Casebook: The Great Fire of London by Jacques Roubaud
Jean-Jacques F. Poucel
By consigning to paper today the first lines of this prose (manifold in imagination) I am perfectly aware of administering a mortal, definitive blow to what I conceived on turning thirty as an alternative to self-chosen extinction, and which served for over two decades as the project of my existence.
–Jacques Roubaud, preface to The Great Fire of London
The Great Fire of London will not have been the novel it was intended to be. Or so runs the opening argument of the elaborate fiction Jacques Roubaud is currently writing.1 In Destruction, the first installment of this six-volume novel cycle, Roubaud begins to explain just what his original novel was supposed to accomplish while simultaneously staking out the narrative conditions under which its story may now be recounted. Foremost among those conditions is the intentional destruction of what the work was supposed to have been, a novel. Because The Great Fire of London posits a ruined novel at its origin while proposing the simultaneous remembrance and destruction of that very same novel, the story Roubaud recounts, the precise form he gives to his storytelling, directly concerns the novel genre, the novel form. At its core, The Great Fire of London explicitly stages the question of literary genre (form), and that quest is seminal to the work’s very existence. Roubaud’s subtitle advertises the central importance of classification. It labels the work as a generic story, a récit, but one that differs from the norm, not only because of length but also because of its digressive presentation as a story with interpolations and bifurcations. What, then, is at stake in the search for genre in The Great Fire of London? In response to that question, I would suggest that Roubaud’s récit indisputably participates in the genre of the novel, as it does in other genres, notably the autobiography and the genre of the Book as theorized by Stéphane Mallarmé and Maurice Blanchot. In particular, my reading of Destruction suggests that the concern for form in The Great Fire of London contributes to the genre by articulating the search for formal definition as one of its central generative drives. Implicitly postmodern, according to Jean-François Lyotard’s use of the term, this search for formal meaning stages a highly original reflection and demonstration of Jacques Roubaud’s formalized memory. What is at stake in this quest is more than the Book, the autobiography, or the novel. For Roubaud, it is a matter of life and death and the extent to which their pursuit may correspond to a vital form, in this case, a novel form.
Project, Novel, Récit
For the sake of those unfamiliar with Destruction, to date the only translated volume of The Great Fire of London, I begin with some background information. Narrated in the first person, Destruction recounts how Jacques Roubaud comes to terms with his ostensible failure to realize a complex and self-imposed literary Project, a Project that is deeply personal, highly theoretical and profoundly engaged with the elaboration of poetic forms. As is implied in the opening quotation, from its inception Roubaud’s Project had served as a means of working through a private trauma, the alternative to which would have been “self-chosen extinction” (1), or suicide. In his early writing Roubaud mutes the dimensions of this personal crisis, granting prominence to his works’ formal experimentation instead. However, in Quelque chose noir (1986) and The Great Fire of London—both of which represent Roubaud’s emergence from a thirty-month vow of silence–Roubaud openly mourns the early death of his young wife, Alix Cleo Roubaud (1952-1983). This loss and the works of mourning associated with it color the failure of the Project and suggest a concern for modes of mourning in Roubaud’s work. For it is shortly after the suicide of his younger brother, Jean René Roubaud, in 1960, that Jacques Roubaud makes what he characterizes to be a fundamental decision altering his ambition to become a poet. In view of that goal, shaded by its occasion, Roubaud began inventing the conditions for what would become his life’s work as a writer, a decision that lead to the conception of what he now refers to as the Project.
While this Project and the reasons for its failure subtend the opening pages of Destruction, as well as the rest of the novel cycle, a precise definition of its goals and methods has yet to fully emerge. That is, Roubaud does not explicitly provide all of the formal reasoning behind the Project, but rather he cloaks them in riddles and illuminates them from time to time, in a piecemeal fashion. Or he demonstrates them in their manner of unfolding as textual enigmas. Consequently, insofar as significant parts do exist as real books, uncovering the precise logic and architecture of the Project is one of the most exciting and challenging aspects of reading Roubaud’s work. It will come as no surprise, then, that the mystery surrounding the Project, its formal meaning and its personal sources, must, according to Roubaud, be read as entirely motivated, for if The Great Fire of London is a novel, it is a mystery novel, one in which, had it been—or were it to become—the novel it was supposed to be, readers could have readily solved the riddle of the Project.
In order to better explain this last remark, let me reconsider the now defunct but important relationship between the Project and what The Great Fire of London was supposed to have been. Conceived around the same time, the Project and the novel were to be complementary aspects of the same monumental literary work. The Project was to have been the product of thirty-six years of concerted industry, and it would include publications of a wide variety (including poetry, mathematics, translations, novels, short stories, plays, anthologies, and criticism—just to list some of the genres in which Roubaud actually publishes books). In theory, when completed, these various literary activities would have each participated in a single synthetic work whose architecture would not have been immediately apparent. The novel, distinct from the Project, was to tell the story of that abstract book (or more properly, book of books), but in a strategic way, such that, through reading the novel one might discover, obliquely, the existence of the otherwise unrecognizable monument. According to one of Roubaud’s assertions concerning that idealized novel, the unwritten “The Great Fire of London,” the mystery in the novel would have cast a veil over the riddle of the Project: “A novel is the transformation of a riddle into a mystery” (149). In other words, the novel would both reveal and preserve the secret unity of the Project. This dual function is clearly delineated in the roof metaphor below, figuring the novel as that which completes the Project while simultaneously keeping its riddles in obscurity, hidden in a fictional world.
The Great Fire of London (such was the title which a dream impressed upon me shortly after the vital decision leading to the Project’s conception) would have held a singular place in the encompassing construction, distinct from the Project itself although fitting into it, recounting the real Project as though it were fictional, furnishing the Project’s edifice at last with a roof which, in the manner of Japanese dwellings projected far beyond the walls and curving downward almost to the ground, would have ensured the shade necessary for its aesthetic protection. (1)
The ruse of this plan is that the unveiling of that great literary monument would have been indefinitely deferred, only really beginning to gain prominence once both the Project and the novel had been completed and once the novel’s mysteries had been identified, understood, and proven as the solution to the riddle of the Project. It is important to understand the operative role this imaginary novel was supposed to have played in the Project here because that novel, “The Great Fire of London,” bearing that relationship to the Project, has been abandoned. Our understanding of what the real novel, The Great Fire of London, puts under erasure orients our reading of the entire novel cycle, beginning with Destruction. In its original conception the novel was to have been written simultaneously with the various books of the Project, and its dual role, to reveal and protect the Project’s enigmas, also would have initially been that of closure. That is, the novel was intended to cap, and thereby assure the reception of the Project. However, as Roubaud claims in the preface, “. . . The Great Fire of London has not been written because the Project has failed, because it was destined to fail” (2).
Instead, the opening pages of The Great Fire of London induct us into yet another layer of mystery. Originally, the novel called “The Great Fire of London” was conceived as a fallen form of the Project. This claim is inscribed in Roubaud’s localized definition of a novel: “A novel is the transformation of a riddle into a mystery” (149). In the French, Roubaud qualifies this transformation as a fall (chute) from a presumably purer, less accessible enigma, into a mystery that is potentially more decipherable, even if cast in a displaced and fictional world. If, from the beginning, the novel was conceived as a fallen form of the Project—a project whose purity is assured in that it is both a poetry project and a mathematics project—then the actual novel we have presents itself as a twice fallen form, the consequence of “the double failure” of the Project and its now impossible crowning jewel (crystal). I insist on the twice-fallen state of the novel, purely confined here to Roubaud’s ruminations on his récit, because in this double “fall,” or “transformation” as Dominic Di Bernardi translates the term in the Dalkey Archive Press edition, are inscribed two essential Roubaldian strategies: first, writing indirectly about a problem; and second, layering and intertwining particular writing strategies, such that a textual play of mirrors is engendered. The second fall to which I have just referred might be simply stated as the collapse of the novel into the récit.
Récit is a generic term designating a story that relates events in detail. A quick glance at a recent French dictionary of literary terms distinguishes the récit from the novel as follows: “both are fictional narratives, but the récit opposes a constant concern of sobriety to the abundance of the novel” (Jarrety 353). While this aesthetic difference may in effect apply to the descriptive mode of Roubaud’s récit, the term also connotes the activity of reciting (from) memory, two meanings that are particularly operative in Roubaud’s novel cycle. By reciting from memory, I mean that Roubaud relies principally on his memory to recount his tale, that the récit is an act of remembering, prior to being an act of inscription. If the idea of narrating the Project was in a state of constant planning over a long period of time, Roubaud was also constantly memorizing its content, form, and rationale. Indeed, he suggests that he “made a mental inventory” (2) of the novel and its objects all along. So when Roubaud states that Destruction begins the demise of the failed novel, he knows by heart the events that determine the Project’s incompletion (if not also what the novel would have been, granted the completion of the Project), and it is from this “mental inventory,” or archival memory, that he incrementally draws to lay “The Great Fire of London” and the Project to waste. In part, this “inventory” refers to the logic of the Project (its axioms, its theorems, its hypotheses), some of which Roubaud outlined and materially destroyed while thinking about the novel. One might think, for example, about the ninety-nine deductions he rehearses in chapter 5, all of which belonged to Roubaud’s ratiocination regarding “The Great Fire of London” and each of which he remembers in the chapter “Dream, Decision, Project.” But the thought processes leading to the conception of the virtual novel are not always synthetic, and Roubaud’s memory is also invested in numbers, in places, in names, in books, and in the things that surround him in his apartment while he writes, each of which, like Alix Cleo’s photograph entitled Fez, reminds him of the Project, of its novel, of their reasoning at various stages of conception.
As such, The Great Fire of London also elaborates a practice of writing that records acts of reciting memory. Roubaud says as much in Destruction: “I write, basically, in imitation of a novel, in part borrowing its form, a treatise of memory; but with this particular qualification, that it is a treatise reduced to an account of a unique experience, with its own protocol and specific mode of restitution” (73). That “unique experience,” I think, is a practice of writing that intentionally foregrounds his operations of memory. By operations of memory I am specifically referring to various mnemonic devices and deductive practices that Roubaud uses to organize and memorize the formal attributes of his novel, practices that invest the form with encoded meaning (often of a personal nature); these practices become the objects of elucidation in Destruction and the subsequent branches of the novel cycle. The “specific mode of restitution” by which these operations of memory are recounted invests an additional factor of textual performativity, like proofs, into the treatise of memory. That is, the specific protocol of the récit in The Great Fire of London stages the act of anamnesis, or of recalling to memory, in such a fashion that remembrance itself is demonstrated in and as the digressive unfolding of the text (I return to that protocol below). In a sense, then, the brevity, the sobriety, and the flexibility offered by the récit suit the demands of reciting (from) memory.
As forms, the Project, novel, and récit can be situated on a graded continuum. According to Roubaud’s own axiomatic assertions about “The Great Fire of London,” the “fall” of the enigma (of the Project) into a state of mystery (in the novel) was programmed into the original conception of the two. Once the “failure” of the Project was recognized, so too was the impossibility of the novel, at least on the same terms. The récit thus represents a second state of ruin or an extra layer of distancing between readers and the Project’s now obscured riddle. This continuum suggests a correspondence between indecipherability of a secret and the form which it inhabits. The Project would thus contain the vastest, most complicated layering of formal meanings, and the novel would house the same formal meaning, but cast in a compact and displaced fictional context. According to this logic of “transformation,” in the récit that mystery and the enigma it alludes to are no longer present. And what takes its place is its fractured recitation from memory: “In ‘the great fire of London,’ the fall is ruin. And there is no more enigma. All that remains is its memory” (149; my translation). In Destruction the story recounts the conditions in which the enigma was imagined, committed to memory, and, in doing so, the narration ostensibly exposes, reveals, and degrades the act of memory which sustained the Project. And like the two concluding descriptions of the actual 1666 fire of London, both of which focus on Saint Paul’s Church, Roubaud’s descriptions expose his imagined work to “violent assaults,” without completely effacing the inscription “showing by whom it was built” while insuring nonetheless that “all the ornaments . . . [fly] off, even to the very roof” (320-21).
Destruction and Doubles
Since its inception, completing the Project was out of the question. Consequently, the novel as structural capstone would remain altogether unwritten, in a state of constant planning. As early as 1979, in a publication entitled Mezura 9: Description du Projet, Roubaud describes the impossibility of finishing his Project, recognizing that the program he has mapped out for himself “might well be considered utopian” (3). Adopting an aesthetic stance that values incompletion, Roubaud further justifies the Project’s impossibility, stating that its ambitious size and conceptual complexity largely surpass the limited time, resources, and imagination available to its author. Furthermore, in that same Description du Projet, Roubaud explains that certain already published works, like his book of poems (Signe d’appartenance) (1967), had been purposefully published in an unfinished state and that completion at all levels was specifically not intended for the Project. The form, in other terms, would be synthetic but not totalizing; it would challenge the nevertheless unavoidable problem of its eventual closure. Given the programmed noncompletion of the Project, the rhetoric of failure with which Roubaud opens The Great Fire of London must be read carefully. Indeed, one might argue that the “fatal blow” dealt to the Project and “The Great Fire of London” initiates a “loser wins” stratagem in which the protection promised by the failed novel should not only be read as impossible but also as decidedly undesirable.
The gesture of destroying the project and planned novel in order to write about what it could have been effectively recasts the virtual novel and the Project in a potential world of fiction. In fact, the posture of this preemptive defeat, already set into motion in 1979, imparts a spectacular consequence: the creation of two parallel fictive universes: the absent and fictive one, in which the potential Project and novel would have been; and the actual fictional one in which in recounting the project and the novel, the story of their fall exposes or explains their secrets. In this model we might imagine two books, read simultaneously, in a contra-linear fashion: the virtual but absent chef d’œuvre of the Project, “The Great Fire of London,” read through and reconstructed by its counterfeit shadow version, The Great Fire of London. The formal construction of the novel supports and encourages this reading. That is, the logic imposed on this pair of doppelgänger novels would have the second created at the expense of the first and the concrete one ending where the abolished one begins. In this light, these two potential novels might be considered mirror image doubles, connected at the fringe, like the symmetrical and opposite halves of an abstract palindrome.2
Indeed there are several narrated elements that encourage this speculative reading. Consider, for example, the enigma of the hermit. In this metafictional (and mathematical) allegory we are instructed to imagine two hermits, both associated with Roubaud’s narrator. The actual hermit, while returning from a night of meditation, would encounter, upon descending from the mount, his ghostly double, “a hermit of memory” (inhabitant of another possible world) who, for his part, is ascending the mountain at precisely the same rate of speed. We as readers are challenged to determine the point at which the two worlds coincide and to imagine in that coincidence not only the potential existence of the ruined and now abandoned Project but also the immanent presence of Roubaud’s absent wife (20). This riddle, whose structure is evoked elsewhere, encourages us to imagine reconstructing the absent novel, as if through reversing an already determined permutation, and to envisage a reconstruction of the Project’s monumentality through the actual novel.
In order to maintain the formal immanence of The Great Fire of London, Roubaud composes his novel under a set of disclosed constraints (there are hidden constraints as well). The advertised constraints set the conditions for a narration whose mode of recollection is confined to a limited time frame, in an absolute present tense. Roubaud carefully articulates this temporality through “moments of prose,” each of which is recorded under two conditions: a) that their composition (remembrance) not follow a preestablished narrative plan; b) that the actual text not undergo revisions. In these moments of prose Roubaud openly reflects on the conditions of his failed and his current writing projects, thereby casting his narrative in a subgenre of metafiction.
A “self-begetting novel” is a novel in which the story is invented at the same time as the novel is being written, making the genesis of the novel itself a central and conspicuous element of the plot.3 Roubaud emphasizes this aspect of his narration by repeatedly suggesting that his is a roman à thèse (133), only then to draw a blank over what that thesis would be: ” ‘The great fire of London’ will be . . .” (18). Flaunting and then eliding this programmatic phrase, Roubaud proposes his text as a puzzle whose mystery will be resolved at the work’s end. This blank is presented as a necessary narrative condition in the novel (138), for it opens and continually reposes the question of the work’s form, what genre it belongs to and, by extension, the question of its formal meaning. In effect, this central but deferred quest for meaning clearly animates the generative axis of the text.
Arborescent Prose: Memory’s Stage
The novel cycle bears a descriptive subtitle: story with interpolations and bifurcations. Accordingly, each volume or branch is divided into three principal parts. The first is a series of chapters composed of numbered “moments of prose” or short narrative fragments. Next, there are numbered series of interpolations or short digressions related to one of the numbered prose moments located in the individual chapters; these are brief, dead-end explications grafted to the main story, supplements that complement but that do not alter the trajectory of the principal narrative. For example, in the very first interpolation, spliced into the preface, Roubaud alludes to yet another axiom that animated his conception of the Project: “The Great Fire of London will be the Aleksandrovian compact space of the Project” (195). Analogously, but quite distinct, there are additional series of numbered narrative fragments called bifurcations. These bifurcations provide alternative narrative trajectories that deviate significantly from the direction of the central plot line; they represent other possible sub-branches within the narrative, parallel lines of narration. In the first one, for example, fittingly entitled “Ornamental Hermit” (281-93), Roubaud meditates on leading a literary life in solitude. Finally, in addition to including these three parts, in the arborescent prose of The Great Fire of London Roubaud gives free abandon to digressive parenthetical remarks.
These moments of prose, the interpolations, and bifurcations, in their own present, shed new light on and alter the events or narrative conditions established elsewhere. In this respect, these digressions invite us to double back on our reading, they exert a transformative force on the already-established narrative conditions, and, as such, they challenge us to reintegrate new, shifting narrative conditions into our reading of the whole text.
Each descriptive moment is set in the present tense of its own composition, simultaneously providing a record of its own writing and, in an anterior mode, a record of what was recollected. As a first requirement then, the moments of prose are intended to provide a record of the experience of writing The Great Fire of London:
I would like, in short, to preserve almost immutably the conditions for a prose experience that will be a daily one to the utmost degree: the place will be nearly invariable, the time fixed; and from my pen the signs accruing, crowding against each other in my notebook, will freeze on this image of quasi-permanence, as if recorded within it, enclosed within its borders.
And I’ll try to make this apparent, along the way, through description. (6)
The moments of prose are intended to describe and affix the time and place of their composition, drawing the reader into the writer’s “verbal room (stanza)” (29). Roubaud underlines the metanarrative status of description by recursively narrating the concrete experience of writing down his recollections. These descriptions include the time and place of writing, what surrounds him as he writes, as well as the actual mode of inscription. Thus presented as mock-diary entries, these prose moments formally engender a novel in which the story told is closely interwoven with a simultaneous account of the story’s telling. However, we should not rush to compare this narrative mode with techniques explored in the Nouveau Roman. Because his story relies primarily on the recollection prior to the actual mode of writing, Roubaud is clear about rejecting this “puerile variation” of the novel.
Now if I am writing, as openly declared, a novel (which is not at all certain, no more so than is my bringing to completion this enterprise (moreover, I won’t be the one to determine the answer)), I must succeed in clarifying that this doesn’t involve a puerile variation, the “mirror-stage” novel, the ineffably boring depiction of the novelist in the process of writing the novel (if there exists a mirror-stage, in this case it would be more pertinent to say “stage of the mirror turned to face the wall”). (281)
Instead of proposing his novel as either a mirror unto the world or unto the making of the world as a novel, Roubaud seeks to engender a narrative reflexivity whose only mimetic aspiration is the representation of the movements of memory, an attempt to affix specific instances of anamnesis to their time and place, as description and inscription. Supposedly presented in the order of composition, each numbered récit represents an isolated present of the text: “Each prose moment is also a ‘moment’ in that respect. . . . It doesn’t move” (214). This immobility, however, relates only to the placement of the fragments. For the reader, retracing the construction of the book often requires shuttling between moments, all the while comparing them in order to determine how they contribute the coming into being of the text. In fact, each moment of prose constitutes a new departure in the greater récit.
Coherence in the experience of writing and reading might thus be seen as distinct from the work’s narrative linearity. Rather than pursue a central plot line, readers encounter a series of descriptions, each of which meditates on, in a present tense, its own contribution to the unfolding work. As they are thematized in the work, writing and reading are organized according to the absolute present tense of remembrance and inscription. Hence the first chapter’s image of the lamp gliding along the thin line of the narrative–“. . . I feel this need to explain, to pause while unwinding the slender narrative thread for the purpose of affixing a lamp to that thread to shed some indispensable light”(21; my translation)–illuminating, along the way, alternate pathways available to the narrative, as well as what inhabits the choices made at every turn.
As the formal intentions of the work develop, however, the description plays an important role in accomplishing the “destructive” goals of The Great Fire of London. Roubaud adopts his wife Alix Cleo’s axiom that “recounting a project nullifies it” (20) as a strategy for describing and dissolving his memories. The insertions thus explore and exhaust every possible narrative divergence that presents itself to the writer/narrator: “I decided that I myself would tread all these branches, roads, rivers, bone paths, veins of the story, but at my own narrative prose pace while traveling along with the walker” (22-23). Roubaud thus attempts to describe each aspect of the Project objectively, and by touching upon them, he claims to nullify them.
An example may illustrate the destruction and the temporality under which it is constructed. The fifth chapter, “Dream, Decision, Project,” states that the initial idea for the Project and “The Great Fire of London” came to Roubaud in a dream in 1961. In that chapter he reproduces written accounts of this dream, all the while describing the destructive effect that the inscription of the dream has on both the memory of the dream and on the experience of remembering the dream:
Upon consigning the dream to paper, I make it disappear, like any dream: but it disappears in a particular way, since the dream has already disappeared, like any dream, and long ago (nineteen years). What disappears now (I’m speaking about the “now” represented by recording the dream on paper) is not the dream, but its memory. For the dream itself, once set down, also disappears. It disappears, no doubt, because it is a recollection of the dream. But it also disappears because, so I believe, all recounted or written recollections disappear. Thereafter, they can remain only as the memory of their recording, of their blackened trace. (But perhaps this is merely a skeptic’s notion about the nature of recollection, about memory.) (115)
Written in the present tense, this description addresses what “the text of the dream” does, rather than what it says. Roubaud downplays symbolism in the dream. Instead, he focuses on the dream’s inaccessibility and the effect of its destruction through the process of anamnesis, description, and inscription. Moreover, the fragment relates the dream’s inscription as if it were part of the same moment of prose, as if it were written simultaneously: “Upon consigning the dream to paper. . . . I’m speaking about the ‘now’ represented by recording the dream on paper. . . .” However, the “text of the dream” first appears in the previous moment of prose (written three days earlier) and was originally written in 1980. And yet Roubaud proposes that every “moment” share the same absolute present, a vital present contained within the confines of his book, a present dedicated to simultaneously remembering, describing, destroying.
The slippage between “present moments of prose” reflects a key goal of Roubaud’s narrative mode: to inscribe the displacement of the central narrative voice. Roubaud explains by stating that he wants to play these temporal contradictions against each other, and against the stability of his narrator’s voice.
The coexistence of presents, each incompatible and preemptory (every present, as I’ve said, is preemptory, explaining its youth) in the completed “great fire of London” will (would) offer, I believe, a real difference (of no special value, but real) from the chief varieties of novels existing in real life, and will no doubt give rise to some narrative paradoxes that I would like to learn how to play off against the inevitable monotony of my own voice. (32-33)
By playing the present of one moment against the present of another moment, Roubaud’s text “should work its effects on the reader’s memory” (33) effects that would symmetrically mirror the manner in which the inscription of memories alters Roubaud’s Project: the “destruction” of what “The Great Fire of London” would have been. In this symmetrical mirror are the traces of the ruined Project, and it is from these fragments that the totality can be imagined, if not reconstructed.
Other readings have also focused on the effects of Roubaud’s formalized memory. Elizabeth Cardonne-Arlyck has responded to his language game, remarking that “in a tale where it contemplates its own double, memory becomes its own reflection, the trace of its own nullification” (93). Cardonne-Arlyck also argues that the mirroring effect established in shuttling between what the work could have been and what the work will have become remains an operative modality of reading The Great Fire of London. Through its subject matter (the Project) and its self-reflexive mode of composition, the roman de mémoire imparts an intentional formal coherence designed simultaneously to destroy and to allude to an absent, but immanently potential literary work. In other words, the dissolution of memories leaves a trace of the Project, a written trace from which the project’s history may be inferred. Each memory’s destruction provides a testament of “The Great Fire of London,” bearing witness to a form of writing intimately linked to the practice of writing itself, a practice that Roubaud calls une forme de vie.
Naming the Work: Autobiography
I would now like to return to the question posed at the beginning of my article, namely the problem of classifying this work. Because this question spans the entirety of The Great Fire of London, my discussion draws some examples from both La boucle and Mathématique. Given the digressive and interlaced structure of the text, Roubaud challenges normative genres to which his work belongs: “As is apparent, I am attempting to reserve for my book what I imagine to be a certain originality, at least in terms of its classification” (La boucle 285). In addition to labeling his writing a “prose of/from memory” or “a treatise of memory” in “imitation of a novel” (73), Roubaud makes clear what is not intended: “it is evidently neither a question of it being a novel, nor a short story, nor an essay” (La boucle 285), adding elsewhere that the “the differential situation” implicit in writing the text precludes it from being any of these or for that matter for it qualifying as some extended version of “poetry” (237). However, it is often argued that The Great Fire of London most closely resembles the autobiography; and Roubaud reluctantly recognizes this possible classification: “Eliminating the hypothesis that [my book] aspires to the autobiographical genre seems a bit more difficult” (La boucle 285).
Effectively, much of the narrative material in the first three published branches of The Great Fire of London is of an autobiographical nature. In the chapter “Portrait of the Absent Artist” we learn a series of facts about the narrator: his discomfort due to his physical stature, his shaving habits, his love of swimming and of counting, and his identification as homo lisens, a man defined by his reading activities. But certainly as importantly, we also learn a great deal about the reasoning behind Roubaud’s earlier works, his Project, and about the impossibility of this work’s double. That is, the text is as much, or more, the story of its own genesis (including the destruction of its origin) as it is the story of its author. Roubaud says as much when he claims that if the text is autobiographical, it is an autobiography of the Project and of the novel it was supposed to have occasioned.
Roubaud rejects qualifying his work as pure autobiography, citing two reasons: first, because of his distaste for autobiographical writing; second, because he claims the textual economy of his book undermines the false transparency inevitable in conventional autobiographies. He couches his disregard for autobiographical writing in terms of its implausibility: “I would place it [the autobiographical story (récit)] on the same scale of implausibility, at the same height as the historical novel, and almost as high as ‘science-fiction’ ” (La Boucle 17). Autobiographical writers tend to fall into two traps which Roubaud claims to avoid in The Great Fire of London: insincerity and dissimulation. Roubaud attempts to walk a thin line between the two: “From this point of view, I station myself at an intermediate point between the novel of transposition and autobiography . . .” (281). These claims and others like them directly appeal to the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. Extending this eschewal of verisimilitude, Roubaud foregrounds an “axiom of veracity,” supported by the “real time” of exegesis. Accordingly, his narrative claims to recount “naively” and “sincerely” the past without privileging a category of truth.
This axiom of “truth telling” differs rhetorically from conventional autobiographies in that here truth value is limited to the boundaries of the work itself and posits no viable relationship to empirical truth:
what I have just written does not aspire to any physiological, neurological, psychological, cognitive or philosophical pertinence . . . The things that are said here are stated in the present of the récit, in the unfolding of the récit, as they present themselves for my recounting. . . . They are not detachable, and may not in any fashion pretend to a statement of truth (La Boucle 17-18).
Moreover, the extent to which the rule of veracity is obeyed in the text’s composition becomes an explicit condition of trust in the narrative contract between author and reader:
By “the requirement of veracity” I am referring to the imperious maxim that governs my attitude with respect to my own story. My story affirms, on its own, its veracity. Veracity is one of the axioms of the narrative. The maxim and the axiom should not be confused; declaring the axiom bears the weight of all such statements, in other words, solely the credit the reader will lend it; the maxim counts for me alone and, once again, the reader who encounters it may or may not trust me on this point. (Mathematique 111, Roubaud’s emphasis)
Veracity in Roubaud’s récit is thus purely formulated in terms of the self-begetting economy of the text and relies, in principle, on the reader’s suspension of disbelief. In themselves, these declarations of verity serve to establish the internal economy of the text, but the actual truth value of that economy–whether or not each moment is written on the stated date and time, or if Roubaud does actually follow the rituals he describes–is not in question. That is, the legitimacy of the text’s veracity is discursively ratified by the very conditions put forth in the text’s composition. The descriptions of each moment are presented as if the work’s genesis were real, but its truth value is circumscribed by its status as fiction. Thus any coincidence between the work’s actual writing and its fictional writing (if it were verifiable) would demonstrate an overlap in two possible worlds, a real world and a world of fiction.
In effect, this self-legitimating economy of veracity cunningly reflects the principles underlining Roubaud’s “The Great Fire of London”: “recounting the real Project as though it were fictional, furnishing the Project’s edifice at last a roof which . . . would have ensured the shade necessary for its aesthetic protection” (1). It is this conflation of fiction and reality that leads De Ferrari to remark that “the choice of a self-begetting novel as a frame for a roman de mémoire is very appropriate: the delineation of a border between fiction and reality is a dialogical, arbitrary decision that need not be made” (272). Given the independent status of the self-begetting and self-legitimating text, Roubaud suggests that the autobiographical elements provide the text with its own independent identity, as if it were written about the potential life of a nonexistent author, or about (a) nobody: “if autobiography is in question, what’s at stake is the (auto)biography of the Project and its double, ‘The Great Fire of London’ ” (La boucle 285). This disappearing act, a kind of literary suicide, enables Roubaud to compose the “Portrait of an Absent Artist” whose acts (completed works) figure as supporting accessories in a story about the Project and its failed novel.
The self-perpetuating logic of this metanarrative relegates the real Project and its author to a secondary role in the work’s generative process. It is not the past of the Project nor the childhood memories of its writer that determine textual production—they operate instead as mnemonic effects fueling the fires of remembrance, description, and destruction. Instead, the book’s elided programmatic phrase animates the text’s generative axis:
The biographical aspect is entirely subordinate to another one that governs, for its part, every page and line and letter of the book, one which is inscribed into each of its volumes like an image in the tapestry, choosing each word, placing each coma, dotting each and every i, and one which is the consequence of a principle of conforming to an announced and still unspoken definition: The Great Fire of London is . . . (La boucle 285)
Repetitively positing this thesis under erasure consistently structures the relationship between narrator and reader. In effect, Roubaud promises his readers that in its final pages this long, arduous narrative odyssey will (have) fulfill(ed) its “raison d’être,” and therewith satisfy the reader’s suspended curiosity. Hence, the silence surrounding the novel’s definition casts the narrative contract in terms of a language game in which we are invited to participate.
I think that the originality of Roubaud’s pseudo-autobiographical tale is rooted in this central and repressed narrative contract, for the imminent textual conditions constructed by this absence present the book (and its becoming) as a simulacrum of life itself. That is, instead of arbitrarily delineating a narrative frame in which to represent the life of the Project–which would necessarily frame the life of its author–Roubaud strategically casts his autobiography in a transformative structure where the “real time” of narration imitates the actual experience of human consciousness, specifically focused on the act of anamnesis. As in life itself, the rules and outcome of The Great Fire of London are deferred, underscoring that memory serves the principal role in the description and destruction of the Project. Within the absolute present narrativity of this text, Roubaud thus records a temporal slippage between simultaneous moments of remembrance, the explicated and attenuated past, the potential yet imminently deferred completion of the work, and the lives that it recollects.
How then might we situate the question of genre in The Great Fire of London? On the one hand, the temporal slippage of the narration undermines the text’s status as purely autobiographical. Because the narrated differs from the narrator who also differs from the real writer, a coincidence or stable identity defining the three is deferred. Reasserting the verity of these distinctions, Roubaud encourages his readers to rely on the narrative truth of his text. For this slippage in event and time is perceived as a real textual function, implicit in formal construction of the tale. The purpose of this function is to cast a shadow, a protective obscurity over the precise identity of not only the novel that would have been, but also over the Project and the lives that bore them. Narrative truth serves the function of protection:
True, I’m not certain of being believed in all of these matters. Readers are a suspicious lot (the history of reading gives them ample reason). I would prefer to be believed. Nevertheless I take the liberty of making the following point explicitly and in the clearest possible terms: what I tell you is true, in the very order in which you discover it. Consequently, I invite you to read me in such a way. And whether you wish to or not, the shadow of this affirmation will stretch over your reading. (33)
The art of Roubaud’s pseudo-autobiography consists in establishing a continually displaced narrative subject whose moments of prose become moments of being. Its complexity lies in interweaving memories of what contributed to the conceptualization of the Project, cast in a dynamic system intended alternatively to shed light on and to hide the writer’s life: “Intertwining of everything, elucidation of segments” (167). It is the self-deferring economy of this narrative that leads Anne Roche to remark that
even if he isn’t entirely exempt of the narrative ruses he denounces in other biographers, namely Sartre and Leiris, he has managed, while writing a profoundly personal and engaging text, to avoid the biographical pitfall in which everything is explained, in which there no longer remains any trace of the obscure, nor the remnants of the some thing black which, sooner or later, confronts us all (82).
On the other hand, the récit tends to subvert the conditions of a whole, hermetic world of the novel. However, the textual fragmentation does not disperse the experience of the text. Rather, the intentional interlacing of present moments of memory tightly interweaves the simultaneous description and destruction of memory. While simultaneously nullifying and potentially completing his master work, Roubaud remembers, moment by moment, the events and revelations that lead to the Project’s conception and subsequent undoing, or défaite. These imbricated moments become, by force of their inscription and reception, the structured ruins of a lost totality, a lost potential world. And yet, as ruins, they speak of a coherence inhabiting the project’s conception, construction, and, arguably, its subsequent destruction. Roubaud clearly identifies the work’s unity, but only in a receded form, as determined by the “fall” of the novel into a concrete trace of its memory.
In this sense, the fragments are apocalyptic, laying waste to the Project and to the novel it was to produce. Roubaud approaches this destruction without nostalgia or regret: “. . . I do not search out time’s traces in order to replay them before my own eyes and thus reenter into possession of a lost belonging, at least for as long as my story lasts; my goal on attaining them is their destruction, their abolition” (320). Destruction by description in each moment thus further affirms the novel’s coherence, for the final destructive gesture is already consciously inscribed into the novel’s deferred definition. Citing Jean-François Lyotard, I would like to suggest that Roubaud’s novel reflects postmodern tendencies in that its coherence is formally motivated by the structure of fragmentation: “the unity of the book, the odyssey of that consciousness, even if it is deferred from chapter to chapter, is not seriously challenged: the identity of the writing with itself throughout the labyrinth of the interminable narration is enough to connote such unity . . .” (80).
Lyotard has remarked that modern and postmodern tendencies often co-exist in the same works. This duplicity is aptly represented in Roubaud’s novel cycle, for the goal of re-creating and remembering the past is not focused on total attainment but engenders a future becoming, for both the work and the “fictive beings” that it implies. That Roubaud casts the event of the work’s completion in an imminently deferred future associates its formal qualities with a postmodern work. In fact, the work’s form challenges conventional notions of the novel, the autobiography, and the work of memory to such an extent that its accomplishment, like the central event in the novel, is deferred. It is this deferral that structures the novel’s central theme: its own genesis. This postponement associates Roubaud’s writing with the aesthetic Lyotard calls postmodern:
A postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by preestablished rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgment, by applying familiar categories to the text or the work. Those rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for. The artist and the writer, then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done. Hence the fact that work and text have the characters of an event; hence also, they always come too late for their author, or, what amounts to the same thing, their being put into work, their realization (mise en oeuvre) always begin too soon. Post modern would have to be understood according to the paradox of the future (post) anterior (modo). (Lyotard 81)
While there are some problems in too closely associating Roubaud’s work with postmodernism’s parody, pastiche, and fragmentation of traditional forms, tendencies that may undermine the utility of genre classification, Lyotard’s specific definition here fittingly describes the narrative conditions of Roubaud’s enterprise. Readers of The Great Fire of London who accept the conditions of immanence and deferral in Roubaud’s text must necessarily also occupy “the position of a philosopher” in Lyotard’s terms. Confined to variations and effects of memory inscribed into the petits récits of Roubaud’s text, we must proceed in the labyrinthine landscape constructed by Roubaud in search for what the work will have accomplished, all the while taking into account how it realizes its status as a novel. And along the way, in exploring the writer’s digressive memories, we experience the isolated events whose accumulation continually subverts the arrival of the text’s programmatic definition. This open-ended search is particularly important now, insofar as the novel cycle is still materially incomplete. Moreover, Roubaud’s integration of other types of textuality into later branches of his novel cycle provides further evidence that an ultimate closure will be artfully negotiated so as to leave the text in as constant a state of becoming as possible.
As Roubaud continues to write and publish the six projected volumes of The Great Fire of London, the fundamental questions that continue to be addressed are, one the one hand, “what kind of book is The Great Fire of London?” and on the other hand, “to what degree does the actual novel effectively replace what Roubaud might have intended for ‘The Great Fire of London’?” These questions, as conditional and speculative as they are, subtend the entirety of Roubaud’s récit, and our readings are necessarily guided by them. Their answers may not fully come to light until after the sixth branch is published, if at all. Indeed, the narration, in its form and in its somber, meditative propos, explicitly makes room for the extension of the private mourning inhabiting its pages. Likewise, the process of their illumination promises to weave new layers of riddles, new layers of remembrances, inscriptions and consequently new layers of reading that will continually put into question any final classification or articulation of the text’s formal meanings. Maintaining the secrets of the Project, it should be reiterated, was the original goal of “The Great Fire of London.”
The Project, from its inception, was an enigma; to speak of the Project, even when laying it to waste, thus necessarily implies speaking enigmatically. To some degree, the narrative conditions adopted by Roubaud—beginning with the meditative moments of prose and the various forms of digression (interpolations and bifurcations), but also including the text’s other, less visible, formal constraints—are designed to ensure that at least some of the mysteries of the Project survive, even if enshrouded in a monumental elegy in prose. In order to simultaneously reveal and conceal the secrets of the Project, Roubaud integrates the principle of change into the text’s generative axis. However, he does not imagine this change in a diachronic model of development, but rather introduces changes in the narrative conditions of the text as fundamentally synchronic, always occurring in an absolute and movable present of narration. This transformative principle, implicit in the text’s generative axis, becomes crucial to the multiplicity of variations found in the subsequent branches, each of which necessarily alters the shape, trajectory, and meaning of the entire edifice. Consequently, what is at stake in The Great Fire of London, hidden behind the deferred thesis of the text—hidden like the formal meaning of its absent but immanent objects (the Project, its failed novel, “The Great Fire of London”), but also like the people whose love, loss, and labor are inscribed in Roubaud’s work of mourning (Alix Cléo Roubaud, and others)—is maintained in constant motion.
1 To date, Roubaud has published five volumes or branches of The Great Fire of London: the entire work appears under the title Le grand incendie de Londres, récit avec incises et bifurcations, 1985-1987, (1989) translated as The Great Fire of London, a story with interpolations and bifurcations, trans. Dominic Di Bernardi (1991). The individual branches of the novel cycle are Destruction (1989), La boucle (1993), Mathématique: (1997), Poésie: (2000), and La Bibliothèque de Warburg (2002). For this article I will refer to the whole, still incomplete work, as The Great Fire of London and I will refer to the first volume under the title Destruction.
2 A palindrome is a “written locution that reads the same backward or forward” (Motte 212). The palindrome provides an evocative figure to describe a mirroring effect established between the actual novel (The Great Fire of London) and its virtual counterpart (“The Great Fire of London”). This structure serves as metaphor for the activity of remembering, or revisiting in a reversed order, events and experiences of the past. The palindrome also appears in the numerical structure of the text. For example, when Roubaud invests particular significance in the number 1,178. That number represents the number of days Roubaud knew and lived with his wife. 21 April 1986 marks the number of days he has carried on living and writing after her death: “My obsession with numbering correlates one day of grief with each day of her love” (283). This number also determines the overall structure of the six novels, each containing 198 numbered paragraphs or moments of prose. It is relevant to underscore that Roubaud imagines a progression from a morning branch toward an evening branch in his writing, further aligning the writing with the meditative walk of the aforementioned hermit. Finally, the palindrome is emblazoned in the presentation of the work’s foundational “assertions” in chapter 5, “Rêve, décision, ‘Projet.’ ” In that chapter, the ninety-nine “assertions” (theoretical principles intended to apply to “The Great Fire of London”) are presented twice, first in their order of deduction (from nº 99-91) separated by ample commentary, and then directly following each other in their numerical order, in a “palindromic repulsion” (nº1-99 [the 31st assertion is missing]) (158).
3 The term self-begetting novel was coined by Kellman. Also see De Ferrari.
Cardonne-Arlyck, Elizabeth. “Poésie, forme de vie (Jacques Roubaud).” L’Esprit Créateur 32.2 (1992): 89-101.
De Ferrari, Guillermina. “Representing Absence: The Power of Metafiction in Jacques Roubaud’s Le Grand Incendie de Londres.” Symposium 49.4 (1996): 262-73.
Jarrety, Michel, ed. Lexique des termes littéraires. Paris: Librairie Générale de France, 2001.
Kellman, Stephen G. The Self-Begetting Novel. New York: Columbia UP, 1980.
Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1984.
Motte, Warren F., Jr., ed. Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1998.
Roche, Anne. “Mémoire, deuil et intertexte dans La boucle de Jacques Roubaud.” Tangence 45 (1994): 82.
Roubaud, Jacques. Œ (Signe d’appartenance). Paris: Gallimard, 1967.
—. Mezura 9 :Description du Projet. Paris: Cahiers de Poétique Comparée, 1979.
—. La fleur inverse. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1994.
—. Le grand incendie de Londres, récit avec incises et bifurcations, 1985-1987. Paris: Seuil, 1989; The Great Fire of London, a story with interpolations and bifurcations. Trans. Dominic Di Bernardi. Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991.
—. La boucle. Paris: Seuil, 1993.
—. Mathématique: (récit). Paris: Seuil, 1997.
—. Poésie: (récit). Paris: Seuil, 2000.
—. La Bibliothèque de Warburg. Paris: Seuil, 2002.