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.