Over at the always interesting Front Table, editor Jeremy Davies has a nice piece about the forthcoming release of Jacques Roubaud’s The Loop, (click to pre-order from Seminary Co-op) the second “branch” in his “Great Fire of London cycle.”
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.
Roubaud’s going to be in New York next week to participate in Oulipo in New York, a series of events highlighting the work of several Oulipo writers, including Ian Monk and Marcel Benabou.
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