A Three Bookmark Novel
Before you sit down to sit down to read Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London, make sure you have three bookmarks – one to maintain your place in the Story and the others to make it easier to flip to the Interpolations and Bifurcations when required. The Great Fire of London (Dalkey Archive Press, 1991, but originally published in France in 1989) is a memoir, a ritualistic act of remembering and forgetting following the death of Roubaud’s wife Alix, a photographer. Roubaud, a member of the Oulipo group of writers, is also a professor of mathematics, as every reader of this book will discover.
The Story begins with a photograph taken in a Fez hotel room. The photograph depicts an empty white wall and two framed objects: an indistinct rectangular image and a square mirror that seems to reflect nothing more than another empty wall. Although we can’t determine the contents of the tiny image we are told it is a picture of Fez; in fact, we are told it is a scene that looks much like what one would see if one looked outside a nearby window. Roubaud equates this photograph to his writing, which gives “rise to nothing but an image inside the image of memory.”
As a way of coping with himself after Alix’s death, Roubaud set himself the cathartic ritual of writing daily at dawn. These entries form the Story, precise and minutely detailed descriptions of daily experiences – making coffee, making jelly, listening to delivery trucks in the street below, conducting his research into the poetry of the troubadours – as well as recollections from his past. There is also a great deal of writing about the act of writing and on the structure of the very novel that one is in the midst of reading. For Roubaud, the process of writing, of translating his life into marks on the pages of notebooks “involves, in fact, a destruction” – the destruction of meaning, the stripping away of emotions. It’s a way of moving forward in the face of unfathomable loss (“my answer to the demons”). But over the course of this book (which he says took something like nineteen years to complete), there is, in fact, an ongoing and unresolved struggle between his desire to evade emotion through intense observation and and his all too human need to re-experience emotion. In contrast to the rigorous strategy governing the Story, the Interpolations and Bifurcations (which comprise half the book) are extended digressions and “parallel expositions,” interjections that often lead to powerfully emotional passages and moments of harrowing loss.
The Great Fire of London is an intensely self-examining novel that requires patience and a little forbearance. Roubaud’s radical “prose of memory” makes great demands on the reader, who is given no direct path forward.
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…
…where genuine novel prose adds and selects (drastically) voices, anecdotes, and gestures to sustain the progression of its sentences, paragraphs, chapters, the prose of memory stops and starts almost with each element (sentences, paragraphs, chapters; paragraphs especially) in the daily insular life of its composition. For contemplation cannot aim to convince the reader, nor lead him off into the labyrinth of the tale. It offers nothing.
…What remains is a tenuous marriage of moments, palpitations, and scenery. [excerpted from pages 73-74]
But Roubaud frequently sheds his “protocols” and leads the reader deep into his life, intense at times but often quite funny. Two of my favorite passages have to do with food. Roubaud gives a bravura performance in which the ideal croissant is lovingly described with quasi- academic, mouthwatering precision. And here is brief extract from a slyly humorous account that runs on for pages about making azarole jelly:
It might be imagined that an ancestral knowledge, or countless generations of jelly-making grandmothers weighing all the factors, might have arrived at some quantified, normative conclusion. “Simmer on a low flame so many minutes, shut off the fire, put into so many jars….” That’s not at all the case. No single factor can be isolated in a satisfactorily consistent fashion; and behind their already imponderable combinations lies concealed (like a hidden parameter more fleeting than particles in physics) what might be termed the “free will” (or the clinamen) of the jelly: for one moment, when the liquid stiffens imperceptibly in the pan, contracts around itself, prompted by all these reasons to gel or not to gel, you suspect that anything at all can happen, that the final results depend on the intensity of your desire for the jelly, for the glory of jellies, on the quality of your attention, of your vigilance, on the position of the constellation above your head in the macrocosm, on the intensity of the moral law in your heart.
Does The Great Fire of London gel? It did for me at the micro level, where it is often easy to become absorbed in Roubaud’s precise, humorous, bittersweet, self-deprecating descriptions of the mundane activities that comprise a life. But any sense of the book’s architecture eluded me. The book as a whole is as diffuse as, say, Roubaud’s life itself. And probably that’s the point. Most fiction simplifies life, makes declarations. “Call me Ishmael.” Even behemoth, rambling novels like Moby-Dick manage to reduce the universe to a more manageable package. Roubaud simply refuses to do so. When I finished The Great Fire of London I scrawled on my notepad: “How can a book so absorbed in the minutiae of daily life be so thoroughly imbued by a sense of loss?”
The vines still had their leaves, sank down into the heavy, claylike soil. I walked between the piles of rocks bordered with brambles and azarole trees; I walked almost all the way up the cypress lane to the spot from which point the hill gradually falls away into nothing. I sat on the flat stone slab in the balmy night.
There is, by the way, no Great Fire of London in The Great Fire of London. Well, that’s not quite true, there are four or five paragraphs quoted from eyewitness accounts of the Great Fire. Roubaud’s book originated in a dream in which he understood that he was writing a novel called “The Great Fire of London.” After two failed attempts to write such a novel and after the death of his wife, the title exists as a monument to his failure to achieve his original intent and to the process of undertaking something considerably more ambitious. Roubaud’s dream, by the way, has a parallel in W.G. Sebald’s novel Vertigo, where the narrator also dreams about the Great Fire of London. In the final pages of Vertigo, after reading Samuel Pepys’ account of the Great Fire in his Diary, the narrator falls asleep and dreams of an inferno that scorches the earth. “Is this the end of time?” he wonders.