Jacques Roubaud THE GREAT FIRE OF LONDON (1988)


Is language merely one game among many or a trap used to ensnare and bring to heel an entropic world of otherwise senseless death? If the latter is indeed the case, then Jacques Roubaud follows Jaako Hintikka in treating language as a strategic tool: ‘The idea of confronting the polymorphous enemy, Reality, by applying forms, by obliging it to respect certain rules of the game, isn’t new, and… Hintikka is a modern knight, who instead of confronting Death in one-on-one combat in a chess match, challenges Nature with the weapons of the logic of predicates’ (p249) Jacques Roubaud’s frank yet dignified account of the generative principles of his life-work, ‘The Great Fire of London’, compels a reader to do the same. Could Roubaud’s early fondness for English women’s detective fiction be paralleled with this reader’s interest in the suggestively titled ‘Fighting Fantasy’ choose-your-own-adventure franchise? As in detective fiction, the reader must try and anticipate a route through possible worlds themed on generic precedents, whether these be the world of samurai, superheroes or sylvian wood nymphs; only, in these game-books, the reader must flick back and forth through the pages, choosing the line of action which they think is most plausible or simply most of interest. But where a detective novel’s last page always announces an end of sorts, in game-books, the end could arrive on the very next page. This is a good use of format to increase suspense, and one that is not lost on Roubaud. Aside from the simple thought puzzles which had to be solved through a little abductive reasoning, there was also a certain amount of dice-rolling to be done, where a low number meant you had to go back to the beginning. How many readers actually did this? How many always assumed that they won? Roubaud’s work has this choose-your-own-adventure feel thanks to the supplementary ‘interpolations’ and ‘bifurcations’ which you can either choose to read as he wrote them, or like this reader, once the narrative arc is over. Reading them afterwards feels a bit like a revision course where you go over the most important parts of the text in a more nuanced and sustained manner. I was not patient enough to re-read the whole novel again with the insertions as and when they were produced and prompted. As with the game-books, once ‘completed’, it is always a little sad to read the alternative pages you could have taken, had you chosen your adventure differently. Early on in ‘The Great Fire of London’, there’s a beautiful prose set-piece where Roubaud compares the intricacies of making azarole jam with his hopes for the novel: ‘And I imagine the preparation of this prose and azarole jelly 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’ (p69) It is never quite clear whether Roubaud’s work has gelled, or whether he has just abandoned it to his shelves on the off-chance that with time it might set. By including these forking paths, Roubaud has managed to turn the ludic element of Oulipo into something quite melancholic, and shows that these constraints needn’t always inspire, or cheer with their sheer absurdity. On the contrary, Roubaud’s constraints are shown to be necessary to the composition of ‘The Great Fire of London’ as a way of overcoming a writer’s block (he would destroy his hopes for the work and obliterate the memory of his deceased wife through spelling out the details without revisions) and formally (insofar as the fragmentary results chart the course of memory as it happens and do not add up to a coherent narrative whole). Somehow, Roubaud does this without lapsing into anything which could be construed as sentimentality and leaves the reader feeling uplifted. What is his secret? Jacques Roubaud’s works anticipate the popular post-grief resilience memoir-novels of Patti Smith. One of the chief pleasures in Patti Smith’s works is the sense that here we have a glamourous star who has been brought low by the grief of losing a beloved (a potentially universal experience) and yet she manages to endure it through her enthusiasm for the simple pleasures life offers: a clean hotel room, a good book, a Coney Island hot dog, an unabashed swoon over a great deceased artist of the past. It is a pleasure for the reader to learn that someone with such prodigious fame and repute lives and celebrates a life not unlike her fans. Arguably, the same process of identification occurs with Roubaud, when describing his solitary city holidays in London, enjoying the novelty of the British Library: ‘I sometimes stay in my seat the whole day long: some weekdays, the British Library is open until 9.00pm.; these are days of incredible luxury. At noon, I step out for a while for a Cambridge sausage and beans in a nearby pub; or else for a Big Mac with root beer (large) at the McDonalds on Tottenham Court Road. Then, slightly tipsy from reading, I return to the hotel and go to bed.’ (p180) A large part of the charm of Roubaud’s novel is his putative modesty, which seems genuine, if complex in its origins and effects. Roubaud never strikes a pretentious tone, and makes a point of celebrating mediocre cultural objects, wryly inverting codes of snobbery through simulated crabbiness. We learn he loves the humble ducks but hates the noble swan, prefers homemade jam to fine wine, loves swimming but curses boats; always walks, and never drives. What rescues these comic assertions from the suspicion that they might be a patronizing ‘po-mo’ celebration of popular culture from a would-be anti-elitist on high is his full acknowledgment that these activities—the prolonged walks, the city breaks, the journeys to Provence to make jam--really are the luxury of a man beyond monetary concerns, as enabled by his position as a university maths lecturer, a day job he must maintain through any amount of grief. Roubaud's political messaging is subtle and never there to please the crowd. Nevertheless, he is clearly aware of how economic factors strongly determine the degree to which you can be aloof from popular culture. That’s why his taking a stand against crispy croissants is so entertaining. In fact, he gives up on ever finding them because none can reach his platonic ideal of the form. It is a thoroughly bourgeois sensibility knowingly applied to simple basic commodities and pursuits. Perhaps Roubaud’s most luxurious possession is his delicate, unforced manners. When dealing with others he displays impressive tact and sensitivity. When asking his parents to recount their lives for his memoir project, he takes care to only ask them of what they thought of their own parents, recognising that parents always live what must be exemplary lives for their children. Has this something to do with his alcohol-free existence? Late in the novel, an incident is recounted where, over dinner, Roman Jakobsen is trying to cajole Roubaud into drinking vodka toasts which he steadfastly refuses. Instead, Roubaud described how he secretly fondled his new girlfriend who was sat beside him. Is this a rare moment of self-conscious vanity, where Roubaud tries to dissuade the reader from concluding that there’s too much stiffness to his character? Mostly, however, when Roubaud describes his experiences with women, he is clear, honest, and brave without being invasive, and at times, he is rather tender. We hear of his deceased wife’s love of English pubs and her fondness for an evening Guinness, and we hear of another lover’s extravagantly lazy bedbound existence off-set by spells of intense academic activity. The most explicit moments described involve the pleasuring of women which just about avoid sounding self-satisfied and boastful. The most moving? Roubaud’s inability to give up the habit of moving around the kitchen quietly in the mornings before his young wife awoke. ‘I went out into the hallway. The way I still do today, but behind me the room is empty. And my silence is useless, since she is dead’ (p34) The novel was written pre-internet, and this makes Dominic Di Bernardi’s well-placed afterword seem dated insofar as it enthuses of a future world of online hypertexts which would make Roubaud’s experiments with structure and layout obsolete. Is it too much to say that Di Bernardi completely misses what is at stake in Roubaud’s enterprise? Roubaud wants to systematically delete the painful memories of his dead wife and his lost opportunities in his own time through a kind of sacrificial process, analogous to what therapy-speak might call ‘closure’ and what Roubaud thinks of as ‘…those secret documents in spy novels, which once violated by being seen are programmed to automatically self-destruct by bursting into flames.’ (p198) Arguably, what is crucial to ‘The Great Fire of London’ is not a labyrinthine choose-your-own-set-of-associative-paths which can be facilitated better through digital hyperlinks, real-time video links and algorithms, but the formal constraint of only writing in the hours which he would have otherwise shared with his deceased wife. Roubaud is emphatic when he stipulates that the novel is not the conceit of ‘the novelist who writes the novel that we are reading.’ Why? Because Roubard is not engaged in a game of chance, but in a war against the impotency of the human mind to resist the ravages of time and choose his own way to forget. As such, the plurality of possible readings engendered by his spatialization of texts (the distribution of content according to various schema) need amplification by his forms of semantic constraint, means that memories are simultaneously destroyed through the act of transcribing, through a novel which recounts the story of its failure as a means of finishing it off. In the process, the figure of Alix is recovered through complex patterns of association which otherwise wouldn't exist.