Jeremy M. Davies
on Jacques Roubaud

March 23rd, 2009 by EVENTS

My history with Dalkey Archive Press begins more or less with a beautiful woman handing me a copy of Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London, in its original black and white jacket, over the table of a terrible chain bookstore’s terrible coffee shop in Burlington, Vermont, circa 1997. It was almost winter, and I didn’t look at the book until classes started that autumn, perhaps as a means of avoiding my schoolwork. I already owned several other books from the press, but it was in reading Great Fire, mainly in the early mornings, before walking to my college, by the light of an electric lamp at my apartment’s kitchen table—the sun wouldn’t come out till April or May—and certainly in the absence of any beautiful women, that I made the connection between this one consuming, complex, peculiar book, and the others already on my shelf.

The appositeness both of the circumstances of my receipt of the book and the particular process of my reading it became apparent almost from the first pages. Great Fire, and its companion, The Loop, are Oulipian novels, and one of the constraints dictating their composition is that they can only be written in the dark, predawn hours before sunrise. Another constraint—a little trickier—is that everything in the book must be the truth, or as close to the truth as Roubaud can make it at the time of writing: not just in the sense of the author telling us only what he believes to be true, but also in that he must be truthful about the process of his work, and therefore his thought. This means that the book is never linear, is endlessly evocative, endlessly digressive—with food and women being, as often as not, what derails Roubaud’s pen, in Great Fire, from its work of precise description. Thus, reading this lonely book in the cold, dark early hours of New England morning, remembering the harshly lit circumstances of my receiving it, formed, for me, a double “moment” like the hundreds upon hundreds that make up Roubaud’s great project, and the mining of which are one of its primary goals: a present-tense of darkness and solitude, a past-tense of lightness and affection, and the conjunction of these now coincident images in text, in writing, in a book.

When, in time, I came to work at Dalkey Archive, a happy accident placed me there at precisely the right moment to become involved with the second paperback edition of Great Fire, which meant resetting the original text, correcting any longstanding errors in the process. I sat, again at my kitchen table, again in winter—now an Illinois winter—again in the early-morning hours, going over every line of the English, which already, to my mind, contained at least two layers of other such early mornings (Roubaud’s, in profound mourning, in Paris; my own, in silly college-age depression, in Vermont). If before this rereading I had only loved the book, I now became intimate with it, and determined to read whatever had followed Great Fire in Roubaud’s oeuvre. This was 2005.

At some point I’d become aware that The Great Fire of London is, in fact, the title given to a cycle of interrelated books, not simply to a single novel—as Proust’s is called À la recherche du temps perdu, or Powell’s is A Dance to the Music of Time, or Dorothy Richardson’s is Pilgrimage. The book published as The Great Fire of London is a single volume in this series, and in context is more accurately called by its proper name, “Destruction.” The Loop, which comes out this April in its first English translation, is “branch two” of Great Fire. Where “Destruction” is Roubaud seeking to force an ordering system over his despair as a conscious alternative to putting an end to his life, in the wake of his wife Alix’s death from illness and a brother’s suicide, The Loop is very much about memory itself, its cyclical nature, its untrustworthiness. For all its concern with darkness, it’s a sunnier branch than “Destruction”—spring has arrived!—since it doesn’t take up the same binary as the earlier book (that is, writing or death).

Still, the golden childhood days that Roubaud describes in The Loop were lived out during the German Occupation, with one parent and one grandparent actively participating in the French Resistance—so the basic tenuousness of life, the fragility of happiness, is never far from our narrator’s mind. What is it, then, about these books—haunted by death, failure, loss, recursion—that so appeals to me?

Firstly, they are funny, charming—effortless and overwhelming all at once. They are not quite novels, not quite memoirs (more precisely, to use Roubaud’s own formulation, they are “not-not” novels . . . that is, they are whatever strange animal we’re left with after a double negative [because, using the logic of the books, a double negation doesn’t necessarily give you the same positive you left behind after adding that initial “not” . . .]). Roubaud is, I think, “our” Proust—though their projects are very different—in that they both employ the form of the novel (explicitly in Proust’s case, circumspectly in Roubaud’s) to examine their memories, and draw conclusions about human life and memory in general.

What the twentieth century has done to our memories—certainly in literature—is undermine them, overcomplicate them, show them to be discontinuous rather than voluptuous and poignant. Where Proust’s narrator finds himself to be extra-temporal through the working of his memory, Roubaud finds himself fractured, finds himself drawn to the places where memory fails, finds himself reflected as much in the gaps of forgetfulness as in the details he has retained.

Too, there’s Roubaud’s style, his mode—borrowed in part from Wittgenstein—the numbered, deadpan “moments of prose,” the bifurcations and interpolations, the focus on the minutiae of life and thought countered with breezy and often hilarious anecdotes. Even in translation, Roubaud’s voice is unique, infectious, addictive.

Thus, in working on The Loop as an aficionado, initially, and then as an editor, with the text itself, I’ve been privileged to be able to focus, in my job, on an overriding personal enthusiasm. The publication of Jeff Fort’s translation of The Loop is, for me, a moment of great satisfaction: a case (probably not so rare) of an editor (or assistant, originally) doing what he can to advance a long-term translation project because he himself is desperate to read the next installment.

I hope, however, I’ve at least hinted here about the importance of Roubaud’s work overall, aside from my own enthusiasm. Dalkey Archive’s edition of The Loop represents a long-overdue step in our language’s appreciation of one of the great works of contemporary western literature—and I’m very happy to make such grandiose claims on the part of a novel so preoccupied with children’s backyard games, the quality of light in an outhouse, and a family of ducks named after the days of the week. To steal from Joyce’s oft-quoted ambition for Dublin, via Ulysses: If the human race were to disappear tomorrow, the paradoxes, insufficiencies, desires, failures, obsessions, repetitions, regrets, chance connections, and dirty jokes in all our minds could be reconstructed using Roubaud’s book as a blueprint. Books like The Loop are what publishing, and translation, are for.

Jeremy M. Davies is an editor at Dalkey Archive Press, the publisher of numerous titles by Roubaud, including The Form of a City Changes Faster, Alas, Than the Human Heart and Hortense In Exile. Jacques Roubaud is a French poet, novelist, mathematician, and member of Oulipo—the workshop of potential literature. Roubaud will be visiting New York to launch this new translation of his work.

Posted in Editors Speak

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