Interlaced with Night


Jacques Roubaud's The Great Fire of London: a story with interpolations and bifurcations ( Le grand incendie de Londres, 1989, translated by Dominic de Bernardi)

I have tried to write about Jacques Roubaud's novel The Great Fire of London many times.

No, that's not true. I have not written anything. Rather, I have felt many times the need to write about The Great Fire of London.

But that's not true either. I have felt the need to remove this need; that's all.

I have assumed that writing would remove the need. There seems to be no other way. But what is there to write? The Great Fire of London is a fearfully complex book. There are pages betraying the influence of Roubaud's academic career as a mathematician. I cannot understand a great deal of it. But maybe that is a good thing. If I wrote about the novel by trying to unravel its fearful complexity, I might ruin what makes it so persistently memorable, which isn't a result of its fearful complexity. It is something to do with its underlying simplicity and intimacy. But such a statement is itself too simplistic. Either way, it is deeply moving and inspiring book.

Not that I would unequivocally recommend rushing out to get a copy. It is not an easy read. The subject matter is frequently incomprehensible, occasionally boring and evasive. All these aspects, however, seem fundamental to it; that is, not errors of art and craft. So, to look beyond these, to direct one's steady gaze at the essence of the novel might be to repeat Orpheus' error when retrieving his wife Eurydice from the underworld. He looked back as he led her from the darkness, so breaking his vow to the God of the underworld. He was not meant to look. She was then condemned to remain in the dark and he was ripped apart. Orpheus' dismembered head sings of his loss as it floats down a river. Similarly, perhaps, if one attempts to retrieve art from the darkness of its book-loneliness by bringing it into the brightness of public discourse, its essence might well get left behind too. What's left would be the beauty of its dissembling architecture; the words of Orpheus' song. This is not what makes it beautiful.

So what is it? One helpful aspect of The Great Fire of London is that Roubaud's narrator also assumes that writing is his only recourse. Perhaps there is something to learn about this impulse, or at least how might affect what is written.

In the opening chapter, the narrator - who is Roubaud himself, more or less, although more or less is perhaps an infinity I can only hope to overlook here - is at his desk at five in the morning, drinking coffee. He listens to the running motor of a delivery truck in the street below. Immediately, we are with him in the cool solitude of dawn. We reflect in isolation from the world in motion; it becomes five o'clock in the morning for us too. (Scott Fitzgerald says "In the real dark night of the soul, it is always three o'clock in the morning, day after day"; at five o'clock, one begins to write about it). The narrator tells us that he writes:

in minute, close-packed letters, without deletions, regrets, reflection, imagination, impatience" and that he is writing "only in order to keep on going, to elude the anguish awaiting me once I break off.

His anguish is inevitable, for a reason that soon becomes clear. Writing holds anguish at bay. Reading and sleep help too, he says. They provide the local palliative of "escapism". What we read, though, is not in the form of traditional writerly escapism; a crime thriller, perhaps, or maybe a philosophical abstraction cast from an ivory tower, or even the "talking cure" of confessional memoir. It's difficult to say what kind of book it is. Yes, it is a novel, even if I found my copy in the History section of a remaindered bookshop. Yet while it partakes of the liberating playfulness of fiction, it also looks back - ever so obliquely, yet ever so insistently - into his pool of anguish: the sudden, premature death of Alix, his wife. And this really happened. It's no fiction.

Alix's absence fills his Paris apartment and haunts this book. If there is fiction here, then it is an empty space trying to expand to fill Roubaud's universe. If the narrator is covering paper with black marks in order to elude the anguish of his wife's permanent absence, why then does he refer to her at all? Wouldn't it be best to dive into a crime thriller?

Probably. In fact, Roubaud has produced such confections - Hortence is Abducted, for example, described by John Taylor as, in part, "a wacky pastiche of the English detective novel". Evidently, this has a pleasant distraction. In the preface to the novel, (yes, it has a preface) Roubaud reveals that for two decades a major, untitled work served as the project of his existence. He refers to it as the "Project".

For years, he sought a form that would accommodate the Project's "irreducible originality". He took a step back when he decided it would be housed in "a story, a novel" to be called The Great Fire of London. The latter was inspired by a dream, which he describes:

I was coming up out of the London tube. I was in a rush, under a gray shower. I was preparing myself for a new life, a joyful liberty. And I had to fathom the dream's mystery, after long investigations. I remember a double-decker bus, and a young (redheaded?) lady under an umbrella. On awakening I thought I was writing a novel that would be called The Great Fire of London.

As soon as the dream was over, he sought to preserve the dream intact. But the novel required the content that the dream lacked:

I strove to find a remedy: I accumulated notes and scraps; I assembled plans, working blueprints, outlines; I drew up tables of events; made a mental inventory of places, moments, objects, sought help in the stimulating reading offered by the great English or Austrian novels. My every attempt proved vain.

It seems that the moment content was added, the dream, like Eurydice, was left behind. Roubaud looked further afield for guidance; to ancient Japanese prose, French Medieval poetry. Still nothing. In the end, he decided to begin only to "explain … what it might have been". And that, he says, meant the result would encompass "more than a Novel and a Project."

One wonders what this "more than" might be. Is there a promise of news from the limits of art, perhaps; something written from the abyss of failure; farthest from artifice? Would this explain the explicitly autobiographical setting? If so, then wouldn't this be what we want from literature? That is, not a "wacky pastiche", but the hiddenmost brought to light?

It looks like it. But Roubaud's admission of defeat might just be a ruse to make us lower our guard and forget the necessarily artificial condition of literature. Orpheus' song came into existence only after Eurydice was lost. Its detached formality is masked by the extremity of its subject matter. A ruse to Roubaud himself also, perhaps, allowing him to write as he pleases, unbound by the constraints of the Novel and Project. The irony, of course, is that it is precisely the constraints he seeks. His recourse, as already mentioned, is to constrain himself to write about his failure, which then necessarily means an admission of defeat. He covers the pages with ink unconcerned with the "Flaubertian toil" necessary for the a beautiful prose style. He does not want to stop and reconsider a passage. He wants only to write. Not that this is a diarrhoeic flow of words. The pages are covered with precise, intense descriptions of many things, rather like the archivistic novels of Nicholson Baker. Early on in the book, he takes us through the ritual of his morning.

Upon rising, I get my bowl from the kitchen table where I set it the night before in order to minimise what I needed to do in the kitchen and to make as little noise as possible. 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 than putting the bowl at 'my' place on the table; at was my place.

Clearly, there is a poignancy in his compulsion not to let something die. As he re-asserts Proust's famous analysis of habit, he also reverses it. Ordinary memory, Proust says, is a habit weakening every impression: "the past is hidden outside the realm of our intelligence and beyond its reach". "It is a waste of effort for us to try to summon it, all the exertions of our intelligence are useless". Instead "it depends on chance whether we encounter this object before we die" (The Way by Swann's, translated by Lydia Davis, p47). Roubaud doesn't want to encounter it, hence the fetishisation of a routine in a ritual. No matter, chance breaks in. Proust's narrator received the first intimation of this truth eating a small cake dipping in a cup of tea. For Roubaud, it happens every morning with instant coffee:

I've poured in a small bit of … Zama Filter, a positively obscure brand which I buy in large 200-gram jars at the Franprix supermarket opposite the Saint-Paul métro station.

He gets water from the sink's hot tap.

All I drink is this large bowl of little more than lukewarm, caffeinated water, while I put behind me nights best left undiscussed. The liquid is rather bitter, somewhat carmelized, unpleasant. I swallow it, and for a moment frozen in place, my stare focused at the bottom of the bowl upon the black splotch of some half-dissolved powder, I simultaneously experience this instant's burst of recurrent anguish which no repetition, no habit, will abolish, nor even really relieve, which is and will be mine until the last of this prose had been written, that is, perhaps, for me, never. Then I get up, return to my bedroom, and sit down in front of the open notebook.

The reflexive return to the place of writing follows Proust as he ends his great work of memory by beginning it. In contrast, Roubaud is trying to erase memory. He writes in order to record in order to destroy. Writing becomes a means of repeating the ritual, which is itself, by definition, a repetition; storytelling is repetition. It transports us, displacing the anxiety of time for a timeless moment that, by definition, doesn't exist, again and again.

This is the paradox at the heart of the literary experience. Kafka wrote in his diary that nothing is further from an experience than its description; and perhaps that is why, in Roubaud's case, everything is described in such minute detail. "What will remain" he says:

will be this narration; interlaced with night, its awful silence; where I hope, by means of accumulating and persevering, to achieve, if only unintentionally, my end.

It's why we are able - and indeed want - to read about the extremes of human experience, and, for that shining glory, to place a crown on the head of literary art. Yet also, at the same time, to disparage it. The crown becomes one of thorns; "literary" becomes a byword for disengagement. A literary novel is a prophet without honour. As if trying to counter this tendency by reiterating it, Roubaud says that his narration is "interlaced with night". What is this "night" in books?

Before you go looking, don't expect to find the night in this novel illuminated in the bright responses to the translation of Roubaud's book. Invariably, they follow the line of least resistance by highlighting the rich detail and its unusual organisation, as well respectfully nodding toward the grief darkening the horizon. The narrator's loving, elaborate description of how to make azarole jelly is a favourite reference point. Many novels of recent years have been offered to the reading public with their quaintly arcane details pushed to the fore, enabling literary sub-editors to write review headlines like: "Of murder, penny whistles and tea". The Great Fire of London is full of such diversionary attractions. He also writes of his love of Charles Dickens and the British Library. It serves as an alibi for reading, rather like when people cheerfully recommend the Bible as "a great read, full of blood and gore". An alibi for reading which, in the end, becomes one for not reading.

Diversions provide a built-in feature to The Great Fire of London: the subtitle "bifurcation and interpolations" manifests in the book as numbered links on the right-hand side of the page telling the reader where a related item appears in the book. One can go back and forth. After all, there is no linear narrative. This prompts Dominic Di Bernadi, the novel's translator, to discuss the future of the novel. The Great Fire of London, he says, prefigures the hypertext interactivity of web reading and "their vast possibilities for the flexible interlinkage of written text, sound, and image". All of which means "the necessary tools for a revolution in text-based culture are now available". No doubt this is interesting and exciting, just like the "blood and gore" of the Bible. Unfortunately, communication is no more immediate or transparent. It offers merely more opportunities to explore the space between us and the underworld; Orpheus at a multimedia PC.

Perhaps then, with this in mind, we should try to enjoy the random pleasures provided by the novel's constraints, and to forget about the rest; forget about literature entirely, remembering what Kakfa wrote to his friend Oskar Pollack in January 1904:

If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy as you say? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to.

The words "if we had to" rather begs the question of course. Roubaud's dream was write something as great as anything in the tradition; presumably that would have made him happy. He sensed its possibility in the "irreducible originality" of the Project and the joyous liberty of the dream. But with the death of Alix, and the end of his literary hopes, how could its originality be reconciled with the Romantic tradition with possibility at its core (such as retrieving Eurydice)? Roubaud's originality is to be found in The Great Fire of London's formal confrontation with the death that bears away such possibility. The plotless digressions, the limitless order of reading and obsessive focus on description, analysis and explanation, all take the place of Alix and the space she left behind. For sure, there is a certain liberty in this, but one that means the end of the kind of book that Roubaud loves. He know the novels produced by Dickens' are no longer possible. He does not try to imitate them or to confuse art with a violently misdirected nostalgia.

Kafka explains in the same letter:

… we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. (Diaries, 13 December 1914)

Ten years on, the mature writer says the best things he has written (The Judgement, Metamorphosis) "have their basis in [my] capacity to meet death with contentment."

The notion of a writer seeking such contentment is strange to us; indeed many find it "depressing". We might characterise the relentless playfulness of canonical Postmodernist fiction as an expression of the distance we feel from the need. (Genre fiction does it too, all the time, by definition; essentially, it remains the same while all around changes). Kafka and Roubaud themselves provide points along the timeline of such a loss. Kafka lived in a time of frantic industrial and urban growth. It contrasted with the quiet villages where rituals and tradition went unchanged over centuries. Death was an integral part of village life; grief, otherwise crippling to the individual, was shared with the community. Death was not as profoundly alien as it is now. Change was integrated into the life of the tradition of the community.

Kafka faced the contrast every day as an insurance clerk inspecting sweatshop factories operated by economic migrants. Communities disintegrated and the ritual of mourning as practiced in the city became a vapid routine. Hence his excessively Romantic demand for a literary replacement. Art, previously an adjunct to communal ritual, was by Kafka's time only an option for distraction in wage-slave consumer-culture. Narrative became, at best, a consoling nostalgia offering fragments from the ruin of a lost civilisation, at worst an industry sustaining itself on the degradations of solitary indulgence.

By the time of The Great Fire of London, the sense of such a need is barely present. Roubaud makes it plain that his wilful subjection to indulgence has its roots in failure, despair and the need for abandonment. There is little sense of an alternative. There are no friends or family in this novel, just the writer and his reluctant memory. His aim is literary abandonment. As the book has no obvious plot, and meanders deliberately in innumerable narrative diversions, he succeeds. He does not rescue our hopes with some belated, popular reversal of fortune; a new wife for example. Still, the novel remains extremely personal. The reader is always drawn back to the writing's provenance in the author's world of mathematics, poetry, Zama Filter coffee and paralysing anguish. In this sense, he fails. Yet such a failure can be reversed. Literature is extremely personal only because, in each failure, it is the writer's unique exposure to the impersonal, non-human outside. In other words, the night of Death. Yes, that is if we want to be melodramatic. Perhaps less morbidly, it is the revelation of the possibility of a community. Individuals, as writers and readers, are suddenly joined together in its presence. The distinction between each activity diminishes in importance. It means Roubaud, as a writer, gets closer to Alix. Writing exposes him to the absence she has become, and so to the origin of his work, and by extension, all creative work. That is, the confrontation with absence. Reading is the same. Creation - art - is in league with death. It is a paradox the artist confronts all the time by virtue of being an artist.

It is not always an inviting prospect. The reader-as-consumer demands avoidance. And according to current review practice serving that market, a novel's success depends on how well it elides the paradox, even if both reviewer and author are unaware of it. The anonymous writer at The Complete Review says: "on the whole [The Great Fire of London] is a very enjoyable read" but it "bogs down in the writing about writing". Like the God of the Underworld, the critic (unnamed, and so in thrall to the power of an unnoticed death) warns the author that the more he looks back, the worse it gets. The opportunity to execute the perfect work, the chance to deliver us from singular existence is, once again, ruined.

However, rather than pander to Romantic myth or fashionable aesthetics, The Great Fire of London brings singularity to the fore. In writing about the dream of success that never materialised, Roubaud is also, and more pertinently, writing about the impossibility of death; the sweet union of the myth. As he gets closer to Alix in the writing, he is also wrenched from her; torn to pieces. His freedom won't let him escape. The novel is written within that impossibility. And the writing, in fact, requires it; it is not "experimental". It requires the gaze back into the unspeakable.

What I realise, now, after having written this, and perhaps having removed the need to write about The Great Fire of London any longer, is that writing is not about getting closer or getting further away. It is the attempt to open for oneself the space of writing that contains the irreducible originality of the book in question. For Roubaud, the book was the one in his mind for so long: the Project. Roubaud achieves its success by sacrificing it in a great fire of the book in his mind, the one always to come. The author's glance back at Alix, and thereby the space of writing, effects that sacrifice. For the writer, and the reader always thereby becoming the writer, and vice versa, it is the necessary act of human freedom; the singular work of coming to terms with failure.


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