ouyes was indeed serialized—and doubly so, both in radiophonic form on France Culture between September 2000 and June 2001, and simultaneously in written form on POL’s website. Among the many other stories the novel tells, the story of René Pascale-Sylvestre is central. He is a truck driver who, changing his name to “Mek-Ouyes,” decides to occupy a rest area on a superhighway and declare thereupon a sovereign republic. That state’s natural resources are constituted by the forty tons of pig and elephant manure that his truck contains, a puissant mixture that produces an extremely toxic gas called “tricoruzene defoliant.” In the course of the story, the reader is regaled with an abundance of quirky characters and situations. There is, for instance, a wild boar who reads Queneau; a rapturous, deeply erotic scene in which a woman makes love with a snail; and a man named John Flandrin who once sold a thousand cubic meters of ice cubes in Greenland, dreams of a beach made entirely of couscous, and may have authored an erudite pamphlet on the customs of the Gonocos of Ganaca. There are lots of interpolated stories here; there are episodes written in alexandrine verse; and there are enough characters to satisfy even the most hardened devotee of the serial genre. Among those characters are a serial novelist (coincidentally working on a text called La République de Mek-Ouyes) and his reader, a young woman who brings considerable intellectual brio to her job and who keeps her novelist reasonably honest. Through those two figures, La République de Mek-Ouyes insistently questions its own terms and the conditions that enable a serial novel. For example, what is the relation, it asks, between the episodic rhythm of composition and the interrupted rhythm of reading? What are the specific uses of a serial novel? If this novelist drives his characters onward like a gaggle of geese (to borrow Queneau’s image, as Jouet does), in what fashion does that gesture “drive” the narrative—and the reader, as well? Perhaps by virtue of its very form, and quite regardless of its specific narrative content, a serial novel puts forward a case for the importance of narration itself as human behavior. As Jouet himself puts it, “There must be someone, some people, who will tell. A society cannot live without telling about itself.” That is a lesson that echoes throughout the ample halls of this novel, as indeed it echoes throughout Jouet’s work as a whole—and a very telling lesson it is.

Selected Works by Jacques Jouet in Translation

Mountain R. Trans. Brian Evenson. Dalkey Archive Press, $12.95.

Selected Untranslated Works

107 Ames. Ramsay, €12.96.
Actes de la Machine Ronde. Julliard, €10.67.
Alsace, Dialogues du Paysage (Version Sous Coffret). Castor & Pollux, €39.64.
Annette et L’Etna. Stock, €10.52.
Le bestiare inconstant. Out of Print.
Ce que rapporte l’envoyé. Le Verger, €5.34.
Des ans et des ânes. Out of Print.
Le directeur du Musée des cadeaux de Chefs d’Etat de l’étranger. Seuil, €19.51.
Echelle et Papillons, Le Pantoum. Out of Print.
Fins. POL, €11.43.
Guerre froide, mère froide. Out of Print.
Mon bel autocar. POL, €10.00.
Les mots du corps dans les expressions de la langue française. Larousse €18.00.
Navet, linge, oeil-de-vieux. Out of print.
Poèmes avec partenaires. POL, €18.00.
Poèmes de métro. POL, €21.34.
Le point de vue de l’escargot. Le Verger, €10.67.
Raymond Queneau. Out of print.
Regarde les têtes en l’air. Out of Print.
La République de Mek-Ouyes. POL, €23.00.
Une réunion pour le nettoiement. POL, €16.77.
Romillats: nouvelles. Out of Print.
Sauvage. Autrement, €9.00.
La scène et sur la scène: théâtre. Out of Print.
La scène usurpée. Rocher, €4.42.
Vanghel: Théâtre IV. POL, €20.00.

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