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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Great Fire of London

Jacques Roubaud

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To purchase The Great Fire of London

Title: The Great Fire of London
Author: Jacques Roubaud
Genre: Novel
Written: 1989 (Eng. 1991)
Length: 330 pages
Original in: France
Availability: The Great Fire of London - US
The Great Fire of London - UK
The Great Fire of London - Canada
Le grand incendie de Londres - Canada
The Great Fire of London - India
Le grand incendie de Londres - France
  • a story with interpolations and bifurcations
  • French title: Le grand incendie de Londres
  • Translated and with an afterword by Dominic Di Bernardi

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Our Assessment:

A- : often fascinating, clever, and moving multi-layered text

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Book Review . 2/1992 .
The Washington Post . 25/8/1991 Michael Dirda
World Lit. Today . Spring/1990 Emile J. Talbot

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The complete review's Review:

       The Great Fire of London is many things -- a metafiction, one might warily call it. It is a story with interpolations and bifurcations. It is a book about writing, as Roubaud conceives but never fully realizes his grand "Project". It is an autobiography. Skillfully constructed, it is a lively (and challenging) read.
       The bulk of the book -- two thirds of it -- is taken up by the six chapters that make up the "Story", most of which consists of relatively straightforward narrative. Throughout the story there are references to "Insertions" -- the interpolations and bifurcations that are found at the end of the book. There are numerous interpolations. They are like long notes, generally elaborating on the text, offering additional asides and information. The bifurcations -- of which there are far fewer -- are other branches, other possibilities from the text. The book thus does involve some turning back and forth to the different sections, but, while multiple bookmarks are recommended, it is not excessively irritating
       Among the foci of the book is Roubaud's own efforts to write -- his Project, as well as The Great Fire of London ("distinct from the Project itself although fitting into it"). And the book is also an attempt to come to terms with the death of his wife, Alix.
       Memory haunts Roubaud. Memory, especially, of Alix, is almost too much for him. He sticks closely to routine, as if there were some safety and reassurance there, but he finds it almost impossible to move on -- to write.
       "I've devoted myself to the enterprise of destroying my memory", Roubaud explains in one of the first interpolations But memory is hardier than that: his recollection "is here, it exists, and is dead." Memory and remembrance bubble to the surface throughout: bits of autobiography and the memory of books read, especially.
       In the table of contents, between the entry for Preface and the first section (Story) a centered line announces: BRANCH ONE: DESTRUCTION. In the actual text then, between the preface and the first section of the story, there is no such notice. Throughout the book, however, Roubaud acknowledges that there "innumerable branches" to the story (and indeed to the whole project), most obviously in the bifurcations. And so the whole book is also just one such branch -- the first, and perhaps most significant, but only one. It -- "destruction" -- is what Roubaud had to get out of his system first.

       Throughout the book Roubaud is working on his Project, as well as The Great Fire of London -- but he finds himself at a standstill. In the preface he announces already: "I know that The Great Fire of London has not been written because the Project has failed, because it was destined to fail." So the book the reader holds in his or her hands is a story of that failure, of that attempt to write that is ultimately unsuccessful. Only, of course, not entirely so (the reader is, after all, holding a book in his or her hands).
       Initially Roubaud focusses on -- or, it seems, gets sidetracked by -- the mundane and the seemingly trivial. He considers the ideal croissant (and suggests Roubaud's Law of Butter Croissants), explains that he named his typewriters after Henry James' secretary (Miss Bosanquet), and discusses the difficulties of making azarole jelly. All this is not quite as far-fetched as it seems: it, and the many other asides thrown in, do have to do with the problem at hand, the attempt to write.
       Early on he admits:

While advancing into the prose I encounter at almost every step the impossibility of maintaining a simple linear progress, of guiding it in a single direction.
       Hence the need for parenthetical asides, interpolations, and bifurcations. By and large his approach works well, the divergent, far-flung story making for a coherent whole.
       Roubaud recognizes:
It's clear that whatever the prose-related reasons may have been (to stall for time or to exhort) that I had given myself for undertaking this writing, love for Alix was its overriding purpose
       Alix only slowly surfaces as a pivotal figure, but, in fact, she is a presence throughout the book. Obviously deeply loved and much missed, she is tenderly handled throughout the book.
       "I am a counter", mathematician Roubaud emphasizes, and he goes through life counting. "Numbers incessantly pervade this prose", he also admits. So to with Alix: he knew her for 1178 days, and he "correlates one day of grief with each day of her love", finding (or creating) parallels and bifurcations. His approaches are often unusual, but no less effective for that.
       Much of the presentation of The Great Fire of London is somewhat experimental -- the cross-references and the like, the number-fixations -- but the pieces are generally fairly straightforward. The six chapters of the Story each differ, but only the fifth -- "Dream, Decision, Project" -- poses real challenges. The first sub-chapter heading already announces: "This chapter is a bit difficult". It has a
(...) peculiar ambition, namely, to perform a type of elliptical deduction using as its springboard the dream that marks the beginnings of my twofold endeavor (Novel and Project), the distant cause of what you are reading here.
       With maxims and axioms and Oulipian twists Roubaud works his way from dream to project -- a somewhat bumpy ride. It comes together nicely, though, if patiently allowed to unfold -- and closes stunningly, the last words: "I fill up a page: with silence."
       Elsewhere he offers more straightforward remembrances and analysis. He focusses on himself in the "Portrait of the Absent Artist", while the last chapter describes his love of and need for London.
       Books are also of great importance. Roubaud sees himself as a reader (and emphatically not as a book-collector). He is a Homo lisens, and can go nowhere without a book. He offers numerous anecdotes and descriptions of his book-obsession (which again also reflect back on his writing-efforts).

       The Great Fire of London is a grand book: large and ambitious (even in acknowledged failure), but also very personal and touching. Occasionally it bogs down in the writing about writing, but on the whole it is a very enjoyable read.

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The Great Fire of London: Reviews: Jacques Roubaud: OuLiPo: Other books by Jacques Roubaud under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Jacques Roubaud was born in 1932. He has been a member of Oulipo since 1966. He is a professor of mathematics, and has published both poetry and fiction.

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