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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Fragments of Lichtenberg

by
Pierre Senges


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Fragments of Lichtenberg



Title: Fragments of Lichtenberg
Author: Pierre Senges
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 454 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Fragments of Lichtenberg - US
Fragments of Lichtenberg - UK
Fragments of Lichtenberg - Canada
Fragments de Lichtenberg - Canada
Fragments of Lichtenberg - India
Fragments de Lichtenberg - France
  • French title: Fragments de Lichtenberg
  • Translated by Gregory Flanders

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Our Assessment:

A- : impressively creative spin on life and literature

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Libération . 17/4/2008 Philippe Lançon
Le Monde . 13/6/2008 Jean-Luc Douin


  From the Reviews:
  • "Ces tours et détours permettent à Senges d'explorer les oeuvres qu'il aime, mais aussi toutes les possibilités humaines de les détruire. Chemin faisant, il essaie toujours, suivant un désir de Lichtenberg, de «trouver l'idée qui ferait mourir de rire celui qui l'entend»." - Philippe Lançon, Libération

  • "Avec sa verve ludique et encyclopédique, il livre donc ici ce qu'il sait de Lichtenberg et ce qu'il a déniché au fil de son oeuvre labyrinthique. Le fameux mathématicien, théoricien de la foudre, expert en astronomie, botanique, sciences dures et liberté de penser, apparaît comme un collectionneur de pyjamas, amateur de pâté de lièvre, asthmatique et hypocondriaque, suicidaire." - Jean-Luc Douin, Le Monde

  Quotes:
  • "This is no mere literary game: what hides behind all this is a deep observation of the links between oneís age and oneís culture; a subtle reflection on the construction of canon, schools, and literary cults that structures our idea of great literature and thus closes our mind to a more dynamic, alternative, or revisionist view (.....) Fragments de Lichtenberg is Sengesí masterwork, the exhilarating novel of a great stylist, a baroque writer that shows us the encyclopedic novel is not an old manís game." - François Monti, The Quarterly Conversation (7/12/2009)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799) was, among other things, a scientist - and no mere dabbler either: he was a professor at the Göttingen University. Yet he, and his work -- notably the famous Sudelbücher, a collection of some eight thousand scraps or aphorisms (a selection of which have been published as The Waste Books, in a translation by R.J.Hollingdale; New York Review Books, Amazon.com) -- defy easy, clear (or scientific) classification. Pierre Senges' Lichtenberg-book -- that, at least, it can safely be called -- is similarly difficult to categorize. Dalkey Archive Press (accurately) presents the English translation as 'Fiction' (in its 'French Literature Series'), but its Dewey class identification number (838.609) will lead dutiful librarians to shelve it somewhere in Goethe's vicinity, on the historical literature shelves; the Library of Congress classification (PT2423.L4 Z91313) puts it similarly deep in German-literature territory, rather than in the contemporary French literature section -- subject-matter apparently prevailing over form.
       One can see how misunderstandings might arise: Fragments of Lichtenberg is a novel, but hardly straightforwardly so. It is a study of Lichtenberg and his work -- yet one that is far too freely imagined to be considered academically sound or 'reliable'. There's a great deal of invention here -- not just interpretation to the nth degree, but actual fabulation (not that literary scholars don't often indulge in that as well as they read into works and lives ...) -- and yet the result is a profound (if not, in the academic sense, exemplary) scholarly meditation on Lichtenberg and his work. This is not fictional biography -- nothing like most fictional biography, in fact -- and yet the picture of Lichtenberg readers are left with is likely a more complete one of the man and his work than can be found in any traditional (or other fictional) biography.
       In at one point briefly recounting the life of Callimachus, "the cataloger of the library of Alexandria", Senges concludes with the parenthetical confession:

This, of course, is the legendary version of his life, but it's probably also the truest
       The same might well be said about Senges' much more elaborate Lichtenberg-story.
       The novel both focuses on the 'fragments of Lichtenberg' -- the eight thousand "fragments of prose" he left behind -- and is presented in fragmented form, in short chapters focused on different aspects of his life and work, as well as on posthumous efforts dealing with the work. Many of these chapters themselves are continuations of one line of thought or history -- the ongoing chapters on the 'History of the Lichtenbergians', for example -- with new installments interspersed in the novel at irregular intervals, while different facets of Lichtenberg's life and career are brought up in not necessarily chronological order. In other words, the narrative shifts every few pages, between the factual, analytic, and invented, cycling repeatedly through certain of them.
       There is a great deal of simple biographical detail -- the facts, as they were. Aspects of these are often considered more closely (or broadly) -- and often not those one might expect. So, for example, Lichtenberg was hunchbacked, and Senges offers numerous 'Variations on Gibbosity '-chapters, featuring Lichtenberg's condition and some of the possible consequences of it.
       If Senges remains relatively true-to-life with the biographical detail, he nevertheless quickly moves to wild invention and speculation in the other major thread of the narrative, specifically the chapters concerned with 'the Lichtenbergians' and what they make of Lichtenberg's literary waste-paper legacy. Specifically, he posits the formation of a group, the Society of the Lichtenberg Archives -- in part Nobel-funded, no less ! -- dedicated to the study of these works. They are driven, in particular, by conjectures about the work: first there's:
The conjecture of Sax supposes, let's remember, that the eight thousand fragments attributed to Georg Christoph Lichtenberg are actually pieces of a single, immense work (an Immense Whatsit, anyway), to be referred to as the Great Novel
       Years are spent trying to piece together the fragments in the 'correct' order, in order to (re)create the work Lichtenberg actually conceived. It makes for a bizarre exercise with seemingly endless potential:
One fragment can be lead to another by guile, misinterpretation, allusion, implication, digression upon digression, or all kinds of narrative shift, because we've lost the proper order of the whole.
       (Senges' novel, as presented, isn't nearly this disorganized, yet there certainly a lot of this to it too .....)
       This conjecture is followed by another, which finds even greater potential in Lichtenberg's eight thousand pieces:
     The conjecture of Sax supposed a single Great Novel that had to be reconstructed by a game of combinations -- the conjecture of Mulligan accepts that nine-tenths of the work has already disappeared into the limbo of ashes. This means that instead of an anagram (too simple), the fragments must be set down, here and there, between great voids, like islands of Micronesia lost in the Pacific.
       Imagining that the eight thousand left-over fragments represent just a tenth of Lichtenberg's original great work, they try to fill in the blanks. This also means that: "If the fragments represent the remains of something, anything can happen" -- and Senges imagines pretty much just that, describing eminent Lichtenbergians conceiving large-scale works behind the fragments: another Thousand and One Nights, a Lichtenberg Decameron, a work on Ovid in Rome, a variation on the Noah's Ark story, another take on Robinson Crusoe, or even Snow White's Eighth Dwarf.
       Regardless of whether or not Lichtenberg actually was (or meant to be) the author a roman-fleuve, Senges shows his work had the potentiality for it -- and with a series of chapters that consider 'How to break up a roman-fleuve' shows also the potential in the un-doing of his (or any) work.
       Senges builds on some of the fragments -- and Fragments of Lichtenberg includes several hundred bits of marginalia, much (though far from all) of it verbatim Lichtenberg's fragments -- notably:
For heaven's sake, don't let me write a book about books. [D 205]
       And:
Putting the finishing touches on one's work means to burn it [F 173]
       Senges' work is also an anti-Lichtenberg -- if not entirely whole (for what can be entirely whole ?), the fragment-chapters pieced together here are nevertheless nearly exhaustive, the material mined to its very ends, even if not all of it is ultimately spelled out: à la Borges he offers précis of the grandly imagined works, if not the works themselves.
       Senges also suggests:
     Some imagined Lichtenberg as a parody of humanity (anyone, everyone, you or me), but clearly he should be seen as a parody of Goethe: a satire in the present tense, right there in front of you, evolving as needed, portraying first what Goethe is today, while he's still young, and then what he'll become, and finally his last years and death.
       Senges' Lichtenberg finds it hard to take Goethe, especially Goethe-as-(would-be-)scientist, seriously, and the figures are stark contrasts, their differences accentuated by Senges. Indeed, Senges' Lichtenberg is very much a counter-Goethe -- extending also to the posthumous scholarship surrounding the German master. (In fact, Senges begins his novel by sending and setting up Goethe in a hilarious revisionist death-bed scene, Goethe's immortal last words -- "Mehr Licht" ('More light') supposed to in fact also be fragmentary, Goethe unable to get the last two syllables out .....)
       Fragments of Lichtenberg is a satire of (literary) scholarship of the past two centuries or so -- and sharp and funny as such -- but that's also just one of the angles. Senges revels in the idea of a Great Novel (marked in no small part by its heft, a necessary part of the proof of its greatness) -- and this too is meant to be a Great Novel, if not on the grandest scale. A novel of novels, too -- even if they themselves are figments, based on elusive fragments that perhaps were never meant to have more meaning than each already held on its own.
       Perhaps it all amounts to an exercise proving one of Lichtenberg's own explanations:
I must write in order to learn to appreciate on my own the extent of the chaos within me. [J 1842]
       Senges approach is very different from Lichtenberg's -- expansive, rather than succinct -- but similarly revealing (and similarly leaving much up to readers, to make of it what they will).
       Fragments of Lichtenberg is dizzyingly entertaining, very funny -- and a surprisingly good introduction to Lichtenberg and his work. It is the best sort of literary fantasy, and an entertaining satire of (so-called) literary scholarship.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 August 2015

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Links:

Fragments of Lichtenberg: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Pierre Senges was born in 1968.

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© 2015-2017 the complete review

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