Jacques Roubaud

by Marcella Durand

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Download a podcast of Jacques Roubaud reading at the French Embassy in New York.


Photo by Ben Handzo, 2009.

Not many writers write from both the right and left brains, but Jacques Roubaud bridges that chasm much like an expert martial artist—in a way that makes it seem simple.

Or not. Roubaud is an encompassing author. He writes through a full spectrum of the “simple” (i.e. his poetry for children) to mind-bogglingly dense pieces underpinned by mathematical concepts incomprehensible to many left-brained creative folks. After all, the title for his first book was a mathematical symbol—graphic and discrete, yet to explain what it means would take more words than I have been allotted.

Then there’s his life. Child of French Resistance parents. Member of Oulipo, short for the Ouvroir de Litterature Poténtialle, commonly translated as “Workshop for Potential Literature.” Inventor of the “clandestine hunger strike” during his tour of duty in Algiers and translator of Lewis Carroll. University professor of mathematics, but not “a very important one,” as he says, “I didn’t want power!” Survivor of tragedy—World War II, the early death of his wife. Writer through prodigious memory, therefore inevitably grappling with Proust, with whom one senses Roubaud has a wary relationship. But Roubaud himself is now a revered figure in French literature—a postwar writer who, thanks to the ongoing invention of “constraints” demanded by Oulipo, always seems cutting edge, as evinced by some of his books available in English: Hortense in Exile; Hortense Is Abducted; Some Thing Black; The Form of a City Changes Faster, Alas, Than the Human Heart; The Great Fire of London: A Story With Interpolations and Bifurcations; and, most recently, The Loop.

Either Roubaud allows the wiring and the plumbing to show, or draws over it a perfect veneer of simplicity. Strangely, sometimes jarringly, his language can veer toward the winsome, a light joke, silliness, croissants, figs, even while he struggles with an engulfing darkness, delivering a stream of words to explode grief, to versify death. He approaches the past with a multitude of linguistic and formal tools, and while he told me that he wrote to destroy memory, I didn’t sense any kind of satisfaction, or resolution. Instead, he seemed to grieve the loss of these memories even as he, like Jean Tinguely, set in motion the destruction of his own creation. How and to where do you move forward, I wanted to know, once you’ve gotten rid of your memories? Whither to? —Marcella Durand


Marcella Durand You have a new book out, The Loop, which is the second volume of a larger project to come out in English. There are four more volumes?

Jacques Roubaud Yes. The word “project” is ambiguous because I call this “the minimal project” that replaced a “bigger project” that I had to abandon long ago, in 1978. Although the “minimal project” is indeed quite huge, but . . .

MD I would love to have seen the original project!

JR There have been seven books published from the “minimal project.” Six of them were published by Éditions du Seuil in France. In October they intend to publish the whole thing in one book.

MD How long will it be?

JR I’m trying to reach 2,009 pages, because it will be published in October, 2009. The publisher says it’s the longest book ever; they’ve just published a translation of a very long book by Thomas Pynchon, but it’s only 1,320 pages—nothing! So, that volume will contain five branches of the project (one of which is in two parts).

MD You mentioned a mathematical volume?

JR Yes, the third part is not a book on mathematics, but one that explains, in a way, my discovery of and my travels with mathematics. That’s why the book is called Mathematics: with a colon. My vision of mathematics is that it’s a unified thing, and so it should be singular. The title in French is Mathématique:. It has a numerical structure, as do the other branches of the project, but there are no mathematical constraints in it at all.

The only formula in it is this: I recount a time I went from my place in Paris to the Gare Saint-Lazare to buy the British Times. I saw that on the front page of The Guardian there appeared a formula, a very famous one for mathematicians because it is the one that intervenes in one of the oldest unsolved problems of mathematics: Fermat’s Last Theorem. I looked at it and thought, Something must have happened! I bought a copy and found out that the theorem had been proven. I was so excited I spent the whole day phoning my mathematician friends, since the news was not known in Paris yet. So, from time to time I try to give my readers some information on things like the problem of Fermat.

MD What does the title of The Loop mean in terms of the structure of the book, its bifurcations and branches?

JR I write every night. I never correct, I never go back—I just go on and on. Everything I speak about is, in a way, linked to the old abandoned project. I want to say something about it, but I digress as soon as I start saying something, because I remember something else that I then begin to explain, and so on. So the structure is a bit meandering. I begin The Loop with a very old childhood image of snow in Carcassonne, where snow is very rare. I’m in my room and it’s very cold outside. At night there’s frost on the windowpane—I write and make pictures on it. So that’s the image: there’s an outer and an inner space, memory and the present. That’s the first image of the book, which at the end, returns to it.

MD I also thought of this book as extending the invitation in The Great Fire of London that the reader trust that events are true as they unfold in your writing.

JR And if they’re not true (I make mistakes), at least the events are told truthfully, as I remember them.

MD There you talk about renku, an endless sequence of haikus—a perpetual form.

JR The difference between The Loop and the haiku and the renku forms in the The Great Fire of London is that there the writing goes on and on, but it never goes back. In The Loop, my memory changes all the time, but from time to time it also goes back. But when I return to a memory, I do not come back to the same point—the memory has changed.

MD But the act of writing makes it true, no? You almost establish the past as a continuous present.

JR Yes, it’s a kind of continuous present, but what’s important is that I speak about things I remember, essentially. However, as I go along, my memory gets worse. Now it’s getting worse very quickly—I don’t know how I’m going to go on. When I started, in 1985, I had forgotten many things, but I had a really good memory of the chronological framework. And for the last three or four years, I’ve been losing that. I phone old friends of mine and ask, for instance, “When were we working in Dijon?” And my friend will answer, “I have completely forgotten and I don’t care to remember at all!” But to know the dates is important because I’m moving chronologically and I have to be sure I’m not remembering things ten years off.

MD And what have you discovered about memory as you’ve written through it?

JR When I was trying to write my big project, I read a lot about memory. I studied the school of scientists doing “ecological memory” and also . . . of course, I’ve forgotten the name . . . Ulric Neisser. These people were not interested in neuroscience or in introspection. Instead, they asked a lot of practical questions like, “What is your first memory?” They reflect on the answer and sometimes discover that it’s impossible to have such an early first memory. One scientist, Marjorie Linton, made an experiment that inspired me. She tried to transcribe all the different memories she had, which came to about 8,000. After that, she said, “When I tried to add another one, I found that it would be one I had already written down and remembered a bit differently. That’s when I stopped.”

MD Did she have an end date? I mean, she creates new memories every day, so—

JR It was just the memories of her past. Wonderful! In the ’60s and ’70s I also read a lot about what was called “the art of memory” in Classical Greece and Rome, and then in medieval times up to the Renaissance. It was such a precise mnemonic technique that the practitioners of the art were able to learn Homer by heart and recite it backward, too. You chose something that you knew very well—your house or the path you took to go to school when you were young—and if you wanted to remember something, lines of a poem or a page of a book, for instance, you placed them there in these spaces you knew well. You associated lines of the poem with various distinct places in your house or on your path.

MD So it’s spatial memory, like an architectural structure or a landscape.

JR Yes, and there were treatises on how to do it, and you had to train. You see, in the 16th century, for instance, books were very large. If you went from one place to another, it was very difficult to bring your whole library with you—especially when you were forced to flee because of religious difficulties or things like that! A famous example of this is that of Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake by the Inquisition.

MD His library was burned.

JR With him! It was all in his mind. He had spent eight years in prison and had theological discussions with Cardinal Bellarmine. He had to prove, by discussion, that he was not a heretic. Everything he knew was in his mind thanks to the art of memory.

So when I wanted to do my big project, I would have done an art of memory. But as I didn’t train in it when I was a child, in The Loop I have abandoned that aim completely and have decided to speak only about my own memory. There are no generalizations. My own memory, how does it work?

MD What did you discover about your own memory?

JR I tried to recover some very important memories of my childhood. When I found an isolated and condensed memory in my mind, I wrote it down—I discovered very quickly that as soon as I did that, I lost it. I didn’t lose it exactly, but when I tried to find it again, what I found was what I had written. You see, it’s exactly like when you are on the beach and you take a very pretty pebble that’s been in the water and it’s brilliant and then it dries up and there’s a film of salt over it and it’s not beautiful anymore—it’s finished. The gleam of it, the light of it, is gone! As for memories, it’s exactly the same. By working like this I destroy my memory.

MD So were there any memories you didn’t write down because you were afraid that—

JR I wanted to destroy my memory, because of some sadness in it. I’m very different from Mr. Marcel Proust, because he wants to recover the past, but the past cannot be recovered.

MD You refer more in your book to the Provençal troubadours from the 12th century. They also practice an art of memory—

JR Yes, they never wrote their poetry, it was transmitted orally. When the troubadour poetry was transcribed, it was beginning to disappear.

MD I’m interested in how you go on. Where is your infinite project now?

JR Another volume in the project, La Dissolution (Dissolution), was published last year. Éditions du Seuil didn’t want to publish it because it was written in nine different colors—it’s a system that’s very complicated to print. I start saying something in black. Then I write something in parenthesis that appears in red and starts further on the right. If I open another parenthesis inside the red section, I begin even further on the right and write in blue. If there’s another parenthetical remark within that, it appears in green. If that continues, then I use brown, gray, pink . . . When I’m done with the asides, I then close all parentheses and go back to the point in black where I had left off.

MD Is this based on any color spectrum or theory?

JR I chose nine colors that I could find easily on my Macintosh. But, in fact, the four main colors—black, red, blue, and green—were not chosen by chance. In the ’60s and ’70s, I read a very interesting book by Berlin and Kay. They had studied the way the color spectrum was represented in the languages of the world. Some languages have only black and white, and between them, there are vast shades of gray. The first new color that appears after black and white is red. And then appears blue. In a lot of languages, the sea is green or blue, but you can’t decide. After that, green appears, and then any other color.

MD What sort of languages?

JR Eskimo, the ancient Greek—that’s why Homer says that the sea is wine colored.

MD Oh, so they only could say colors by comparison, by metaphor.

JR When I decided to write with colors, I chose to respect the evolution of how colors appear in languages. But La Dissolution is not part of the project. It’s the volume where I begin to understand that I’m losing my memory. I was not aware of that before! I knew I was losing memories, but now I’m losing the complete frame of my memory.

MD What do you mean by that?

JR When I speak with friends of mine my own age, they cannot place the events of their life within the events of the outside world. They confuse them. It’s more than personal memories—something global begins to disappear. For me, this began to happen when I reached the fourth book, called Poetry: I began to be conscious that I was forgetting the thousands of lines of poetry that I had learned when I was younger. At night, when I couldn’t sleep, I’d realize suddenly that a line was missing in a poem by Baudelaire. I was able to recreate a false line that had the correct rhyme and number of syllables, but I knew it was not good! When I wrote La Dissolution, I still had sufficient control over my memory to explain how it was disappearing. Now it just vanishes.

MD Where do you fit in French literature? You talk about the troubadours and the Surrealists—what other poets have been important to you?

JR I did as everyone did in my generation: after Victor Hugo, I discovered Baudelaire; after Baudelaire, Rimbaud; after Rimbaud, Apollinaire; and then Breton, Éluard, Aragon—the Surrealists. For ten years I wrote Surrealist poetry. It took a long time for me to understand that it was dreadful. I decided to leave Surrealism completely and to do something that would be anathema to the Surrealists: I was going to write sonnets, sonnets for André Breton. (laughter)

So my first book is a collection of sonnets. I used mathematical models, of course—that’s what I was living with. I had discovered the Japanese game of Go because of my thesis advisor. The first time I went to see him some friends of mine warned me, “On the desk, you’ll see something that you don’t understand: it’s a board with black and white stones. If you ask what it is, you’re done.” So during the years I worked with him, I played Go. Some friends and I—Georges Perec among them—realized that there were not many Go players in France, so in 1969 we recruited players by writing a treatise called “Petit traité invitant à la découverte de l’art subtil du go” (Brief treatise inviting one to discover the subtle art of Go). It’s still in print because it has a lot of jokes that Perec and I wrote in it. So that’s how the game of Go was in my first book of poetry. People were much surprised by it.

MD And when did you meet Raymond Queneau?

JR When I had nearly finished writing the book, I thought, I’d like to publish it, but if I send it to a publisher, they’ll be horrified because the title is the mathematical sign and nobody writes sonnets anymore . . . What to do? I knew that Raymond Queneau was an amateur mathematician. I sent him my manuscript and after two weeks he answered, telling me to come see him at Éditions Gallimard, where he worked. So I went and we had a long discussion about the type of mathematics I was doing, category theory, which was new at the time and represented a completely different way of looking at mathematics than the preceding structure of Bourbaki. After nearly an hour, I said goodbye. As I was leaving he said, “Oh, I forgot to tell you, I like your poems very much and I will present them to the comité de lecture of the prestigious Éditions Gallimard.” When Queneau said something, everyone agreed, so I was published.

The second thing he did was say to me, “You know, things you do—writing with constraints—are very similar to things I do with some friends. We have a group called Oulipo; come and see us.” I went to a meeting of the Oulipo, which was secret at the time. They were quarreling about something that they called the “Dossier Cape.” Oulipo was six years old, and they wanted to publish some of their work. I don’t know why they thought they’d publish with a British publisher, Jonathan Cape. They couldn’t agree on what to put in the dossier and their quarrels had been going on for over a year! At the time lots of Oulipians were great drinkers. In fact, one of the members of the Oulipo, Paul Braffort, who was not living in France at the time, was elected twice because they had forgotten the first time; they were drunk. (laughter)

MD Not very good mathematically!

JR I was the first member who was elected outside of the founding group. The first time I was in a meeting and could speak and understand what was going on, Queneau and François Le Lionnais asked me if I knew whether Georges Perec would be interested in joining. They were interested in him because he had used rhetorical figures from the lectures of Roland Barthes in a book of his. Perec was a friend of mine, so I told them about the sort of Oulipian things he was doing with Marcel Bénabou. It was what they called LSD (Littérature Semo-Définitionelle): You take a sentence: Le presbytère n’a rien perdu de son charme ni le jardin de son éclat. (The presbytery has lost none of its charm, nor the garden its brightness.) For each significant word, you go to a dictionary, and you put the dictionary definition in place of the word, so it becomes something a bit bigger. You go on, and it becomes bigger and bigger, and then you begin to reduce it again, so you arrive at: Prolétaires de tous les pays, unissez-vous! (Workers of the world, unite!). It’s proof by literature, a demonstration “of the lexical equivalence of sharply divergent statements,” and they called that LSD! Queneau and the Oulipians found that very interesting. That’s how Perec—and Bénabou two years later—became members.

MD Do you still regularly attend meetings?

JR Yes! I’ve been to more than 300 now. There’s a meeting every month, even if only one member of the Oulipo is present. Once Harry Mathews was the only attendee; he sent us the minutes for the meeting, including a list of the wines that had been drunk.

MD I interviewed Harry Mathews once and he listed every book he’d read that year—that part of the interview was several pages long! How are new members chosen?

JR There is a very important rule for us: you cannot be a member of the Oulipo if you are a candidate to be a member of the Oulipo. (laughter) If one of us has read something that seems interesting, then we all read it, discuss it, and try to come to an agreement—the decision must be unanimous. It takes a long time because the older members don’t want to read new things. I remember the election of Anne Garréta. We had read her novel Sphinx, a book in which she does something we hadn’t done: a kind of semantic Oulipo. It’s a love story, but when you read it, you cannot tell if the protagonist is a boy or a girl, since she took out all the words that could indicate gender. When you read the book you decide the characters’ gender for yourself. The critics did exactly that: to some, it’s about a boy meeting a girl; to others, it’s a girl meeting a boy, a boy meeting a boy, or a girl meeting a girl. We thought this was wonderful, so we wanted to invite Anne to be a member. We faced two difficulties: some of the founding members were misogynists and anti-boche, because of World War II. Yet one of the founders, François Le Lionnais, was neither, although he had been in a camp.

MD Oh, he was?

JR He had been in the resistance and was captured, so he spent time in a terrible camp, at Dora, where they were preparing the V2 that would send bombs over England. He had decided, against the other members, that there should be a woman in the Oulipo, so he promoted Michèle Métail.

MD Whom I’ve been translating for years.

JR Wonderful! She was the first female member, a long time ago.

MD There is Michelle Grangaud as well.

JR Yes, yes. When it came to electing Anne Garréta, we had a new president called Noël Arnaud, who had retired in the South of France. We sent him her book, and after months of not hearing from him, one of us phoned to ask what he thought about it. “We sent it to you six months ago! Please have a look at it!” So, after a very long time, he went, “Well, of course, I haven’t read it but it looks good so let’s invite her into the Oulipo.” (laughter)

MD Is she the most recent member?

JR There have been lots since then. We elected, just before coming to New York, Daniel Levin Becker, who’s American and 25. He’s the youngest member. We have a problem finding new mathematician members. You know, for Le Lionnais, any human activity using language could be an ouvroir, and therefore an Ou-x-Po, with x being anything. There is a group for painting, at least three for music, and a very interesting one called OuBaPo, which is about comics.

MD Someone was showing me a comics version of Queneau’s Exercises in Style.

JR Yes, it’s very good. There must be mathematicians in Oulipo. I am an example; Claude Berge, a founding member, was a world-famous mathematician who didn’t write at all, he only proposed structures for us to use.

MD Now, in The Loop you write that every time you finish a constraint-based project, you say, “Never again, I’m done with it!” How do you start again developing constraints?

JR Ah, it’s terribly tiring! For instance, I have just finished a work for a catalog of an exhibition at the Musée de la Prehistoire near Paris and I chose a very difficult constraint. I worked on it for months. I decided to invent a new form after studying the work of artist Jean-Paul Marcheschi. His work is based on an archetypal image: the Black Pharaoh, a huge statue he made. The poetical form is based on a card game called Pharaoh, inspired by a card game played in ancient Egypt. It’s related to the shuffling of cards used by poker players, magicians, tricksters, and detectives.

MD Detectives?! (laughter)

JR Yes, it’s getting more and more sophisticated. They use computers and mathematical structures to have more and more shuffles and more ways to cheat and to do magic tricks. I used that system of shuffling the cards to define a poetical form that shuffles rhyming words—I called it the “pharoëne.”

MD Are you ever tempted to do a form that incorporates chaos theory or fractals?

JR If it is used seriously, it implies infinity, because you have a structure inside a structure inside a structure, and so on. It’s not the direction in which Oulipo goes—we try a finite number of structures, and very small numbers, too, and even with that we can do very difficult things. But it’s not necessary to be aware of them.

You see, there are three very different ways in which Oulipo works. In some cases, you have to know the constraints in order to enjoy the book. If you don’t know that there is no letter E in Perec’s A Void you miss the point. In another book of Perec’s, Life, A User’s Manual, there are lots of constraints, but you don’t need to know about them to read the novel. The third kind of constraint is a secret one which the reader is invited to try to discover. It’s a bit like a detective novel.

MD Translating Michèle Métail, I’m plagued that there’s one more constraint that I haven’t figured out.

I think I’ve gotten them all, but then . . .

But, just to go back, there’s one question I forgot to ask you. You were talking before about connecting your personal memory with global events and then going back into World War II. Did you find many divergences between what you were—

JR What I remember is what I learned from my parents and grandparents. My maternal grandmother was a member of the Resistance, and her name is on the list of people who saved Jews during the war.

MD You had some trouble getting memories out of your mother, right?

JR Yes, she did and didn’t want to talk about her youth. It was quite difficult to extract some of her memories.

MD And remembering World War II?

JR There are three essential books for me to understand what happened at the camps: If This Is a Man by Primo Levi; The Human Race by the Frenchman Robert Antelme; and Painting at Dora, a small text that Le Lionnais wrote when he came back from deportation. To survive in the camp he decided he had to exercise his mind, so with a few friends he gave lectures to the people there waiting in the cold for the Nazis to send them to work. He tried to reconstruct from memory the paintings in the Louvre. It’s a beautiful text!

I met Primo Levi once. He was a friend of Italo Calvino, who was a member of the Oulipo. We were both at a meeting in Torino after Calvino’s early death; it was a few months before he himself died. He was a very nice man, very soft-spoken. At dinner he recounted a terrible experience he had just had. He had been invited to a high school in Rome to speak about his experience during the war, and he said that the students could not understand why he and his friends had not taken the Nazis’ guns and killed them. They knew only the Rambo movies. He could not make them understand that it had been impossible to resist. A few months later, I heard that he had committed suicide.

MD It’s awful. It’s hard for my generation, even, to understand . . . We see the malaise, but—

JR Yes, but those books give us an inkling. It’s been pointed out that there were a few novelists in France who were with Vichy and in favor of the Nazis, but virtually no poets. The poets were usually in the Resistance. I’m very proud of that.

MD World War II casts a long shadow. My father was about three years old during the war in France, and he’s still affected. He remembers the Americans giving out chocolate.

JR Yes! After the war my father was in the parliament assembled by de Gaulle to reestablish the institution of the Republic. That’s why we moved to Paris, which was a tragedy for me—it was so cold; I didn’t like it.

There was nothing to eat during the first years. My father went to Germany with the French troops, so he met some Americans there. He came back home with some rations that the GIs gave him. I remember some tiny capsules of cod liver oil. I loved it!

MD You must have been desperate.

JR He came back with paperbacks, too. I was beginning to learn English at that time, and there was a book I never forgot, it was called The Pocket Book of Boners.

MD Of boners?

JR “Boners” were mistakes done by students. I loved that book! It had things supposedly written by children while doing their school papers, such as: “The Duke of Marlborough never started a battle without the firm determination to win or lose.” There were hundreds of them, probably most of them invented, but they were good! (laughter)

MD When did you serve your army time?

JR During the Algerian War. I didn’t want to do it, but I didn’t want to be an objector either. So I refused to become an officer. As I was a mathematician, I was part of a special group that was present during the first French nuclear explosion, in the Sahara in Algeria. We were to study the winds and the meteorological forecasts, and decide whether to have the explosion or not.

MD That must have been an unbelievable experience.

JR It was frightening.

MD What year was this?

JR 1961. It was really frightening—we had a book about the effects of the explosions with data taken in Hiroshima. We had to calculate what the fallout would be one mile away and two miles away and five miles away, and were very careful. I had to serve a second time in Algeria, and I really wanted to get back to Paris. So I decided to go on a hunger strike, but privately, so no one should know. After a while not eating, I swooned during a drill, so they sent me to the hospital, where they couldn’t find anything wrong. I was sent back, and I swooned again. This time they decided I was mad, so they sent me to a hospital in Algiers. There a doctor thought that I’d better go back to Paris, where I was referred to a very famous doctor—Dr. Lacan! I was released thanks to him—a narrow escape! I went out into the street in uniform and met my daughter. All the children waiting for soldiers to be released would chant, “La quille! La quille!”—soldier slang equivalent to the British “Demob!” I am the inventor of the “clandestine hunger strike,” my very first constraint.

—Marcella Durand’s most recent collections of poetry are Traffic & Weather and AREA, both published in 2008. She is currently working on translating Michèle Métail’s Les horizons du sol/Earth’s Horizons, a history of the geological formation of Marseille written within an Oulipian formal constraint.

World War II
Experimental writing
Oulipo (Association)
BOMB 108
Summer 2009
The cover of BOMB 108