Monday, January 12, 2009

Roubaud's Law of Butter Croissants

I've begun reading Jacques Roubaud's The Great Fire of London. Already I can see that it's going to be a special book. Roubaud describing the project, the novel, he is unable to write; describing in scrupulous detail the tools he uses to write, the notebooks, pens, the desk, the room the desk is in, the nature of the light, the quality of his handwriting in the notebook (close, compact, black, nearly illegible). Already some unmistakable, though understated references to a devastating personal loss ("It's something I continue to do, day after day, less from habit than from my refusal to let a habit die, despite the fact that 'not making a sound' or 'accidentally awakening' have no more importance now than putting the bowl at 'my' place on the table at what was my place.").

But with Interpolation 103 (for it is "a story with interpolations and bifurcations"; the reader is directed elsewhere in the book, not unlike Cortazar's Hopscotch), I know that I am in love. This interpolation jumps off from a brief description of what is currently the writer's regular breakfast, though it wasn't always. It used to involve croissants (quotations from the translation by Dominic Di Bernardi; italics in original):
The ideal croissant (and this has to do, naturally, with the Parisian croissant, since in whatever town I've tried them provincial croissants have been a disaster), the croissant that might be labeled the archetypal butter croissant, presents the following features: a very elongated rhombus, rounded at the tips but with an almost straight body (only the plain croissant, and it alone, has a lunar, ottomanlike look)--golden--plump--not too well-done--nor too white or starchy--staining your fingers through the India paper that wraps or rather holds it together--still warm (from the oven it's only recently left: not yet cooled) [...].

It has three principal components, and three interlocking meaty compartments protected by a tender shell that lends it certain similarities to a young lobster. The center section is, in this croissant-lobster homomorphism, the body of the crustacean; the end parts are the pincerless claws. It's an extremely stylized lobster, a formal lobster, in short. For the croissant to be perfect, a simple tug on each "claw" should easily pull them apart from the "body," each trailing along an oblique, tapering excrescence of inner meat, subtracted from the center, extracted, as it were, effortlessly from the still very warm innards of the croissant, without making crumbs, or any sound, or tearing. I openly lay claim to the discovery of this correspondence, this structural morphism (at least I have found no "anticipatory plagiarism") which I propose calling Roubaud's Law of Butter Croissants.

It is of course impossible nowadays to find a definitive croissant composed in accordance with this axiom and fulfilling my dream. Perhaps the ideal croissant only ever existed as a best-case scenario, a formal essence that could only find its remote approximation in actually existing croissants. Those from the boulevard bakery, even though the best in the neighborhood, only modestly approximated this ideal. Still, I was delighted to have found them, so greatly did the general worthlessness of modern croissants make me shudder. There are bakeries (I could name names!) where you are underhandedly sold day-old croissants (nevertheless set aside tacitly and traditionally for third-class hotels and the most mediocre and stingy cafes). They are lusterless, misshapen, shopworn, smelly, with the look of stale ocean fish at the stall of a Jurassic fishmonger, around August 15th, before freezers were invented. [...]

Furthermore, among croissant eaters (croissants in general, plain as well as butter) there are two contending schools: the dry school and the wet school. As far as I'm concerned, I belong to the drier part of the wet school. This means: after having prepared a bowl of café au lait (I still hadn't given up milk), hot but not scalding, I dipped the croissant wing (the leg rather) (let's preserve a metaphoric consistency) that I'd pulled off (let's a imagine a perfect croissant, satisfying Roubaud's Law for the sake of the description) in such fashion that it becomes moist, saturated, softens, but without dissolving, without coming undone. I proceeded likewise with the other leg; then with the center part of the thus dismembered body (starting with the left leg!). If the croissant were perfect (herein lies and indisputable test of its degree of perfection) (along Roubaud's Croissant scale), provided that the correct procedures were carried out, at the bottom of the bowl there should remain no trace of its disappearance. A true croissant never crumbles. [...] Just as a thin sprinkle of rain on a summer evening at the seashore in the intense heat, dampening the dust at an outdoor cafe, settling the dryness, releasing the sudden fragrance of earth, flowers, shadow, and plane trees gives you a pang of nostalgia, so the perfect caffeinated moistness lending the perfect aroma, the perfect consistency to the croissant, makes you believe, if only for one precarious moment, in the possibility of a good day ahead. By giving up croissants, I had, as is plain to see, made a serious sacrifice for my prose; but I expected no reward in return.


Jim H. said...

You know, you can get them frozen now. In your grocer's dairy case! Ask for them by name.

Jim H.

Richard said...

Sure. But you know, it's not really the same.

john said...

"The surface of a French bread is marvelous, first of all because of that quasi-panoramic impression it gives: as if one had at one's fingertips the Alsp, the Taurus, or the Andean Cordillera"