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Jacques Roubaud: Le Grand Incendie de Londres (The Great Fire of London)

This book is not about the Great Fire of London. It does, albeit very briefly, mention it, right at the very end with excerpts (in English, in the French text) from John Evelyn’s diary and from An Historical Narrative of the Great and Terrible Fire of London. Nor is this book a novel. It is, rather, a book about an attempt to write a novel, called The Great Fire of London, an attempt which fails. Two key things prompted its writing. The first was the death of his wife, Alix. The second was a dream he had.

In this dream, I was coming out of the London tube. I was in a great hurry and there was a grey rain. I was getting ready for a new life, a joyous freedom. I had to fathom the mystery, after detailed research. I remember a double-decker bus and a young lady (red-haired?) under an umbrella. When I awoke, I thought that I would write a novel whose title would be The Great Fire of London and that I would retain this dream as long a possible. I am noting it here for the first time. This happened nineteen years ago.

(Note that all translations are my translation from the original French and not what appears in the published English text.)

The author had tried to develop a project called The Great Fire of London but it did not work, so he ended up writing this book called The Great Fire of London, which is not about the Great Fire of London but about his attempts to write The Great Fire of London and his failure to do so. It is not particularly easy reading. He describes in great and sometimes boring detail his attempts to write. He describes getting up in the early hours to write. He describes the notebook he uses, the paper he uses, his breakfast and many other other such details. He goes off on a variety of tangents. These include his childhood, his life with his late wife, and his travels, particularly to London and the United States. We learn a lot about his reading. Roubaud was not only a novelist but also a mathematician and poet. Both of these come into this book, though he makes it clears that mathematics is subordinate to poetry. In particular, he discusses his poetry reading – English, old French, Spanish, Russian and Japanese. Indeed, he seems something of a polyglot. He certainly speaks English well – he calls it his quasi-mother tongue (with Provençal as his quasi-father tongue) and reads the Times Literary Supplement from cover to cover every week, as well as reading obscure works of Trollope. Poetry had been his main interest but is less so now. He used to read it aloud to his wife but as that is no longer possible, he finds it less interesting.

In writing this work, he states that he is writing it imitating a novel, whose form I partially use but goes on to state that there is no fixed or continuous structure and that he reserves the right to have new beginnings, interpolations and bifurcations and a tangled network of stories, all of which he ends up doing. There is no plot, no secret because there is no blood on the floor. In short, this is not your conventional plot-driven novel. He gives a long list of the different principles that guide his writing of this work, most of which seem tortuous and often incomprehensible but some make a lot of sense, for example the idea that this novel is the fictionalisation of poetry. Ultimately, this book is about the author examining himself and about examining the writing of the novel, without actually writing novel.

Does it work? Not entirely, because it is somewhat tortuous and somewhat tedious. Nevertheless, it is an interesting idea. Examining the process of writing a novel without actually writing one, exploring the meaning of a novel without actually having a novel to which meaning is attached and trying to make sense of the process of writing are all worthwhile literary themes that need to be explored. I would not want every novel I read to be like this but I am glad to have read this one, as it did make me think in a way I do not normally think when reading a novel. We once again have to thank the wonderful Dalkey Archive Press for making this available in English.

Publishing history

First published in French 1989 by Seuil
First published in English 1991 by Dalkey Archive Press
Translated by Dominic Di Bernardi