Reading Jacques Roubaud

Context N°24

Jacques Jouet

Dear reader. In these few lines I shall attempt to convince you to join the growing number of Jacques Roubaud aficionados. That is, if you haven’t already.

If you like books and you like them open, amusing, profound, poignant, playful, erudite, insightful, contemplative, and confident, then this author and these books are for you. You won’t find many books like them and they exist under the name Jacques Roubaud.

I have never encountered such an intense knowledge and passion for the art of writing as those of Jacques Roubaud, a man I have been lucky enough to associate with at Oulipo for almost thirty years. The intensity of his oeuvre demands, my dear reader, a reading as attentive as it is active. I shall endeavor to be as direct as possible in my homage. I shall even unashamedly (though regretfully) set aside my personal limitations in order to bring it to fruition, for I admit that I am neither scientist nor mathematician. And yet I have read and continue to reread his work, which in fact offers a great introduction to these fields and opens up avenues for future discovery.

Roubaud’s work begins seriously in 1965, with the publication of an exceptional book that was instantly recognised as such: ε (Signe D’Appartenance). This is a truly profuse piece of work that has been developing across a broad range of fields for almost fifty years; but it is above all a book of poetry, or at least has poetry at its core.

Roubaud expressed a belief in the necessity of maintaining poetry “as an art, a craft, a passion, a game, an irony, a form of research, an insight, a violence, an independent endeavor, and a way of being” (what a list!), and he turned to the troubadours as the perfect example of what he saw as a required archaism: “The archaism of the troubadours is my own.” This standpoint can be seen as a reaction to the reverence in which French poets were held in the 1960’s, with their surrealism, absolute and resolute modernity, and political engagement, all movements with a strong tendency towards tearing things up and starting again. In contrast, the Provençal poets of the twelfth century were, for Roubaud, his poetic forebears, demonstrating technical knowledge, formal invention, both clarity and obscurity, and a dedication to poetry written for love alone. For him, it was not by starting from scratch that we can create something new, but by carefully selecting our genealogy: Queneau rather than Breton, and the American objectivists rather than the Beat Generation, but also Jane Austen rather than Balzac, Gertrude Stein rather than Joyce, Churchill (or his 1940’s incarnation at least) above all others, London rather than Paris, Castellio the Tolerant rather than Calvin. The list goes on.

Roubaud the poet knows everything there is to know about his art, reciting works by heart, reading avidly, and composing copiously. He fears nothing, neither humor, nor the lyricism of loss and emptiness, nor formal logic, nor the city as subject (Paris, London, and others), nor nursery rhymes for children and early readers. Roubaud is the poet of presence in the world, “I am the finger that taps on the here and now,” the poet of an extreme formalism that is at once an extreme substantialism, driven by the concept of “formal meaning.” For him, poetry cannot be paraphrased, “It says what it says by saying it,” and the practice of poetry comes with a theory that is in no way obscurantist, reflecting his embracing of poetry as a craft. Roubaud penned two essays fundamental in this regard, relating to classic poetic works that definitively disprove the notion of any established dichotomy between content and form: one on Rimbaud’s “What are the stains of blood to us, my heart …” (The Old Age of Alexander), and one on Jaufré Rudel’s “The Song of Distant Love” (The Inverted Flower). The first poem signifies the political unsettling of the Paris Commune through the formal unsettling of the alexandrine; the second signifies the affirmation of love and its loss through the interplay of the relative placement of rhymes.

The poet who “belongs to something” travels on foot, through cities and along the length of the Mississippi, and is himself but a small step in the composition of poetry. But the real poet is he who travels the world to be embraced by it, to recite and to live poetry (Churchill 40 and other Travel Sonnets); he with the light touch and playful language of the Fumistes and the Hydropathes, whose humoristic provocations, linked to rhyme and growing out of Wittgenstein’s ludic language, should not be forgotten.

Poetry for “the memory of language,” the love of language, the love of love . . .

Also at the origin of Roubaud’s work is mathematics (the theory of categories), derived from the Bourbaki masters and his career as a teacher. There are more than a few traces of this influence in Roubaud’s grand poetic Project (a cornerstone of his oeuvre, closer to a scientific method than any form of self-expression) and the craft of the mathematician is always inflected in his writing. With his Project (see Description of the Project. Mezura n°9, 1979), Roubaud set out a framework for the future and put into motion years of work that could be understood from an existential perspective as an “alternative to voluntary disappearance,” a quiet euphemism for personal tragedy following the suicide of one of his brothers, a suicide which could have become an unfortunate model (Roubaud’s work for a long time made allusions to the subject, and finally addressed it explicitly in Categorical Imperative). The Project set out poetry to write, theory to construct, readings to be made, and unlimited formal research to be completed. It was also the blueprint for a novel, The Great Fire of London, that runs parallel to the Project and which was to Roubaud what The Man Without Qualities was to Musil. Prose, therefore, with one eye on poetry, inspired by the Middle Ages and the time of the Grail, with Lancelot as its basis, just as the songs of the troubadours formed the basis of his poetry.

The scope of the Project was huge: knowledge, composition, life. And necessitated collective endeavor. Reviews (Change, Action Poétique, Poésie); groups (Change again, Oulipo, the Polivanov circle, the Centre for Comparative Poetics—who completed a massive amount of work on the alexandrine, the sonnet and its many incarnations in different languages, in all their frequency and formal variation); numerous collaborations (rhythm theory with Pierre Lusson, Grail Theatre with Florence Delay); innumerable poetry translations; and more recently the translation of the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Roubaud’s vision of poetry has little to do with sunsets (though something to do with the sunrise) and even less to do with literature. For him—and in contrast with the conventional understanding of literature as encapsulating the poem, the novel, drama, and even the essay—poetry reaches far beyond the limits of this term.

Space is made for mistakes and for melancholy, for the death in life, “the words of poets are my life, the death of my forebears is my life …” culminating in his great book of loss, Some Thing Black, a book that even Roubaud’s detractors have acclaimed (how often pain garners praise!). In this unillustrated book, photography is, however, omnipresent as the pastime of a dead person, but also as evidence of a past in which black and white skip through their full range of metaphors, from coffee, to the pubis, to the night, to writing on a page …

The Project was already gigantic, “in many people’s eyes idealistic,” but curiously, Roubaud, in trying to even partially accomplish it, in the end came to add a second part which proved to be its keystone.
If “poetry is the memory of language,” then it was only appropriate to explore memory, an exploration Roubaud achieved through prose. The seven mighty volumes of the unfinished The Great Fire of London are “memory prose.” It was meant to be a novel “distinct from the Project though still part of it, telling the story of the Project as if it were fiction, providing the Project with a roof that, like those Japanese roofs that extend far beyond their buildings’ facades and curve down almost to the ground, would have provided the necessary shade for its aesthetic protection.” This vision of the novel was never realised. In its place there came a succession of clauses and intersections, of daily deposits of prose that never made a journal or mémoire: they made memory prose. This was an ambitious endeavor that could be considered an alternative to Proust, to the extent that we will never really do justice to The Great Fire of London without having considered the differences between the works. There is, in Proust, an irenicism with regard to memory and an implicit trust in the reconstitution of lost time that Jacques Roubaud does not share. Roubaud remains troubled and at some distance from any Proustian rediscovery. The Great Fire of London (Le Grand Incendie de Londres) has recently been abridged by Roubaud to Gril—not Gil, Gril: Roubaud is stretching himself over the coals.
Why was this novel impossible? Why was its plan destroyed? Why this “destruction” of the first novel and “dissolution” of the last? Will Gril be finished? Or is it a failed novel designed to make more room for poetry, as maths had done? Has the end been written? All of these questions make Gril an inexhaustible read.

There is nothing more disengaged than the work of Jacques Roubaud, nothing more separate from the concerns of civilization and enlightenment. The activity of Oulipo, of which Roubaud is currently the central figure (Oulipo remains an unfinished work and has had as it central characters the duo Queneau/Le Lionnais, the meteor Perec, and now Roubaud), is founded on the notion of potentiality, a notion that Roubaud never stops exploring. It is impossible to comprehend Roubaud’s Oulipian ideas without first accepting the scientific metaphor of poetic endeavor: project, axiom, solution, demonstration, and the infinite centripetal expansion of possibility. And all this serving to nullify the Oulipo sceptic’s eternal question: “But can you still find things to look for?”

One can still see in Roubaud a clear concern for the transmission of values founded in a cultured, hardwearing, and enlightened family, a concern affirming the value of man’s (historical) responsibility in the time of the religion of rights (in a present separated from History). The Last Bullet Lost and Wild Garden should be read in this regard.

All this is Jacques Roubaud; a certain vision of the poet as the heart, the atom, around which the electrons and planets of mathematics, prose, English literature, and potentiality turn with varying degrees of freedom, and all according to a system with its own rules, exceptions, and catastrophes.
He is an author in whose work everything has a meaning and does not allow us to pick and choose. His oeuvre is generous and should be read with generosity, accepting its shifts and changes, and it is gently subversive, rendering notions of style obsolete. More than Exercises in Style, it is an exercise of styles. For there is no such thing as “Style,” there are only “styles” (see the ten styles of the Japanese author Chomei in Gril), some of which are light, some of which are serious, some quickly penned, and some demanding a great deal of work. There can be no absolute style. So long live the “invisible prose” of Jane Austen, and let us forget Flaubert and his anxieties . . .

You will find in this man’s work something to think about, something to learn, and something to entertain you, as well as the irrepressible joy that rests at the heart of every art.

Today, dear reader, you should be reading Jacques Roubaud.

The Great Fire of London: A Story With Interpolations and Bifurcations. Dalkey Archive Press, 2005.
The Loop. Dalkey Archive Press, 2009.
Mathematics. Dalkey Archive Press, 2012.
Some Thing Black. Dalkey Archive Press, 1990.
The Form of a City Changes Faster, Alas, Than the Human Heart. Dalkey Archive Press, 2006.

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