Swing Troubadour: Roubaud’s Self-Portrait

Casebook: The Great Fire of London by Jacques Roubaud

Jean-Jacques Thomas

Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London is a rich, vibrant, varied, and systematically puzzling text that escapes such preestablished categories as genre, mode of reading, and intratextual constraints. I will read it as an exceptional case of an extreme contemporary self-portrait, and I will situate it as a text that exists as an oscillating image of a lost figure rather than the rock-hard narcissistic image of a writer who is absent from his own portrayed life. For me, the space of self insertion is entirely governed by the resonance of shared moments, place, and events with the lost presence. The writing of The Great Fire of London leads thus to the methodical establishment of a vast library of banally realistic palimpsests that conceal a joint archeology of togetherness. As a defiant alternative to a common ultimate demise, the stern and constrained discursive exertion allows the poet of prose to trace the contours of the lost one and, in doing so, to find (trobar) her again in a written life of his own.

Jam Session

In The Great Fire of London Roubaud describes the preparation of the azarole jam as follows: “Azarole is not the sort of [jam] that is wobbly, spineless, uncertain. It stands upright and self-supporting in the plate, and doesn’t run, or fall apart, or collapse” (67).1He then concludes with an analogy:

And I imagine the preparation of this prose and azarole [jam] in somewhat the same terms: the pieces of fruit are the instants; the process of cooking, memory; and in the voice that tilts the progressing sentences I keep watch, impatiently, anxiously, uncertainly, on the lookout for the all so chance-ridden appearance of the shudder. (69)

In this passage devoid of explicit concern for literary constraints (mathematical or other), Roubaud defines his art of prose as a combination of components that are brought together with such procedural rigor that they will reward the cook with a heightened moment of perfection marked by the shudder, the ecstatic moment of highest culinary expertise that will make the jam congeal in this “self-supporting” prose. This culinary art involving “moments,” “memory” and “sentences” is the art of self portraiture, and GFL can be considered one of the most important texts of this type in the late twentieth century. As the book is said to be born out of the destruction of the novel that was supposed to be “The Great Fire of London,” Roubaud constantly resists by the negative any specific alternate generic definition of it (it is not a novel, not a book of poetry, not a mathematical treatise, not an autobiography, etc.). In several descriptions of his enterprise, he is keen, even apparently eager, to use the only term that fits this protean writing enterprise, “self-portrait” [autoportrait]: “But the gaze which occasions the descending description is outside its model, the case not being the same for a self-portrait, at least not directly” (94); “the story that tells about them should inevitably highlight the self-portrait features that made possible not only their conception but, even more importantly, the elucidation of their nature, their particularity” (109), etc. This written self-portrait is only an empty image of the self, the reflection of the “absent artist”: “it is also no less certain that my self-portrait (as a picture) describes something not of this world . . .” (95).

This self-portrait in reverse (à la da Vinci) should result in a text that not only supersedes the (traditional and original) novel “The Great Fire of London,” but also destroys the Project, since, jamlike, when it congeals, it gives rise (Roubaud’s expression) to a type of text never seen before:

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 voice. (32-33)


The term swing (as well as jam session, probably), may appear to underscore Roubaud’s well known passion for the early jazz of the be-bop era. Inevitably, the term brings with it the connotation of a fast-paced dance characterized by a rapid displacement of the dancers on the dance floor in tune with rhythmically brisk music. But swing in its original meaning indicates that something “moves back and fro,” “sways,” or “oscillates.” Just as one may talk about “mood swing,” one can suggest that Roubaud’s text is the victim of vast “topic swings,” an expression that would aptly define the micro-composition of the GFL, in which topics are intertwined, embedded, successive, and checkered as required by the freedom allowed a narrative generated by the present of the enunciation. This seemingly scriptural clutter is the result of the systematic interpolation of what he calls “bonds” (jumps), “bifurcations,” “incises” (insets or interpolations), etc., that perturb any attempt to develop a linear autobiographical document: “Nevertheless, these continual leaps in my book, potentially repre-sented by the bifurcations, interpolations, and every category along the lines of an insertion, correspond to one of reading’s absolute privileges: namely, the ability upon opening a book to be anywhere at once . . .” (32). This disorderly (lazy) method of composition, according to Roubaud, should be considered a major feature of the definition of the novel of a new type that the self-portrait generates:

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. . . .

It is chiefly characterized by the absence of any determined, uninterrupted construction. Tirelessly, in the thought of memory, I abandon myself to new beginnings, backtracking along cross-paths (interpolations and bifurcations) themselves ramified in a capillary network, in a skein of stories, toward my original goal. (73)

In such a text apparently left to its fundamentally digressive mode, sometimes the “return to the original topic” becomes impossible, and the writer has to stop the wide swing of the narrative pendulum as he finds himself lost in its narrative zigzag: “But this [swinging] around [oscillations] is leading me astray” (108).

The choice of such a micro-composition based on the swing of narrative sequences not only shapes the exemplary nature of the novel, it seems also to correspond to a well thought out philosophy of progressive discovery of the truth in memory: “as if the least truth of recollection could be prosaically apprehended only through a swift immersion in a completely scattered diversity of details” (74). The jump back and forth is necessary so that a fleeting view of the truth can appear in between. Just as, during the fabrication of the azarole jam, the necessary shudder will appear for a brief second; just as, in mathematics, out of the infinite dance of the fractals, a quick fixed point may appear to the eye of the observer. It is not only the “truth” of the memories that is born out of the swing of narrative components; the conscious memory itself constructs the origin of the Project of which the text is the result as located in the “in between” of the friction of swinging unrelated narrative remembrances (snow flurries of a storm that does not come, lascivious thoughts, exhilaration upon discovering the answer to an intellectual question):

It seems to me rather that, owing to the snow, between the flurries on the Johns Hopkins campus and the recurrent erotic daydream of my lover’s passion for Louise, from the first pages of my reading I had a premonition of the Project’s grounds for glory, which the initial, imaginary, and full version of The Great Fire of London was to adopt as its hero. And this happened long before that glory appeared to me, like a Tiepolo sky, from a July balcony in Madrid (45).

Star Wars

Among all the recent panoptical biographies of a “hero” under the form of an ambitious narrative saga, none, in recent years, has captured the public imagination as much as the story of Luke Skywalker and the mystery of his parental lineage. While the three original Star Wars movies were centered around the triumph of the hero over the forces of evil, the two most recent episodes have revolved around the youth of the hero’s father, and so will the next one. Thus this dominating popular narrative is reversing the chronological order and with episode 3 we will finally know the secret of the birth of our now almost forgotten hero, Luke Skywalker.

This nonchronological approach of the biographical narrative is also that chosen by Roubaud in The Great Fire of London. While his book, explicitly called autobiography (Autobiographie, chapitre 10), is now presented as excluded from the project of self-portrait and a simple training ground for better written things to come, The Great Fire of London has become not only the title of a book but also the title of a cycle that, to date, includes five branches: Le grand incendie de Londres (1989), La Boucle (1993), Mathématique: (1997), Poésie : (2000), and La Bibliothèque de Warburg, version mixte (2002). One or two new volumes should be added in the future in order to close the series. La Boucle starts in 1937, when Roubaud was five years old, La Bibliothèque de Warburg ends on 24 October 1978 (almost seventeen years after the “dream” of The Great Fire—5 December 1961, a year or so before the first meeting of Roubaud and his (future) wife, Alix Cleo Blanchette, on 7 November 1979, and two years before the start of the novel “The Great Fire of London” that will be destroyed by the beginning of the existing version of the (self-portrait) text of the same name, started–officially–on 11 June 1985).

As can be seen by this brief chronology, The Great Fire of London, published in 1989, functions as the core matrix for the ensemble of the cycle. The principal components of the self-portrait have been introduced, the rhythm of the prose, the central events, the main signposts of the global life span, etc. The definitions of the branche” and other indications already inscribed in the text can be retroactively seen as indicators of the texts to come:

And I realize that, when my thoughts turn to reading, I primarily think about reading novels. Since I also read poetry, and occasionally mathematics (there were even years when I read quite a bit) and, incidentally, whenever the need may arise, history and other things that are subjects of books. . . . (106)

La Boucle and La Bibliothèque de Warburg, version mixte are traditional titles while the other two titles that use the terms found in this compact passage of The Great Fire of London, are followed by the diacritic sign : that usually introduces an explanation. The reader may thus understand that the text of the books are explanations/definitions of the words poetry and mathematics as understood and narratively reinvented by Roubaud as part of his self-portrait. The general enterprise explains why the paradoxical subtitle of Poésie : is Novel. In a prosaic novel, of the new type being enunciated by Roubaud, it is not surprising to see a few comments on poetry by the author of La Vieillesse d’Alexandre, and Poésie etcetera–ménage, among many others.

Prosaic Life

“Prosaic childhood” (enfance de la prose) and “childhoods of prose” (199) are arcane expressions that convey the ambiguity of the GFL enterprise. It can be understood in the sense that Roubaud was born in a humble household (see, for example, all the descriptions of his modest childhood). It can be understood as a life described in a prose text marked by the lack of pomp usually associated with the encomium genre of panegyric or dithyramb better supported by poetry; and, as I would like to understand it for the sake of analysis, “prosaic childhood” can be glossed as “a prose still in its infancy.” This seems to be the case as Roubaud presents himself as a “recovering” writer. Someone who used to be a “poet,” but who, now, after a great personal loss, can no longer indulge in the intricate matters of poetry, but finds his salvation in a humble prose narrative. Everything has to be learned before he reaches the fierce manhood of prose. The self-portrait is also the daily constraining exercise of a man struggling with the desire to write, with the will to live both co-substantial in the enterprise of self-growth in prose: “It is three or four o’clock in the morning. I find my place under the black lamp, with paper, notebook, four colors of felt-tips. Devoid of hope, I move forward line by line, and when the light drives me away a little later each day once again, I return to the semblances of life” (38). The more maturity acquired by the “absent writer” portrayed in the text, the more skill displayed in the simple art of prose.

The GFL is thus not simply a narrative that uses Roubaud’s own biography as matter, but in so doing Roubaud is engaged in a practicum that will test his capacity as man-prose. When reading the text, we are called not only to witness the truth of the “bildung” of a person named Jacques Cyprien Roubaud, but also the “bildung” of the prose. For in the early times, there was only poetry, and one day, we are told again and again, poetry was no longer the mode of growing: “I’d not have it in me to write anything new today, as far as poetry goes, at any rate” (29);

Now what has actually become nonexistent for me since January 1983, what I can’t even entertain in thought, is poetry. Prose, at least the sort I am practicing here, strikes me quite to the contrary as an absolutely neutral zone free of any pressing need for a reader’s eyes or an audience’s ears. Poetry, due to my acquired habit of reciting it aloud, of giving public readings, as well as for her, the woman I lived with, had ground to a halt. (38)

The death of the significant other, Alix Cleo, eradicates all previous endeavors, erases all previous direction: “everything I wrote at that time, or almost, is henceforth obsolete, and this time due to an irremediable, unironic event, a death” (38). This day, life for Roubaud became a fleur inverse (the inversed flower on the coat of arms of downhearted knights). Nothing of the past is left, except the imperative need for a new identity, for a new birth: “giving up means finding myself back at the initial moment, preceding both Project and dream, face-to-face with my life, all of life pronounced worthless” (36). The fierce new order is the order of prose (a prosaic order) and its only horizon is a new self, patiently written, swing after swing, as someone who, pause after pause, relearns to live, relearns to write and constantly picks himself up with the hope of finding his own portrait in the emblazonry born out of the prosaic memory of the life with the one who, by her untimely death, took with her the original project of life, the original Project (for writing).


However, even if this self-portrait is born out of a personal tragic loss that triggered the progressive destruction of a project of life and literary work (the Project) to give birth to an original new type of self-portrait that presents itself in the guise of a new type of novel, many of the narrative themes and procédés follow features of existing successful literary self-portraits.

The initial input arising from the literary conventions of the Middle-Ages is of the order of the literary planctus: “a complaint (the troubadours would have said a planh)” (41). The sudden illumination born out of a moment of reflective calm will thus be fulfilled in its own way. The realized distinctive type of “Arte Mayor” prose supports a plaintive song that accompanies something lost and a sense of renewal that makes it possible to write: “this morning of my new beginning” (5). The book is “the diary of a wake” (journal de deuil) that mirrors, at the private level, the possible chronicle of the destruction of a major city (the Great Fire) and the shock, incredulity, and sadness that accompany such an event (as we all, unfortunately, have witnessed not so long ago). Roubaud describes it as a parallel discourse to that of Samuel Pepys (259-61). The general theme of destruction (fire) that guides the text is a generative metaphor of the text at several levels. As indicated at the personal level, the untimely death of his wife almost destroyed him, and writing is the salvation, as was the Project and the novel “The Great Fire of London” in 1961, after he could no longer see any sense to his life: “But that night belongs in the year 1961 and to those things from that year which will or will not be told by the story I am constructing, line by line” (113). Let’s note, in passing, that 1961 is numerically very rich. First it is an inverted palindrome: 19/61, it also contains 69, and two graphic variants of it 19 and 61 (all three can be read conventionally as sexual allegories, two of them as negative images as they represent unfulfilled or unreturned love). Also it seems to anticipate its fate as an important year since it is 19 years later that the text of the dream will be written: “In the autumn of 1980, I wrote this: the dream, the waking, the announcement, and this number: 19. At that point, nineteen years had gone by since the dream had been dreamed” (112).

Also, now, the original novel whose title was “The Great Fire of London” finds its destruction in the writing of the new self-portrait. In the new enterprise, the prose that mirrors the self destroys the mirror that represents the real; the mimesis (considered historically at the core of any narrative project) is rejected in favor of an illusion of the thing-in-itself that functions as the rostrum of the effigy of the great pretender. Everything exists only through the experience of the self, and, that way, Roubaud’s self portraiture is an exercise in non-Cartesian philosophy as it destroys the possibility of a materialist world that would exist outside of the perception of the world as presented by the writer at the core of the self-portrait. The self-portrait constructs a world that, like the azarole jam, “stands upright and self-supporting.”

The second part of the title, London, represents at many levels the Ur-city (the city of symbolic origin). Roubaud’s first renaissance in 1961 came about because he had a dream about London that gave him the courage to come back to the idea of writing a novel titled “The Great Fire of London” that came out of the original dream:

In this dream I was coming out of the London tube. I was in a rush, in the gray street. I was preparing myself for a new life, for joyful liberty. And I had to fathom the dream’s mystery, after long investigations. I remember a double-decker bus, and a young (redheaded?) lady under an umbrella. On awakening I realized that I would write a novel that would be entitled The Great Fire of London, and that I was preserving this dream, for as long as possible, intact. (112)

London is the birthplace of his late wife (whose father was the press tycoon owner of the Daily Mirror–a great name in this context ). Also for Roubaud, who always liked to walk in London with or without Alix, going from one bookstore to another, reading English texts becomes the new fulfillment in a life deserted by any Project. The map of London used to be a functional tool while Alix was alive: there were places to go, places to drift by, etc. Now, in the post-Alix era, the reconstruction of London after its (material) destruction results in the elaboration of a speculative map. This map is at the same time the archetype of the organization of the book that is being written and that has taken the place of the Project, in which, then, London was a major component, a component now, I insist, destroyed. Witness: “. . . I read in London, at random, to forget myself, to deaden myself, today to wear down the emptiness, the pain” (183); or in an even more explicit fashion: “. . . London being the site of my memory, in its remembrances; its houses, my remembrances; and the blaze, my memory destroying them” (320). In the present scriptural endeavor Roubaud pursues Wittgenstein’s idea of a “city as language” a bit further; the text being written with a great discipline of construction amounts to rebuilding a city that will be endowed with all the elements in which Roubaud will find himself in an attempt to fill the void left by the catastrophe:

In my passion [the italics indicate that this word has to be read as a syllepsis, zealous interest and extreme suffering both of body and soul, like Christ] for London . . . my bookish determination reverses the Wittgensteinian metaphor of the city-language. . . .

Language is a city. . . . And for myself I found this book city, London, books-city, therefore language-city. (183)

Out of the destruction of the Ur-city (the universe constructed by, with and around Alix Cleo) will materialize a new bookish universe of the narrative cycle, the great fire of London in which Roubaud is the “recurrent, temporary, and gratuitous reader-inhabitant” (183). This reconstructed London is the great interpretant of the new literary cycle being rigidly built, and its primary materials will come at random (just as “London also offers, at random . . . countless small bookstores . . . not to mention ‘book fairs’ that sprout up at times . . .” (182)) from the eclectic copia of icons that compose the memory of its dedicated scriptor, endlessly lining up now felicitous images of a long-past childhood (fig tree, waves, in this quotation) and figures of the pain at hand (paper, secret desire, here and now), to apprehend and familiarize the image of the disaster that has stricken with horror at the symbolic core: “The painted flames, blown-away roofs, devour the city. I see the flames as large, ribbed leaves, crumpled origami. The flames are also waves and I remembered sea waves, which are curled up fig leaves. The waves, curled up fig leaves, show their undersides, the surf, crash on the island where Robinson Crusoe is ship-wrecked” (131).


When Roubaud looks at his family tree (and branches), since he can pick and choose who he wants to be his forebears, he does not hesitate in selecting two figures who seem emblematic both of its geographical origin and of his literary lineage; he feels quite at home with two troubadours: “I prefer traveling back (and up) in imagination all the way to the troubadour Rubaut, who used to debate (tensoner) with Lanfranc Cigala of Genoa, or even to that Roubaud from Arles who was, around 1595, a friend of the Provençal sonneteer Bellaud de La Bellaudière” (71-72). In more ways than one Roubaud can define himself as the heir of a literary ancestry. The elaborate components of the figurative self-portraiture demonstrate a well mastered (literary) understanding of the genre of self-portraiture as it has been established in French literature over many centuries and thus confirm the public image of Roubaud as a careful student of literary history. In the history of French literature, the book Le Voir Dit (“Le vrai dit” [to tell the truth]) by Guillaume de Machaut is a mix of poetry and prose that has a “project” at its core: as in Roubaud’s endeavor, the book exists as a narration to recapture souvenirs and to maintain life. For the first time in the history of French literature, as Ernest Hoepffner notes, “The originality of Machaut’s text is to have created a text in which a general fictional story is intertwined with elements that originate out of his own personal life and are extremely private” (21). In Machaut’s text there are geographical and historical references that situate the events in a very precise hic et nunc context: “There are so many people and so much noise in the courtyard that I cannot possibly continue writing my rondelets” (Machuat 317). Also, very much like Roubaud, there is a strict play on the role of the seasons, to situate the time frame of the story (the same favorite season as Roubaud, “autumn”: “in the autumn of my marriage” (38), “[the] distinguishing autumn color, during very late September or early October” (64), “Autumn is here” (111), “Autumn is here” (113), etc.). In Roubaud’s text the exacting notation of the seasons seems to be used as the (discrete) signal of the disfunctioning of the text’s veridiction. In fiction one can write, as does Roubaud, “The outset . . . is in the autumn (December) of 1961″ (112); in the lived life, we all know that “December” is not a month that can be included in “Autumn,” and no matter the official solstice date, December is a “winter” month that follows “autumn,” and so does Roubaud: “just a bit earlier each day as summer nears, afterward a bit later moving into autumn and winter, and so on” (6). This uncanny time reference destroys the pretense of objective observation of the real-in-itself. To provocatively juxtapose “autumn” and “December” warns the resolute reader that the whole passage should be read as belonging to a symbolic order and not as a realistic (objective, descriptive) order. This symbolic order attached to the naming of the seasons is just like the very Shakespearian expression: “the winter of our discontent.” In GFL it sometimes comes “unmasked” under the form of an image: “in the autumn of my marriage” (38). Because Alix Cleo dies in early January 1983, that period will be objectively defined as the “winter” of the marriage, thus building a symbolic order according to which the whole period of the marriage will be retroactively distributed into spring, summer, autumn, etc. Machaut, like many of the troubadours, uses this very ancient symbolic system to underscore his happiness to have found a “gentle female friend” who is like “Christmas coming in the autumn of his life” (Machaut 111).

More important, in both self-portraits the idea of the story comes out of a dream (songe) and the book that follows is the reflection on that dream and its writing implications. Machaut writes, “And when I was quite awake, don’t be doubting me if I tell you that I was very surprised to have seen so many extraordinary events in my sleep” (503). And Roubaud writes, “At the outset, which I now find quite remote, there is a dream . . .” (112), and “At the outset, which I now find so remote, there is that dream” (113). Machaut’s text is searching itself as it is written; it is still very much part of the tradition of the “trobar” at the core of poetics of the troubadours that are often presented by Roubaud as his writing model: “When then does it mean that the Project I am talking about is a poetry project?” (142). Completing the project implied “finding” (trouver) poetry. The Project was a Trobar, a contemporary and solipsistic version of the “trobar” of the troubadours. While Machaut’s text celebrates the world in which a new fresh love has been found, Roubaud, following his own “clinamen” (99) toward “littérature de deuil,” produces what he defines in heraldry parlance as the “Fleur inverse” (the inverted flower–the top is the bottom and the bottom is now the top) in his study of that name:

Certainly, in the canso, love is joy, illumination, ecstasy, beauty, beauty of the rhymes, ecstasy of the formal creation; it, however, does not mean that the troubadours have not known its black reverse, that they have not sung the sadness and the tragedy attached to love. (La Fleur inverse14)

Here, the term black refers directly to death and, more specifically constitutes an intertextual reference to Roubaud’s text that most deeply laments the death of his wife, Quelque chose noir (Some Thing Black). Machaut’s Le Voir Dit is the self-portrait of a love that is being lived and of a book that is being written, “a book that writes itself” (Machaut 8); Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London is a book that has to be continuously written so that its writer can find (“trobar”) himself beyond the winter of his life.

Crossroads (of a sort)

If one accepts the fact that at the end of the twentieth century Roubaud’s cycle of The Great Fire of London is probably the most important example of experimental literary self-portrait (while, at the same time calling it a novel of a new type), it is important nevertheless to remember that this attempt to change the face of the self-portrait in French literature comes after the exceptional cycle of La Règle du jeu by Michel Leiris that marked the mid-twentieth century. One cannot fail to recognize striking similarities.

The most moving similarity is certainly their common loyalty to the writing support of their childhood, the humble school notebook, and in particular the one made by the company “Clairefontaine”:

It’s a notebook of the most common brand, Clairefontaine, indicated on the lower right-hand side of the cover, at the base of an upside-down triangle whose surface, against a blue background (the same blue as the rest, but all of a piece), is decorated with the drawing of a pseudo-Greek divinity. . . .

So then I write in this notebook, and each autonomous slice of prose figures here like a white paper band of sorts running with even stripes of black lines, closely written in a minute and almost illegible script (even I find it so on occasion!). . . . (12)

The favored material support of the writing and its “genetical” making are an explicit part of the narration in Roubaud’s self-portrait as well as in Leiris’s; the only difference seems to be that while Roubaud likes red and blue notebooks, Leiris likes more diverse colors, such as green, orange, lilac, etc.

The subtitle of The Great Fire of London, a story with interpolations and bifurcations, is a more revealing aspect of the similarity of the two biographical literary enterprises. For any reader of French literature, the word bifurcation as a technical term placed in the title immediately recalls that this is the leading term proposed by Michel Leiris at the opening of his cycle of self-portraiture, La Règle du jeu (a text, it should be noted on the mode of the trobar since all the volumes are devoted to the search of the elusive “original rule”—assimilated, as in Roubaud’s texts, to the “Grail” of the Arthurian legend—(cf. 165)). The first volume (1948), is precisely entitled Biffures (a portmanteau word constructed out of the French words bifurcation and the verb biffer—to erase). When Leiris does not want to continue the recollection of his memories in a linear direction, he erases from his manuscript what has been written, and the text, from that point on, bifurcates to another development. As Leiris writes:

Taking as reference the word “bifur” [a truncation of “bifurcation”]–which, in the old days, impressed me a lot when I saw it written in dark bold letters on the traffic signs near the railways–I adopted it to indicate that my writing was going in another direction, that it was diverging, so to speak, from its initial point of departure. It was as if the flow of consciousness directing my discourse was like a train that changes track according to the lay out of the rails. While I was writing, my train of thought was brutally lured toward a vertiginous and blinding splitting gash that is the equivalent to a crossing out, since . . . it is a tongue forking out—like as in a lapsus calami—, when we could say that our tongue “got railroaded.” (279)

The similitude in the terminology and in the metaphor defining the general compositio of the texts (what amounts in fact to a vertiginous series of biographical non sequitur) used in the two more important self-portraits in French literature of the second part of the twentieth century hide, however, a fundamental difference in the presentation of the published finished product. While Leiris and Roubaud indicate that they write their original texts with interpolations and bifurcations, Leiris indicates that it is in the same time of the enunciation that he writes the text and that he reads it and amends it so that the text is “done” when it has been written (eventually, then, with its erasures, modifications, rewrites, and self-reflective comments); this intensely modified draft will then go to his secretary and become the typescript of the book given to his publisher. According to Roubaud, we never see his first (and thus only) written draft; the text has a progressive way to emerge from the first draft. As Roubaud explains it, this first draft is always written in longhand, and nothing interrupts the flow of this original writing until it comes to an end (naturally or because of an outside interference); then another new handwritten draft is written later in the day that carries a conscious evaluation of the original material and eventual editing corrections; that second handwritten draft that destroys the original text (in a similar fashion that the published GFL destroys the original “GFL” of the Project ) and is the basis for the typescript that can be considered the veritable “platform” upon which Roubaud will construct his final version after many subsequent corrections:

Subsequent to modifications, additions, suppressions, or expansions (all minimal, all instantaneous, at the moment of transcription; and for the most part, moreover, issuing from the difficulty, or near impossibility, of rereading the initial version of the notebook) that accompany the deciphering of the compactly composed sections afterwards, they contain the provisionally definitive version of the story, the first version (the notebook’s thus being the zero version). (13)

Both Leiris and Roubaud place a type of non sequitur narration that changes course at crossroads (bifurcations) at the core of their self-portraits, but they appear to be the exact counterpart of each other when it comes to the actual process of managing the bifurcations and of introducing the interpolations. Leiris’s manuscripts of La Règle du jeu are a model of textual arborescence with interpolations, additions, and “erasures” all over the page; yet for Roubaud, each new version of the text destroys the previous one, and it is through the progressive realization of the typescripts that the text of The Great Fire of London acquires its interpolations and bifurcations.

I Myself, the Text and Alix

In Leiris’s self-portrait, in the actual time of the original production, the text is allowed to come back upon itself, marking the different “times” in the original enunciation (“rereading what I just wrote . . . ,” “I have to correct what I just said . . . ,” “The previous paragraph is totally misleading, in fact . . . ,” etc. (Leiris 44)). As indicated, Roubaud, as a matter of principle, does not allow himself to modify his text in the actual moment of the first enunciation:

There are rarely any additions or corrections–infrequently, and for two reasons: the first being that I never move, as it were, backwards, and hesitate only mentally; the second, that at any rate there is practically no space for corrections, because the lines are extremely dense (a good hundred or so upon a single page), full from one edge to the other, from top to bottom.

This place–where, in a rough nascent state, this prose is set down, the black lines, then the pages, with their close-packed direction and arrangement of lines, the horizontal strips topped with a bit of red and green underlined in white–serves also as my chronological register: I measure my progress and, silently, my halts, my interruptions signaled by the changing dates. (12)

Additions, interruptions, modifications, and comments on the text itself are thus introduced by Roubaud during the different subsequent sequences of typing (“Ms. Bosanquet”) which are, in his system, the actual time of the realization of the typescript that will be given to his publisher (in fact, his editor, Denis Roche). It is during this time of the polishing of his self-portrait that Roubaud creates the all powerful author “I myself” (22-23) and takes advantage of the “eternal return” of the language upon itself to modify the text or to add new elements that will control it, adding important (ex cathedra) comments on what becomes immediately a past layer of the text: “But after having written this passage, a doubt arises: I remember having already described myself shaving, nine years ago, as a ‘moment of repose in prose’ . . .” (97); “During the gap (three days) that separates this moment from the preceding, I decided to abandon the word maxims as a way of labeling the steps of the dream’s ‘deduction’ ” (113); “I won’t go back to it immediately, for I need to bring to light another thread. . . . But previously I’ve permitted myself a digression compelled by a juxtaposition of images . . .” (50), etc. Sometimes even, Roubaud allows himself to adjust his text considerably when it comes to internal constraints and, like Leiris, he modifies something from one volume to the other, no more spectacularly than in the case of chapter 5 in GFL which, in the text of the second branch of GFL, La Boucle (509), is placed in isolation as a self-sufficient moment of numerical formalism; Roubaud explains that this chapter of GFL constitutes a “theoretical digression” (110) that can be ignored and is of little importance in the general system of GFL.

While these frequent returns of the text upon itself (a hypertextuality of a noncyber sort) are an intrinsic part of the usual style of composition of the self-portrait–the text being reflective and introspective to its own sequencing and truth (“veridiction”)–there is also in Roubaud’s text a very technical manner to understand the general term of interpolation and bifurcations:

I reflected, in this instance again following Bourbaki’s example: the essential weight of what is in my own work consigned to the insertions is, by contrast, in the old master’s “elements of mathematics” placed in the “exercises.” Certain of these exercises, which are digressions of sorts, either exceeding or veering off-course from the principal line of reasoning, can stand alone: examples, counterexamples, particular theorems. In the “transposition” under discussion (which is little more than an image and a suggestion), they correspond to my interpolations. Certain others, from paragraph to paragraph and chapter to chapter, themselves comprise a parallel and at times extensive exposition; this provided my model for the bifurcations (242).

The play of the text folding back constantly upon itself thus cannot be considered a mere manifestation of the author’s textual self-inscription; insertions and bifurcations are primary compositional devices (constraints) and, as such, should be considered as the discursive matrix of the “biipsist relationship” (“The word of single being, but which would have been two, a double: not a solipsism, a biipsism” (157)) that is at the core of the enterprise of the self-portrait as Roubaud conceives it: duality generates an intrication. Let us remember that at the beginning there was nothing; after the disaster Roubaud found himself “nowhere”; in order to be “somewhere,” to exist again, he had to rebuild an image of himself; an image of the self always comes with a suspicion of aggravated vanity and the stain of indulgent narcissism. In through the text of GFL Roubaud creates a double; it is a new way “to be two” which does not exclude the third party, but on the contrary brings it to life. This biipsism brings back the dear loved one now lost. Roubaud tells us that this poetic power revealed itself to him in the theory of love of the “grand chant” (44). In the building of the text of GFL Roubaud patiently creates his image of a world lost and “beyond” the mirror (128) relives the underlying love. For me, this biipsism that reintroduces events, facts, numbers, to rebuild a time of shared happiness is at its most explicit (blatant) in the interpolation of this passage:

My memory preserves this image, like a sort of continuous scene, independent of place and time.

During the twenty-one months living here when Alix was alive, I came to discover that my grandfather and I shared certain similarities (and, the thought occurs, for roughly analogous reasons, my grandmother was almost chronically sick) in my kitchen, with a pot lid for a mirror balanced above the hot water faucet, shaving in the silence of the night. (96)


Finally, if one follows the rules of self portraiture as proposed by Beaujour’s Miroirs d’Encre, Rhétorique de l’autoportrait, the most important part of self-portrait is the “copia,” this endless reservoir of coded descriptions of little details that make our everyday life. GFL is based on the recollection of Roubaud’s daily life in England, in Paris, in the family house in Roussillon, etc. The “telling of the truth” rests in part on this seemingly minute description of the moments, objects and people that fill up the late “real” life. Their accumulation makes the fabric of a new written life that goes on in spite of the wake. Through the labor of memory, they are restituted, but, as I hope to have demonstrated, in the end, it is only because they have to do with the dearly departed, the one (Alix) whose death provoked the radical destruction of the universe that was, that the details are significant either at face value or through allegorical transfer by which they become organizing principles of the récit. This is the case for the making of the jam, for the time of shaving, as well as when Roubaud mentions the texts of obscure troubadours:

Here I glimpse the blue, beige, and red covers respectively of the three volumes of Marti de Riquer’s monumental anthology, the Swiss binding of the thick Giraut de Bornelh de Kolsen (a reprint), the two enormous gray volumes of the fourth and most recent edition of Arnaut Daniel, that masterpiece of the philological machine run amok, with the meticulous, obscene, fascinating, and almost touching treatise by its author, Maurizio Perugi, on the verb cornar, which made Alix laugh so much. (17)

In his text, Roubaud combines two well established items of the literary copia, but their amalgamation is of an original nature and, it appears, well suited for the particular character of this literary enterprise. As I have already indicated, Roubaud emblematically merges the image of the tree of life with that of the flames of destruction in his description of the Ur-fire: “The flames are large ribbed leaves, crumpled papers. The flames are curled up fig leaves . . .” (161-62). In GFL the southern image of the “branches of the fig tree” becomes emblematic of the general organization of the everyday life elements that make the raw material (“descriptive world”) of the narrative universe. The text of GFL is organized according to branches and sub-branches (stemma would be the more technical term in the universe of text production); they revolve around several universes that can be well identified (the active author: “reader,” “walker,” “swimmer,” “counter,” etc.; the travels: Fez, London, Iowa, New York, etc.). The image of the fig tree is also preeminently present in La Boucle as a symbol of life; it is the tree that, with the vineyard, provided the life essentials to the Roubaud family throughout the ages. At the end of the book, this bucolic cliché is nevertheless abandoned as symbol of “arborescence” in favor of the more modern (and certainly frightening for the walker) immense multileveled expressway of an interchange near Seattle.

As Roubaud’s theoretical literary background commands (Queneau, Oulipo, etc.) the branching is not done at random. A master plan exists that is often explicitly given to us (is it true—vrai dire?) or, as in a puzzle, that has to be deduced generally from a numerical grid, but the grid is not an obsessively overdetermining formalism. Numbers are here to help, not to be worshipped, as Roubaud says: “if I submit myself to my passion for numbers, even so it involves an unbeliever’s submission; I have no blind faith in them, I’m a numbers agnostic despite everything. This, in no way, detracts from their importance” (104). Numbers function (when they function) as anagrams to the text; their rhythmic combination acts as formants of the textual (semantic?) “prose-jam.” The important characteristics of Roubaud’s narrative poetics (even if he does not like the infinite extension of this term—poetics—beyond poetry itself) are that nothing is left to chance, the narrative universe of the memory is organized. The most apt metaphor here is the one given to us by Roubaud in his passage on the walker since we know, from elsewhere, that language is a city, thus a “book-city”:

I find walking around at random unappealing, as did my teacher, Raymond Queneau. Even if I don’t know where I’m going, because it’s a place in the city or the scrubland or a foreign country where I’ve never been, I don’t set out without some minimal knowledge of the locale I’ll be traveling through, using a map, or city plan, or occasionally even photographs; I am not interested in virgin terrain. Something, preferably an abstract imaginary construct of the territory to be explored (and therefore I prefer maps, city plans, rather than pictures), is indispensable for me to venture forth in a new region with some peace of mind.

This is why I have a very acute taste for obligatory routes whose itinerary is unpredictable insofar as I’ve never traveled it, but which becomes nevertheless necessary as soon as I’ve selected the rule or rules that will guide my steps. These rules can be very constraining, absurd, bizarre. . . . [E]scape is possible only through a sheer display of force, a clinamen. (98-99)

The “jam” session of the narrative is thus not the result of a jumble of heterogeneous memorial materializations where “anything goes.” There is an underlying system: a list of elements, an order of appearance, a time frame, and a savoir-faire. If these components are not present, no shudder, no jam.

Although the figure of the tree (fig tree) as an emblem combines beautifully (an iconic syllepsis) images of both life (tree of life within a southern setting) and a book (the trademark of many publishing houses contains the image of a tree), and, as a plus value, it validates the physical representation of the underlying branching, one cannot fail nevertheless to notice its limiting value within Roubaud’s project of self-portrait. Volume 2 of GLF is aptly called La Boucle; this title certainly recognizes the capacity of the text to turn back upon itself, to modify itself and to escape the monotony of the linear logic that is expected from a standard novel (even if chronology is not respected). It is only within the great time of the discourse that the self-portraiture can offer itself; memories can always be modified, branches can be cut with the new season, but the tree is a limited analogy because it cannot change itself—the branches of the tree cannot interpenetrate each other to disappear or to branch out again, as memorial discourse can. Roubaud has worked enough in linguistics and particularly in generative theory to know the advantages of the branching representations based on the analogy of a great river and its tributaries over the limited representation of an intertwined discourse by these unidimensional (particularly Anglo-Saxon Chomskyan) trees; thus, in the emblematic representation of the eight dimensional mnemonic universes of the self-portrait, Roubaud follows the spiritual tradition of the Middle Ages and is imagining for us many productive allegories: “. . . 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” (23). Duality, again. To use Roubaud’s own operative distinction, it is possible to say that if the walker (the one responding to the preestablished, self-imposed constraints) is the master of the narration, somewhere, the “I myself” is responsible for the “accident,” the “unpredictable,” the “clinamen,” all that which in the self-portrait is the fiction, the principle of the rhythmic composition sometimes called poetry. Poetry of prose, because while in prose “An assertion works like a piece of evidence; what is told becomes necessary through the form of its telling” (114), poetry is “a fixed point in my life, assuring my continuity” (97).

Out of this duality, narration/fiction, the strange impression left by GFL is born in a manner reminiscent of the Oulipo literary games. The walk of the walker does not leave anything to chance, it prosaically moves according to constraints that mechanically define its goals and circuits, its events are established along obligatory routes and the many steps follow preset rules of distribution and organization. The result, its construction, however, seems to embody exactly what the whole restraining process seems to be wanting to escape: a great sense of freedom. The authoring instance of GFL “decides,” “selects,” “invents,” what would be the city-text of the walker, and whatever strikes the fancy of “I myself” governs this infinitely possible expansion of constraints.

A great fire destroyed the city of London, a similar great fire destroyed Roubaud’s own affective London. As the past is ashes, Roubaud, disheartened troubadour, becomes the “absent-writer” of his own redeeming self-portrait. Slowly, methodically, and rhythmically, prosaic memory swings configure the restoration of the mirror city. Out of the arborescence of the devastating flames emerge the intertwined branches of a walking universe “written as a desire” (41) for the lost beloved figure.


1All English quotations from Le Grand Incendie de Londres come from the American version, The Great Fire of London, Dominic Di Bernardi translator. Sometimes the translation is slightly modified to fit in with the critical vocabulary used in the analysis. Translations of other texts are my own.

Works Cited

Beaujour, Michel. Miroirs d’Encre, Rhétorique de l’Autoportrait. Paris: Seuil, 1980.

Hoepffner, Ernest. Oeuvres de Guillaume de Machaut. Paris : Firmin-Didot, 1908.

Leiris, Michel. La Règle du jeu I, Biffures. Paris: Gallimard, 1948.

Machaut, Guillaume de. Le Livre du Voir Dit. Ed. Paul Imbs and Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet. Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 1999.

Roubaud, Jacques. 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.

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