The great fire of London [a novel of interpolations and bifurcations] by Jacques Roubaud

great fire of londonIn his youth, Jacques Roubaud had a dream that changed his life. The dream, which was honestly little more than him getting off a train in London and observing the passerby, revealed the following:

  • He must write a novel, titled The Great Fire of London.
  • He must compose an extensive poetry project, which he called the Project.
  • The novel and the poetry must be intertwined completely.
  • The poetry Project must also be a math project (Roubad’s second career was mathematician)
  • The essence of the dream must be realized through the above (by the way: the dream included London but no fire nor poetry; it was a pretty unremarkable dream to impart such a grand vision)

Jacques never wrote the book.

He waffled over its complexity for thirty years, performed endless research on ancient troubadours and the evolution of language. Made lists, excuses.Then his wife suddenly died; He declared the completion of the Project & The Great Fire of London impossible. Following three years of total bereavement — non-being as he terms it —  he started writing again.  He adopted an inflexible regimen of waking up around 3am (on a very precise schedule based on seasonal light) and writing in the same small notebook in the same black ink whilst refusing to ever go back and edit.The result was the book I actually read, not The Great Fire of London but instead: The great fire of London. (A capitalization distinction the publisher refused to acknowledge on the cover of the book)

So here we are, meet the great fire of London, the first book since The Dictionary of the Khazars that forced me to use three bookmarks.

That is why every path that opens up but is not immediately followed, nor forever abandoned, will be signaled in the text, unobtrusively, with directions that allow it be found again somewhere in the book, a book which like all others however can be read sequentially, for themselves. The reader, armed with eyes and patience, if he’s the sort who isn’t too put off by the more or less simultaneous exploration of divergent branches (a simple extension moreover of silent skipping with your eyes from the end of one line to the beginning of the next, from one page to another (an ascending movement this time), not to mention the concurrent reading of several books, or of notes, of glosses…), will be able, theoretically, to make a more varied, less “pedestrian” measure of the chaotic landscape of this novel.

What Roubaud is getting at here is this: There’s parts of the main ‘story’ that he absolutely wants to tell you about, but are a digression or distraction. He numbers these sections and that number corresponds to a section in the back of the book where he elaborates on the point (sort of like Infinite Jest’s endnotes). He might briefly mention his morning routine involving a bakery stop, but leave his obsessive list of requirements for the perfect croissant for the corresponding segment at the end of the book. He labels these diversions the interpolations of the title.

The second innovation is the bifurcation. What’s a bifurcation? At points where Roubaud absolutely could not decide which direction to take the novel, he went both ways. If a section of the main story has a number prefaced by a ‘b’, there is a bifurcation at the end of the book where he writes the chapter in the alternate flow he wanted to take.

I really like the idea of this book. Way more than actually reading it. The structure is fantastic; the actual content is a hodgepodge of all kinds of nonsense. Autobiographical episodes of his life, his family, his childhood. Long descriptions of rooms, photos. His love of England, love of reading, walking, swimming. Ruminations on poetry, math. Some of it is quite good — it’s fascinating reading Roubaud describe the making of jelly from a fruit(?) I’ve never even heard of, wisdom from old Provencal France. But it’s disordered and does not hold together. Some of the sections get abstract or theoretical and I appreciated them more than I actually enjoyed reading them. Worse, there is an interminable chapter where Roubaud pontificates on the mechanics of the how the novel, project, and dream all held together, how he would have written The Great Fire of London and the Project if he had actually written them. Larges swathes of it are borderline incomprehensible:

The novel would contain mysteries, while also being told with mystery. These are not the same thing. In the appearances of mystery, there would be the mystery of its form. The mystery of its form would bear a substantial relationship to the Project’s riddle, most particularly to that aspect of the riddle identified with reflexivity; the Project, in itself, a riddling presence.The mystery of the project-riddle’s manifestation as a novel would assume a public form. It would be medieval monstration. The fiction would move through the necessary “variations” of narration and description. The mystery of the ‘with mystery” implied numerals and “numberings”.

Imagine fifty dense pages of that!

Jacques also has this hilarious affectation w/r/t the english language. He’s admits he’s an anglophobe and is in love with England; but any reference to english or England must come with a follow-up clarification that he means english-english and not american-english, usually with an anecdote to show how inferior or soulless the american version is. I got so used to this that, late in the book, when he’s describing how much he loves english parks, I already knew he was going to write something negative about how little he liked Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. And lo’ and behold, the impugnment shortly followed. Blech, give me the dirt and chaos of GGP over highly manicured, sanitized english lawns that you cannot even step foot on any day.

Anyway, I really liked this quote so I’ll end here (topic is reading):

My passion is as old as myself, that is, as the self that counts and walks and remembers. All these things exist on a more or less contemporary plane (viewed from the distance of time where I am today). At every moment of the past I see books: books open and overturned in the grass, books piled near a bed; books on a table, shelves, in school bags, in plastic bags, in suitcases; books in buses, trains, subways, planes. Every picture of my surrounding world contains at least one book. The world teems with a plurality of books, books being read.

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