The Great Fire of London

Overview

Part novel and part autobiography, The Great Fire of London is one of the great literary undertakings of the last fifty years. At various times exasperating, daunting, moving, dazzling, and challenging, it has its origins in Jacques Roubaud's attempt to come to terms with the death of his young wife Alix, whose presence both haunts and gives meaning to every page. Having failed to write his intended novel ("The Great Fire of London"), instead he creates a book that is about that failure, but in the process opens ...
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Overview

Part novel and part autobiography, The Great Fire of London is one of the great literary undertakings of the last fifty years. At various times exasperating, daunting, moving, dazzling, and challenging, it has its origins in Jacques Roubaud's attempt to come to terms with the death of his young wife Alix, whose presence both haunts and gives meaning to every page. Having failed to write his intended novel ("The Great Fire of London"), instead he creates a book that is about that failure, but in the process opens up the world of the creative process, which is at once an attempt to bring order to his ravaged personal life and to construct an intricate literary project that functions according to strict rules, one of them being the palindrome. But rather than a confessional novel about himself and his wife, Roubaud follows in the tradition of the troubadours, where the objects of grief and love are identified obliquely and through literary artifice. At all times, Alix and his anguished loss of her are paramount, but usually couched or disguised by the writer's obsessive need to filter that anguish through reflections of the art of writing.
The Great Fire of London consists of a main text ("story") and two sets of digressions ("interpolations" and "bifurcations"). Roubaud's novel stands as a lyrical counterpart of those great postmodern masterpieces by fellow Oulipians Georges Perec ("Life A User's Manual") and Italo Calvino ("If on a winter's night a traveler"). It is destined to take its place as one of the key enterprises of the last half century.

"Roubaud's book is remarkable. . . . The Great Fire of London is an entirely sympathetic book to read, but in its careful organization it is also a heartening one, as showing the power of artifice to manage even the keenest of distress." (John Sturrock, Times Literary Supplement 5-12-89)

"There is a mouth-watering description of the ideal croissant; a winsome self-portrait of the artist as an inveterate walker, swimmer, counter and reader; a paen to English women novelists; an evocation of London as a world of libraries and bookstores; bits of unexpected wisdom . . . interesting information about medieval poetry; and a heart-breaking evocation of the deepest sorrow, made all the more powerful because Roubaud refuses to speak directly of Alix's death." (Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World 8-25-91)

"Roubaud writes lucidly and often entertainingly about whatever interests him, and the thoroughness of his scholarship is evident. Students of avant-garde prose will find The Great Fire fascinating, but those who don't care about schools of writing and just want to enjoy heartfelt, intelligent literature leavened with humor will be pleased with it as well." (San Diego Tribune 12-20-91)

"Engaging, challenging, and a pleasure to read." (American Book Review Feb-March 92)

" The dream origins of the title, the emotioanl and intellectual states that accompanied the writing, the relationship that the narrator sees between writing and imagination, memory, and perspective all form part of the fabric of [The Great Fire of London]." (World Literature Today Spring 90)

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This challenging book is not a novel but the ruins of a novel: a few sentences of the preface and the struts of a theoretical framework are all that remain of 20 years' work. After dreaming the title in 1961, Roubaud worked out a system of constraints-- based on mathematics and troubador poetics-- which were to form the substructure of his novel. The system was worthy of a mathematics professor and member of Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (Oulipo), the literary workshop where Georges Perec cultivated his lipograms and Raymond Queneau his combinatory literature. But when Roubaud's young wife, Alix, died in 1983, the novel ceased to be an intellectual quest and became rather a way of nullifying time. Remnants of the original recondite artifice remain embedded in Roubaud's new conceit, his ``unedited-prose constraint,'' i.e., writing by placing one line after another without attempting to ``erase, replace, correct on the spot . . . this initial language deposit.'' Through this relentless prose and various asides--the ``interpolations and bifurcations''--Roubaud describes university haunts, old lovers, Pooh, making azarole jam, the British Library, himself, his work and the often unspoken but pervasive presence of the dead Alix, whose spirit tempers this demanding book. (July.)
Library Journal
Only those willing to set aside all preconceptions of what a novel is should take on this book. Roubaud's goal is to obliterate the novel as a form and replace it with a multilayered, multistyled collection of ``moments,'' complete with additional musings appended in ``interpolations and bifurcations.'' The resulting complexity is needless, often frustrating, and only justifiable stylistically, for there is no story or linear narrative in this work. In destroying this aspect, the author clearly achieves his goal. What is left, then, is a book relating the death of a story and focusing on the writer's inability to produce the story. While other writers may find this interesting, general readers certainly will not. Perhaps never before has ``nothing'' been rendered so problematically. Roubaud, himself a mathematician, should know how to express it with one sign.-- Paul E. Hutchison, Pequea, Pa.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780916583767
  • Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
  • Publication date: 7/1/1991
  • Pages: 330
  • Product dimensions: 6.45 (w) x 9.36 (h) x 1.21 (d)

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