Friday, January 23, 2009

Notes on The Great Fire of London

Numbered points or observations, possibly tangential. Cohesiveness is neither promised nor implied (nor, we can be sure, delivered).

1. Jacques Roubaud's The Great Fire of London is, so its subtitle tells us, "a story with interpolations and bifurcations". In the story, there are six chapters, containing a total of 98 numbered sections. Readers are notified of the interpolations and bifurcations (insertions) via symbols in the margins, like thus, indicated in section 2: →I§101. In addition to these insertions, lengthy parentheticals of a sort, the writing is replete with parenthetical remarks, often nested within other parenthetical remarks, and so on--qualifications upon qualifications.

2. I read the book by following the paths set up for the reader to follow. If section 2 pointed the reader to the interpolation at section 101, I flipped to the appropriate place in the book and read, before returning to the source. Occasionally, I would hold off on interpolations till I'd read the full two or three pages of a given, numbered section, and then read all of the interpolations jumping from that section, in sequence. All interpolations are one numbered section each, at most a couple of pages in length, referring back to the original numbered section (such as: 101§2). Bifurcations are a little different. Bifurcations may potentially contain multiple numbered sections. I did not at first realize that the first few contained several sections each, not till I'd read the third one, after which I went back and re-read the opening sections for the first two, following in turn by reading the remaining sections in each successive bifurcation. The interpolations could be seen as parentheticals, the bifurcations as forks, perhaps leading to an alternative version of the narrative, if the reader were so inclined.

2a. Roubaud writes of writing a hypothetical book (perhaps the current book) which, with various such insertions, the reader would construct his or her own version of the book, which in theory would never have been read by anyone else, including the author. Putting aside the idea that this is simply a way of looking at how readers normally read anyway, constructing their own version of the story independent of the writer's intentions, I have serious doubts about this.

2b. For example, I remember reading Hopscotch. I'd been curious, before reading, whether it would be better to read the book straight through, or to read it according to the plan devised and presented by Cortazar. I asked about, and I was assured that it didn't matter. Not interested at that time in jumping around in the book, I read it straight through. I discovered that the material at the back of the book (its interpolations, possibly) seemed both tedious and irrelevant, by the time I got to them. In that case, I would argue that the strategy, far from being this great milestone on the way towards a truly interactive literary art, instead reinforced the primacy of the writer's authority. The sections filed in the back, being of a different nature than the narrative material in the novel proper (being more essayistic, if I recall correctly), would have worked much better if read in the order in which Cortazar had suggested, if I had in fact "hopscotched" from point to point within the book.

2c. I am, in any event, considerably more interested in the problems for the writer writing, than I am in these sorts of ideas about the so-called limitations of the physical book. To the extent that the conception mirrors anxiety about writing itself, I am on board, engaged, interested; to the extent that it represents twaddle about hyperfiction, I lose interest, if not consciousness.

3. The "story" is, in fact, "about" the writing. It is indeed "writing about writing about writing", though not in an epistemological sense. It is literally about this, in the sense of a writer narrating his writing. In the early chapters, I was enchanted by this: the writing about the materials, the time of day, the desk, typewriter, pens, about the handwriting, and so on. Here's a representative excerpt, copied from the Dalkey site:
I find quite obviously a slim yet real consolation in telling how my story gets underway in this circumstance which is the ever-renewed beginning of daytime arriving and nullifying (with increasing noise, with light) the peaceful, desolate yellow glow silently surrounding me on this table: one, two, three mute hours during which everything, in this house, the square, the streets, everything, or almost everything is asleep—this is the self-imposed condition enabling me to relate what, even though doing my best to wander as little as possible from the time of composition, will be above all a work of memory.

And each day, if I succeed in seizing some glint, if I manage, as the old Irish hermit says, to lead the darkness to the light, my basic purpose will be to entangle it with the banality of these lines, wobbly, black, relatively crooked upon the paper, in the yellow oval slicing the table, and where soon, once daylight filters in, and I lay down my pen, it will vanish.

Thus, the conditions in which I place myself, this self-imposed constraint, will express, despite the very elementary nature of the analogy, something of my projected attempt.
I also enjoyed the writing about the vision for the book's appearance, along with the writer's conviction that the book, as he conceived of it, in its fullness, was not publishable in book form.(These sections prompted translator Dominic Di Bernardi to write in his afterward about the possibilities for realizing Roubaud's vision with computers. Few things in literature bore me more than discussions of this sort.)

5. However, the "story" did lose me, did become un-fun to read for a time, in the long fifth chapter ("Dream, Decision, Project"), a chapter I had serious problems wading through. (It is no coincidence, I think, that this is the chapter that includes the no-fun excerpt quoted in the BLCKDGRD post linked to above.) This chapter, as its title gestures toward, involves the writer's detailed recounting, theoretical and otherwise, of the dream that gave rise to the decision to embark on the project which in part involves the novel which we may or may not have in front of us. The sheer length of this chapter numbed me, as did the repetition and the difficult language. In a sense, though, the jumping about made this chapter seem more interminable than it might have, had I read it straight through (admittedly, this appears to contradict the point I made about Hopscotch), especially by comparison with the more engaging inserted material. Though chapter 5 was on balance a slog, it was not without its intermittent charms. (And I do have it marked up in several places, passages of lucidity in what were often, for me, unreadable paragraphs.)

6. The "story" being the narration of the writing, offloaded the more traditional "narrative material", I'll call it, to the many insertions. That is, the writing containing narrated episodes that could add up to some kind of story. In addition, references to the "devastating personal loss" I alluded to earlier (the death of his wife Alix some years before), become at times more explicit, but also more rare (not that they were common to begin with). In a sense, the narrative material, in part writing about elements of the writer's actual life, could be seen to be too painful to include in the novel proper, even if those sections rarely were about Alix in any discernible way. The writing about the writing, about the project, the novel, the dream, decision, etc, displaces any true narrative, though this writing includes writing about the fact of displacement as well as references to the current novel being a falling away from the more grandiose project he'd originally dreamed. It is suggested that the work might have fallen apart, become unwritable, displaced by his writing about the writing, because he was unable to face the project, in the wake of his wife's death. (I keep using the words "novel" and "project" generically, but in fact these words and others appear in numerous ways: with or without italics, inside quotation marks or not, capitalized or not, with definite or indefinite article, depending on which iteration Roubaud is discussing and in what fashion.)

What remains are traces.

7. There is a blurb from Harry Mathews on the back of the book, and Mathews himself is mentioned in passing, in one of the handful of explicit references to the Oulipo (of which Roubaud is, unsurprisingly, a member). Perhaps coincidentally, in the course of reading the book, I was reminded of Mathews' own fiction a couple of times. Roubaud's description of the text (not the structure of the text itself), his ideal vision of it and its recursiveness and the nature of the interpolations and the bifurcations, the obsessive attention to detail, reminded me of Mathews' novel, The Journalist (in which our narrator, writing a journal on advice from his doctor after experiencing a nervous breakdown, gets obsessed with the form his journal takes, with his notational system for keeping track of types of entries, over time becoming more and more fixated on the journal itself, rather than his life, etc.). (The Journalist, incidentally, was the very first Dalkey Archive book I ever saw or read, having much to answer for at this point.) And Roubaud's delightfully obsessive food writing (the bit about croissants, yes, of course, but also the wonderful stuff about the proper way to make jam), primarily in the interpolations, reminded me of Mathews' demented short story "Country Cooking from Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double)" (collected in The Human Country), which is not to say that these passages are much like that story. . . This paragraph highlights the utter lack of discussion of constraint in this post, a lack that will remain unaddressed, accept to say that the writer writing about writing writes about constraints and the Oulipo (and I have completely left out mathematics, which Roubaud writes about at length, including about the mathematical treatise which is the model for his novel, etc. . .)

8. I professed an instant love for The Great Fire of London in my earlier entry. Did it meet these early expectations? Certainly chapter five appears to knock it down in my estimation (though love implies affection, not a critical assessment). Nevertheless, this remains a very special book, for its many passages of beautiful writing, some of it very funny, and its conception and ideas about writing and fiction. It was mostly fun to read.

9. I eagerly await the upcoming Dalkey edition of The Loop (though I admit that I hope its 712 pages, more than twice the length of The Great Fire of London, are not overly given to writing resembling that contained in chapter 5). (And I find, having read the excerpt from one of them in Bernardi's afterward, that I am also interested in taking a look at Roubaud's Hortense novels.)

1 comment:

Edmond Caldwell said...

My memory of reading Hopscotch is almost identical to yours -- read the 'narrative' part straight through and then found myself hopscotching around in the backpages because they didn't strike me as especially gripping. I loved the book (in fact for several years it was one of those tattered bibles we have when we're young), but what was supposed to be most radical about it seems actually pretty mechanical. Don't know what I'd think of it now, though.