Casebook: The Great Fire of London by Jacques Roubaud
The Great Fire of London is the story of a disaster transformed by the act and art of its writing into a triumph of another kind. In this general respect, it belongs to a large family of modern narratives whose members certainly include Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and Perec’s Life A User’s Manual. The disaster is the collapse of an all-encompassing artistic and intellectual project (the Project) compounded and clarified by human loss. The triumph—which is what I most want to talk about in this essay—is the resurrection of the art of writing about the self.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau began his Confessions (1765-1770) by asserting that no man had ever undertaken to describe an individual in every dimension and detail and that he was about to launch that unprecedented task by giving an exhaustive account of himself. If this is the birth of modern autobiography (as it is often taken to be), then The Great Fire of London is its rebirth, striving through infinitely more sophisticated means toward the same goal that Rousseau set himself: to tell the truth, and to tell all of it. That is not an easy thing to do, for as Georges Gusdorf pointed out long ago, “Nobody is truly in possession of his or her own life and death; our existences are so intertwined that each has its center everywhere and its circumference in no place at all” (106).
The Great Fire of London was begun in 1985 and published in 1989. Its generic subtitle describes it as being neither a novel nor an autobiography but “a story with interpolations and bifurcations.” In addition, the narrator soon reveals that it is only the first part of a projected series: “The branch you are reading is the book’s first . . .” (19); “The unwritten pages weigh heavy upon these pages” (31). Now that four further “branches” have appeared, it is neither easy nor entirely appropriate to discuss the first volume which (loosely) gives a name to the series without any reference to La Boucle (The Loop, 1993), Mathématique: (Mathematics:, 1997), Poésie: (Poetry:, 2000) and La Bibliothèque de Warburg (The Warburg Library, 2002), which together now constitute almost 2,500 pages of narrative, reflection, and anecdote. However, as he proceeds along the looping and splitting pathways of this immense forest of prose, Roubaud keeps firmly to the rules laid out at the start of the enterprise. As a consequence, the startling originality and importance of his undertaking can be illustrated just as well by the first as by any other “branch” of the Fire of London series.
The Great Fire of London is not a novel for the simple reason that none of its characters and events are fictional. The unstated rule of the novel is to tell a story that could be true (and which may contain elements that are actually true, such as place names, historical figures, and background events) but which is not true in the literal sense. We are all familiar with the idea of “metaphorical truth” which allows us to accept Balzac’s declaration at the start of Old Goriot that “All is true” without faulting the author for fabricating characters like Eugène de Rastignac and Delphine de Nucingen. But when the narrator of The Great Fire of London asserts that “what I tell you is true” (33), we do not read it as an appeal to “willingly suspend our disbelief,” but as something meant to mean exactly what it says. Unlike nearly all fictions, The Great Fire of London is told not in the past but in the present tense. The present is the tense that serves for the statement of general and analytical truths (such as “water is wet”), and grasping the implications of its use in The Great Fire of London is the key to understanding what sort of a text it is.
However, if it is not a novel because of its nonmetaphorical assertion of truthfulness and its use of the present tense, it cannot be an autobiography either, because autobiography relies on the same mode of past-tense narration as the novel. In 1975 the French scholar Philippe Lejeune launched the idea that autobiography was a distinct genre or kind of writing, one which could be defined formally in terms of a “pact” entered into by writer and reader, broadly analogous to the unstated understanding on which the writing and reading of fiction are based, but quite distinct from it. According to Lejeune, an autobiography is a retrospective first-person narration whose narrator is the person writing. Although writing affords many opportunities for deception and illusion, the assumption of complete identity between the “subject of enunciation” and the person whose name figures as author on the title page of the book is the first necessary clause in what Lejeune calls the “autobiographical pact.” The second clause is the assumption that the narrator-author is doing his or her best to state the truth—that is to say, that the author (though he or she may make mistakes) does not intend to falsify the past and also refrains from consciously inventing characters or episodes. The Great Fire of London appears to share some of the features of autobiography thus defined. The narrator bears the same name as the author, Jacques Roubaud; events in the narrator’s life (for example, his presence at Johns Hopkins University as visiting professor) can be checked against the historical record and shown to be events that occurred in the life of a “really existing” French professor of mathematics called Jacques Roubaud. But The Great Fire of London fails to meet the requirements of Lejeune’s “autobiographical pact” in at least one fundamental respect: it is not a retrospective narration.
The kind of autobiography that Lejeune wanted to define and understand relies on a fiction, or to be more straightforward, a falsehood about the nature of memory. To do one’s best to give a truthful narrative of one’s own past life presupposes perfect recall; and that presupposition is false. Memory plays tricks on us all, and the narration of a remembered past bears a completely indeterminate relationship to the truth of the world. The “best efforts” of a self-writer may thus turn out to produce just . . . another novel, which is what Rousseau’s Confessions are taken to be by his harsher critics. In the second place, the act of remembering is itself an act in a life, and a conventional autobiography relying on the fiction of total recall can never take into account the act of remembering of which it is itself the trace and product. For reasons of this kind, autobiography seemed to many to be a third-rate kind of writing doomed by its own definition to inauthenticity and falsehood, more suited to film stars and failed politicians than to writers with high literary ambition. That is why Roubaud is at pains to “take even greater distance from autobiography” (La Boucle 285), which he describes as “the last refuge of mechanistic determinism” (La Boucle 163).
Roubaud is not the first to try to resurrect self-writing whilst avoiding the traps of “naive” autobiography. In 1964 Jean-Paul Sartre published Words, offering a portrait of himself as an infant prodigy so lavishly overwritten that it could only be taken as an aggressive pastiche of the entire genre of “childhood memories.” In her own Childhood (1983) Nathalie Sarraute used many anecdotes and details that had previously figured in her published novels and plays, making it utterly impossible to know whether her fictional writing is partly autobiographical or her autobiographical writing partly (or entirely) fictional. Alain Robbe-Grillet, despite his earlier attachment to “objective” fiction from which the “author” was explicitly excluded, also turned to self-writing in the 1980s, but introduced invented characters and events into what somehow also purported to be a nonfictional self-portrait (Ghosts in the Mirror, 1984). Among these dubious innovations of the “postmodern” period of self-writing, only one stands out as a pointer toward Roubaud’s achievement in The Great Fire of London, and that is Georges Perec’s W or The Memory of Childhood (1975). Here, two apparently quite separate stories are told in alternating chapters, printed in different typefaces. One of the stories (printed in italics) is a fictional narrative of an island society wholly given over to the cult of sport. The other, printed in roman face, consists of disjointed fragments of Perec’s memory of his own childhood. Far from trying to blend these fragments into a coherent or even just fluent narrative, Perec undermines their reliability even further (in asides, and also in footnotes and endnotes) with comments on mistakes made and alternative versions of his family and personal history. By these means, W or The Memory of Childhood provides less a portrait of Perec as a child than an account of the adult Perec’s memory of childhood, to which it is scrupulously true; and in so doing, it constitutes also a modest but effective critique of the faculty of memory. Perec’s aim, which seems much closer to Roubaud’s than to Sartre’s or Robbe-Grillet’s, is not to play with the reader in order to sow confusion and doubt, but to use a formal device in order to reach and share something authentic—emotion, awareness, understanding. Through his use of literary form to get round the major intellectual and moral pitfalls that lie in the path of autobiography, Perec, who like Roubaud was a member of Oulipo, points the way—from afar—to the more ambitious and far-reaching reinvention of self-writing in The Great Fire of London.
The distinctive formal feature of The Great Fire of London, as already mentioned, is to be cast in the present tense. Simple as it sounds, this is a radical and far from obvious “clause” in the new kind of “autobiographical pact” that Roubaud has invented and which for want of a better term we shall call the “pact of London.” This is not a false present (sometimes called the “historic present”), that is to say a present standing in for a past time reference. Nor is the present of The Great Fire of London a simulated or fictional present, as it is in the diary-form novels of Victor Hugo (The Last Day of a Condemned Man, 1829) or Evgeny Zamyatin (We, 1920). Roubaud’s present is a “real presence,” a form of language and reference called current report and most often expressed in English by the continuous or progressive form of the verb. Nonsimulated, nonmetaphorical current report is very rare in written texts of any length, for one obvious reason: for the most part, the only thing that is “current” while a writer is writing is . . . writing. (In spoken language, and thus in radio and television broadcast, current report is far more frequent. We can easily imagine a mountaineer saying truthfully to a camera hanging from a helicopter winch, “I’m still hanging on, but I’m not going to make it to the top,” but much less easily imagine how the mountaineer could ever write such a sentence.) The tense form chosen by Roubaud is obviously unsuited to extended written narrative, and he chooses it not only because of its technical difficulty, but because it is the necessary corollary of the other fundamental clauses of “the pact of London.”
The Great Fire of London opens with a detailed description of Roubaud writing. It has to begin that way, given the choice of current report as the basic mode of the text. Superficially, this self-referring, self-descriptive opening echoes many other modernist and postmodernist texts which purport to make the conditions of their own creation the primary object of narration. But it would be a mistake to think of The Great Fire of London as a self-referring fiction in the tradition of Gide’s Counterfeiters (1927) or Sarraute’s Golden Fruit (1964). It is not a novel; even less is it a self-reflexive postmodernist novel; and it certainly does not seek to “undermine” or “subvert” conventions of reading, bourgeois hegemony, or anything else. It is a much more serious undertaking.
The “pact” that Roubaud’s narrator outlines in the opening description of himself as a writer writing is less a proposed agreement with the reader than a set of rules for his own conduct as a writer. He will write only what is, now, in the moment of writing; and he will write only what is true in the “now” of that writing. These two ground rules ought to produce only the infinitely reduplicated statement that “I am writing that I am writing that I am writing . . .” or else a meticulous description of what the writer can see while writing—the top of his desk and the three walls of his room. (Georges Perec’s Still Life/Style Leaf is an exhaustive treatment of the constraint of current report understood in this way.) To produce anything more—let alone the 2,500 pages of the Great Fire series—the pact of London requires a narrator capable of thinking and writing simultaneously. This is by no means implausible and certainly far less hard to swallow than the presupposition of a narrator capable of recalling all of the past truthfully. What beggars belief—or, alternatively, imposes respect and wonderment—is the power, the intricacy, the extent, and the sophistication of the thinking mind of the narrator of The Great Fire of London. Thinking, of course, includes remembering (all knowledge is memory, according to one ancient and respectable philosophical tradition). But how is it possible for anyone to remember that much (about poetry, metrics, mathematics, history, literature, linguistics . . . ) without looking things up, without checking, without correction, that is to say whilst keeping to the pact of London? The Great Fire of London is self-designated as a “a treatise of memory” (73), but it is also, to a spectacular degree, an almost megalomaniacal demonstration of one man’s power of recall. Roubaud shows us what it means to be a man made of memory.
The truthfulness of The Great Fire is thus established from the start as a one-to-one correspondence between the text and the state of Roubaud’s mind at the moment of writing. As that moment changes—time passes as Roubaud writes—the “moving present tense” of current report becomes a current report of the state of Roubaud’s mind, which like all minds, changes. To stick to these fundamental clauses of the pact requires observance of the third major ground rule: no correction, no rewriting, no “revision” of a passage once it has been written (save for the protocol of recopying, elaborately described in §5 (11-14)). No claim is made of a correspondence between the memory recalled and the reality of a past world: the only truth is that the narrator remembers this, now, in that way. If this seems a limited kind of truthfulness, it nonetheless fulfils an ethical imperative, for it is perhaps the only absolute kind of truthfulness to which a written text can aspire.
The” pact of London” thus explains and motivates many of the more irritating features of the entire series begun with The Great Fire of London. A mind in action rarely sticks to the point, and Roubaud’s digressions (whether or not they are designated “bifurcations” or “interpolations” or just embedded in parentheses (often nested to improbable depths (prompting admiration rather than irritation in some very knowledgeable readers, Di Bernardi for example))) are the tangible evidence that he is keeping to his pact. Similarly, a mind in action pursuing the faculty of memory through the examination of actual memories present in the mind at the moment of writing often loops back to the same memory, and Roubaud’s many repetitions are similarly guarantees of his fidelity to the formal-practical pact set up at the start. Above all, the pact of London presupposes that the author has no clearer idea of where his text is going than we do, so that the impression of aimlessness, unformedness, or, to put it bluntly, of a structural mess, is part and parcel of what Roubaud is asking his readers to accept.
If these remarks underline the coherence of The Great Fire of London and of the necessary concomitance of all the “clauses” of the pact with each other and with the surface features of the text, they do not in any way prove that the pact of London is less of a fiction than Lejeune’s “autobiographical pact.” For example, the recurring “song of the Paris motorist” in La Boucle (340-43), Mathématique: (279-80), Poésie: (11-12) could have been repeated intentionally to create the impression of a mind looping back on itself. Similarly, the contradictions and stylistic infelicities might have been put in on purpose to make the text conform to the probable consequences of the undertaking as explained in the opening sections of The Great Fire of London. In other words, what is presented as an ethics of writing might be only a rhetoric. It is just as impossible to verify whether Roubaud is respecting the pact of London as to know whether an autobiographer really remembers the story he claims to be recalling but may be inventing. Roubaud is far too smart not to know this from the start: “. . . I’m not certain of being believed in all these matters. Readers are a suspicious lot. . . . I would prefer to be believed” (33).
If there is a pact of London to put in parallel with Lejeune’s autobiographical pact, then the reader has to sign up here, at this point, on the question of trust. Guillermina de Ferrari, whose aim is to show the “power of metafiction,” seems not entirely sure that Roubaud can be trusted on this fundamental point. We are not asked to suspend disbelief in anything inherently implausible about the manner of the text’s construction, but to suspend—to abandon—suspicion.
. . . 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 (GFL, 33)
The ground rules of simultaneity and truthfulness with the additional restriction on editing that we have called the pact of London are thus quite unlike the “autobiographical pact” devised by Lejeune to account for the features and flaws of literary autobiography. They seem closer to some monkish discipline of the soul—Roubaud’s insistent description of his bare cell and meager breakfast in §6 (14-16) make the monkishness of his project quite palpable from the start. Alternatively, we could see the unstoppable flow of self-analytical narrative prompted by the pact of London as akin to the obsessive “writing behavior” of the inmates of some rather sophisticated psychiatric ward. But whether they be cenobitic or paranoid, the “rules of London” are not the rules of an art, but rules of conduct intended to lead the writer toward twin ambitions that are, respectively, moral and intellectual ones: to tell the truth; and to understand memory. These are the preconditions for authentic (as opposed to merely literary) self-description. The pact of London is not separate from the writer’s life; it is the condition of his ability to say something not false about it.
The clauses of the pact apply exclusively to the writer, but they have effects with which the reader has to cope. Reading the Great Fire series requires uncommon stamina—Roubaud has given us nearly 2,500 pages to read! It also requires great efforts of concentration, since Roubaud’s extraordinarily well-furnished mind leads us around the metrics of Catalan poetry, set theory, the rules of exotic variants of hide-and-seek, Japanese literature, and some fairly obscure corners of the Victorian novel. It also requires tolerance beyond the normal call of readerly duty for the repetitions, contradictions, incoherences, and digressions which well-mannered literary novelists and autobiographers are expected to edit out. Stamina, concentration, and tolerance are virtues we would all do well to develop in ordinary life, but they are not normally considered germane to literary competence or aesthetic sensibility. In effect, Roubaud requires us to move beyond the “age of suspicion” that Nathalie Sarraute declared open in 1946, then to move beyond the age of aesthetics, and to acquire and practice virtues as readers that mirror the spiritual exercise practiced by the author of The Great Fire of London through the rules that govern his writing. Of course we can refuse the tasks that The Great Fire of London sets (by not reading the book) or else evade them (by skip-reading). But what needs to be clear is that to dismiss The Great Fire of London as an imperfect or inadequate or flawed work of art (on the grounds that its unreasonable length, unconventional nonlinear structure, digressiveness, and repetitiousness run counter to the qualities of aesthetic prose) is to miss the point entirely.
On the other hand, Roubaud’s “baggy monster” is not a moral tract and it explicitly declines any claim to “general truths”:
The man described, the “absent artist” in the chapter title, is a totally private individual, whose meaning is himself, and he “stands for” no one else. No lesson of a general import can be extracted from it, no lesson on any order can be extracted; there is no lesson. . . . (238)
At the same time, The Great Fire of London is not obviously a work of literature, if by that term we understand an intention to create aesthetic pleasure. Like an Oulipian exercise, The Great Fire of London is an instance of writing that keeps faith with its declared constraints. But they are not just formal ones; they are real, in the sense that they impinge directly and substantially on the life of the writer. Unless we dismisses the entire setup as yet another literary simulation of life (excessive familiarity with the history of autobiographical imposture might incline some to do just that), then The Great Fire of London also imposes a discipline—and through that discipline, a remarkable moral and intellectual education—on its reader.
After all this it may come as a surprise and a relief to realize that The Great Fire of London does actually tell the story of Jacques Roubaud’s childhood (an idyllic one), of his education, adolescence, military service, professional life, travels, readings, and interests, just as it does give us a remarkably detailed portrait of his personal habits in the bathroom, in bed, in eating, drinking, dressing, and locomotion, as well as more than we could reasonably expect to know about his tastes (for root beer, jelly, and Trollope) and distastes (for automobiles, repeatedly, and ad infinitum). In other words, the series contains everything we could possibly expect to find in a conventional autobiography, including memorable sketches of individuals, anecdotes of a lost golden age, encounters with famous people (the “old rogue” Roman Jakobson, for example, in §§176-177 (298-300)), with obscure books (Trollope’s An Old Man’s Love §97 (188-89)), as well as oblique involvements in world-historical events, such as the invention of the French hydrogen bomb (Mathématique: §§99-105, 221-52) and the return of deportees after the defeat of Nazi Germany (La Boucle §50, 209-10). Nothing is barred—certainly not sex—save for the actual names of a few individuals (though that is determined as much by French legislation on private life as by the supplementary rule of discretion that Roubaud imposes). If the spiritual exercise and practical constraints of the pact of London were designed in the first place to make self-writing possible again, then we have to say that they have been a complete success, since they have indeed allowed Roubaud to give us a self-portrait as rich as any other published in the twentieth century.
The pact of London is by no means the only form of constraint that allowed Roubaud to write The Great Fire of London. Rules of a more conventionally Oulipian kind are hinted at early on, but the narrator assures us that “The shaping role of the constraints . . . will be kept in the background . . .” (26). At least the numerological constraints are eventually revealed, fifteen years and two thousand pages later, in §43 of La Bibliothèque de Warburg; but there are also several mentions of a principle of alternation between ten different “writing types,” of which only a few have been explicitly “revealed” to date (Mathématique: 147). It is hard to know how much of Roubaud’s newfound freedom to narrate much of his life derives from the pragmatic exercise we have called the pact of London and how much from these more sophisticated, partly hidden numerological and stylistic rules.
All the same, Roubaud does manage to create a convincing self-examination in a work that is not at all an autobiography; and he also manages to tell complex, inter-linked stories in a work written “in imitation of a novel” (73), but which is all the same not a novel at all. Three of these “stories” are of particular and central importance. The first is adumbrated as a mystery, or a secret, or as something that cannot actually (yet) be told: “The year 1961 surrounds the dream. Plus something I’m not going to tell, that there will be no end to my telling perhaps, or my not telling, I don’t know” (112). As in a detective novel, this dark secret is only slowly drawn into the light. In retrospect, we come to realize that the unsayable event was inseparable from the very origins of the Project of which the entire series narrates the collapse. And when it is at long last stated openly, we have no reason to doubt the veracity of Roubaud’s analysis of its role in his own intellectual, moral, and emotional development. In 1961, and prior to the “dream of The Great Fire of London,” Roubaud’s brother took his own life.
The second major “novel” contained within the series that begins with The Great Fire of London is the story of Roubaud’s father and most particularly of his heroism as a résistant during the German Occupation (1940-1944). Narrated in what might be called whole fragments dispersed through the entire series, the “novel of the father” is an admirable homage to an obviously admirable and much-loved man. The fragments were composed in the “ever moving present” at different times throughout the last decade of Roubaud senior’s life, and some of the episodes were written during, or just after, visits by Roubaud junior to the family home near Carcassone. As a result, the actual telling of this “novel” contains its own story of time passing and impending mortality.
The third of the three “family novels” in The Great Fire of London is the narrator’s grief at the loss of his wife, Alix-Cleo Blanchette. The pain of bereavement is powerfully and movingly inscribed in the opening pages and elaborated many more times throughout the series. Yet there is nothing that comes after that is as stark and moving as those opening pages. Little by little, as text and time move on, we feel a kind of relief as the perceptible symptoms of the narrator’s pain fade away.
Love for a brother, for a father, and for a wife are three of the deepest emotions we can feel. The deaths of Roubaud’s three closest relatives from suicide, old age, and sickness prompt grieving of naturally different kinds. Mourning is without doubt the fundamental emotion which The Great Fire of London exists to express and to share; and the quest for memory, which is the explicit intellectual pursuit of Roubaud writing The Great Fire of London, undoubtedly draws its principal energy from grief.
Many people engage in writing behavior in order to come to terms with loss, grief, or their own mortality. Specialized publishing houses like La Pensée universelle in Paris exist to provide an outlet for the diaries, novels, and autobiographies of people attempting to “get it off their chests” and “put it all down in writing.” The Great Fire of London is unashamedly just such an exercise in writing for therapy. Has it made Roubaud a happier man? Well, the narrator of the La Bibliothèque de Warburg certainly seems less burdened than he was at the start of The Great Fire of London; the frequency of comic, light-hearted, even joyful passages shows a steady increase after the first thousand pages or so.
Therapy-writing most often has the implicit form of a one-sided dialogue: the writer is talking to the reader as if the reader were the therapist or at least as if the reader’s participation in the pain were a necessary condition of release and relief. Roubaud talks movingly of the dialogue he establishes with his parents through writing his (undoubtedly partly incorrect) memories of their lives: “So why am I doing this? . . . Because, beyond any need to justify it, [my writing] will be a way of speaking and a way of hearing, a kind of exchange, and a form of dialogue” (La Boucle 548). The same could be said in almost identical terms of the effect of Roubaud’s writing on his reader. Of course, we can’t establish the same kind of dialogue with the narrator as could Roubaud’s parents (we are not going to correct his mistakes, for instance, nor will we have the chance to go over typescript pages with him), but we are, as readers, just as much in dialogue with a text that presupposes in its form and manner the more or less active participation of a reader armed with the virtues of stamina, concentration, and tolerance.
The self-therapeutic and dialogic qualities of The Great Fire of London should make it even clearer, if that were necessary, that Roubaud’s vast achievement cannot usefully be tackled in merely literary or aesthetic terms. What use is writing? Roubaud has already faced that issue squarely, and his answer, inscribed in every part and parcel of The Great Fire of London, is that if writing is to have any use at all, it has to be useful to someone to do something.
The uncloaked functionality of Roubaud’s vast “treatise of memory” is perhaps the most significant dimension of its originality. The Great Fire of London stands outside and beyond the literary forms which seem most germane to it—the novel and autobiography—because it sets itself objectives and aims which are not intrinsically literary ones. It is as far from the “art for art’s sake” ideology of the late nineteenth century as it is from the aesthetics of surrealism, socialist realism, or any other of the many literary ideologies of the twentieth century. It is resolutely not a postmodernist endeavor, and it is quite obviously not a return to naive or sentimental modes of self-writing either. It is something new: it is Roubaud. Is it an Oulipian enterprise? It may be, but if it is, then Oulipo has taken a step (not quite unprecedented, but never previously imagined on such a scale) toward the application of pragmatic as well as numerical and stylistic constraint to tasks that exist outside the printed page, in the real world of the heart and the mind where the passage of time measures the ineluctable approach of our own disappearance.
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