The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Spotlight on … Jacques Roubaud The Loop (1993)


‘Jacques Roubaud is a playful, puzzling, erudite, at times obscure, yet at other times thoroughly moving “composer” (as he puts it) of poetry and prose. An algebraist by trade (he long professed mathematics at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and now directs research at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales), Roubaud has surpassed all other French writers (with the possible exceptions of his mentor, Raymond Queneau, and his late sidekick, the ingenious Georges Perec) in entwining these two disparate manifestations of human mind: on the one hand writing, which try as it might can hardly avoid dealing with experienced feelings, memory, perceived reality; and on the other hand mathematics, which involves not only numbers and calculations (Roubaud likens himself to a “counter”), but also vertiginous logical constructs. Like the East and West of Kipling, can the twain ever really meet?

‘In Roubaud they do, impressively and instructively. From his first book, Mathematics (1967), of which the mathematical symbol for “belonging” entitles a volume of multiform “sonnets” arranged according to the moves in a masters match of the Japanese game of go, Roubaud emerged as an original voice. Not surprisingly, the author of subsequent collections such as Mono no aware (1970), Trente et un au cube (1973) and Autobiographie, chapitre dix (1977) is not only a resourceful connoisseur of the history of poetic forms, but also a member of Oulipo, the French “Workshop of Potential Literature,” a group of writers and mathematicians which was founded in 1960 by Queneau and François Le Lionnais and still remains active today. As Roubaud explains in his provocative collection of theoretical dialogues about poetry and fiction, Poesie, etcetera: menage (1995), never has a literary movement lasted so long in the history of French writing.

‘Oulipians use self-imposed formal “constraints” when writing, the most renowned example being Perec’s “e”-less novel La Disparition (1969; translated as A Void). Sometimes Oulipian constraints are geometric, algebraic or numerological; the plot of Perec’s opus magnum, La Vie mode d’emploi (1978; translated as Life A User’s Manual), is engendered by means of calculations based on a “10×10 magic square.” Other constraints may be “thematic,” such as Jacques Jouet’s recent exploit of penning a poem per day about a turnip, an experiment that lasted four years; or “chronological,” such as Roubaud’s writing of a certain recurrent type of passage in his innovatively autobiographical La Grande Incendie de Londres (1989; translated as The Great Fire of London) only in the wee hours of the morning, accompanied—in a striking image of inner desolation—by a lukewarm bowl of instant coffee. Some Oulipians give a spin to an entire literary genre. Roubaud’s witty “Hortense series” (La Belle Hortense, 1985, translated as Our Beautiful Heroine; L’Enlèvement d’Hortense, 1987, translated as Hortense Is Abducted; L’Exil d’Hortense, 1990, translated as Hortense in Exile), for example, concocts a wacky pastiche of the English detective novel—if “pastiche” is a word indeed wild enough to embrace the perpetually disarming “distancing effects” sustained by the author in this trilogy. The reader is made so aware that he is holding a “detective novel” that the “enigma” becomes less a “plot” than a series of evolving narrative structures. The genuine contents are at several removes from the “suspenseful action.” …

‘The harrowing force of Some Thing Black, of parts of The Great Fire of London and its sequel La Boucle (1993; the title refers to a “loop,” as in the language of computer sciences), indeed derives from remittent failures to get beyond the brute facts of death, to surpass the painful recurrences of memory, to attain consolation, to enter into some sort of communion with his beloved. Nor can any tangible hope long be placed in some other “possible world,” a topic explored in the poetry collection La Pluralite des mondes de Lewis (1991; translated as The Plurality of Worlds of Lewis), a philosophically far-reaching sequel to Some Thing Black. “Each time I think of you,” he laments in The Plurality of Worlds of Lewis, “you cease to be.” The paradox is typically haunting. Roubaud is left alone with “all you never anymore are,” a phrase which, in both the original and Rosmarie Waldrop’s version, gives out a melodious Beckett-like sigh.

‘It is in this confrontation between emotion and constraining form, between a pre-planned literary-mathematical structure and the painful vicissitudes of personal history, that Roubaud’s writings raise so many essential questions. Most of the books written since his wife’s death revolve around phenomena of memory, and in this respect he forges a different model of remembering than that underlying the unavoidable landmark for French (and other) writers in this domain: Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. In contrast to Proust’s notion of memory as expanding from some small, insignificant detail (like a madeleine cookie, of which the author of The Great Fire of London must surely be thinking when he in turn brilliantly describes a fresh croissant), Roubaud conceives recollecting as a sort of “forest” in which branches and twigs of clustered trees overlap and intertwine.’ — John Taylor, Context



Georges Perec & Jacques Roubaud

Alix Cléo & Jacques Roubaud

Jacques Roubaud & Jacques Derrida

Pierre Dumayet & Jacques Roubaud

Members of Oulipo, 1975: Italo Calvino, Harry Mathews, Francois de Lionnais, Raymond Queneau, Jean Queval, Claude Berge, Jacques Roubaud, Paul Fournel, Michele Metail, Luc Etienne, Georges Perec, Marcel Benabou, Jacques Duchateau, Jean Lescure



Jacques Roubaud’s Wikipedia page
Some Jacques Roubaud resources
Jacques Roubaud page @ the Oulipo Resource
Jacques Roubaud @ goodreads
‘E’ by Jacques Roubaud
Excerpt from JR’s ‘Exchanges on Light’
M. Kitchell on JR’s ‘Mathematics’ @ HTMLGIANT
Ryan Ruby on JR’s ‘Mathematics’ @ Bookforum
Molly Gaudry on JR’s ‘Some Thing Black’ @ Big Other
Video: Lecture de Poète, filmed by François Sarhan, Paris, 2012
Audio: ‘Dialogue inédit entre Jacques Roubaud et Raymond Queneau’
‘Jacques Roubaud, un poète parisien amoureux de la ligne de bus 29’
‘Qui a peur de Jacques Roubaud?’
JR’s ‘The Great Fire of London’ @ The Complete Review
Book: ‘Jacques Roubaud and the Invention of Memory’
Buy ‘The Loop’ @ Dalkey Archive Press




Jacques Roubaud: ‘THE STEAMLINER’

Jacques Roubaud reads his poetry (in French)

Les dinosaures de Jacques Roubaud

2019.9.13 Jacques Roubaud, atelier Michael Woolworth, Paris


from Bomb Magazine


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

Jacques Roubaud: 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.



Jacques Roubaud The Loop
Dalkey Archive Press

‘Seventeen years after the publication of the first volume of Jacques Roubaud’s epic and moving The Great Fire of London, Dalkey Archive Press is proud to publish the first English translation of The Loop, the second novel in Roubaud’s Proustian series, which has in its capacity to astonish been compared to the compositions of Messiaen and the buildings of Antonio Gaudi. Devastated after the death of his young wife, Alix, the author conceives of a project that will allow him not only to continue writing, but continue living—writing a book that leads him to confront his terrible loss as well as examine the lonely world in which he now seems, more and more, to exist: that of Memory. The Loop finds Roubaud returning to his earliest recollections, as well as considering the nature of memory itself, and the process—both merciful and terrible—of forgetting. Neither memoir nor novel, by turns playful and despairing, The Loop is a masterpiece of contemporary prose.’ — Dalkey Archive



During the night, the mist on the window had turned to ice. I see that it was still night, six-thirty, seven o’clock; wintertime, then, and dark outside; no details, only darkness; the windowpane covered with the patterns of the frozen mist; on the lowest pane, on the lefthand side of the window, at eye level, in the light; this light from an electric bulb, yellow against the intense darkness outside, opaque and wintry, clouded by the mist; not a uniform mist, as when it rains, rather an almost transparent frost, forming patterns; a web of translucent patterns, with a certain thickness, the slight thickness of frost, but with variations, and because of these miniscule variations in thickness, the frost formed patterns on the glass, like a vegetal network, an entire system of nerves, a surface vegetation, a cluster of flat ferns; or a flower.

I scratched a fingernail against this snow, this fake snow: neither white nor powdery; nor melting snow, but a kind of fading snow, the dirty snow of springtime lingering on the sidewalks under the boxwood trees; or rather crushed snow, worn down, dusty and colorless, ephemeral; with my fingernail I traced a path on the glass, and the crystallized mist accumulated against my finger, turning to water from the warmth of my finger, quickly disappearing in tiny rivulets and evaporating into a damp coldness on my numb finger; or else I held my palm flat on the glass, and under its pressure the clump of frost became a sheet of glassy ice, so that suddenly the night showed through, almost watchful in its proximity; the whole vegetation of frozen traces, with its imaginary petals, stamens, and corollas, was erased; now it was smooth, like glass on glass: the map of the hand, the sensitive network of its lines, left no imprint. [–> I § 51]

Still using my fingernail, very carefully, I was able to slide these blades of ice over the surface of the glass, toward the bottom, placing them next to one another in polygonal figures, fractured rectangles; the upper half of the windowpane then seemed to be bare for a moment, immediately adjacent to the night, contiguous with this still impenetrable mass, blue and somber; but only for a moment, for it was soon covered in mist: a fine mist, impartial and isolating, this same mist that floated through the air in a cloud, born from respiration; at every moment this breath-turned-mist held the nocturnal exterior at bay; if I rubbed it with my elbow, with my pyjama sleeve, it reappeared immediately. From this thicket of images one could deduce that it was also cold inside the room, perhaps a little less cold than outside, so that the mist would stick to the window, but cold enough for the air to condense these frozen vocables (I see them), as though they had fallen from a silent voice.

But this would mean indulging in a superfluous exercise of deduction, since at the very moment of saying it, before saying it, I know it; my memory knows it, and it does not lie. I do not mean that a memory is, or is not, sincere, but only that, like a dog, it cannot lie (no doubt a lie is only an act of saying, an act of speech, turned outward). It really does appear this way, in this image; and every image is undeniable. Memory, my memory, knows that it was so: It was nighttime, and it was winter; it was cold; cold outside, cold inside the room; I scratched with my fingernail, I let accumulate against my nail the granite of foggy crystals from the mist, I lay my hand against the pane, I pressed it with my face, with my breath. And yet, every line in the story of this memory contains a great many implicit conclusions. And it is here that error, if there is any error, lies in wait for me at every turn. For in memory, in my memory (I am speaking only for myself), there is only seeing. Even touch is “colorless,” anesthetized. I have no other adjectives to identify this apprehension of material things by thought alone, without form or sensuous qualities, as they arise in their grey and pasty conceptual clay (as certain early theories from Antiquity pictured it). In the process of remembering, I do not feel that my finger is cold, nor do I feel the mild and already fading sharpness of the scraped and frozen dust. I know–because it is commonly and universally known that frost exists and that this mode of the physical existence of water is cold–I know, therefore, that the night was cold, and everything that follows from this. And I recall this knowledge based on experience, as one says. But the image that I reconstitute at this moment is numb to this knowledge, it is indifferent.

Writing on glass is like writing on water: regardless of what one tries to inscribe on these surfaces, such writing is also a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of everything. A mythifying fiction has sometimes tried to convert this into its opposite, by inventing a message engraved on eternal glaciers and in the deep polar snow, uniformly protected by its whiteness, a kind of immense graffiti–indeed, preferrably of colossal proportions–and preferrably in an incomprehensible and therefore immortal language, presenting a truth at once indispensible and indecipherable. From the moment one masters the gestures of writing, and probably for some people up until the hand ceases its movement, there is a desire, mixed with anguish, to write words and signs that can be immediately erased: in sand by a wave, in dust by footsteps, under the eraser with a pencil, or from water, rain, time, or tears smudging the ink.

It was winter, most likely a wartime winter: 1938-1939, at the earliest, 1944-1945 at the latest. I could not have been in this room before that, or after. It was toward the end of night, since the mist had frozen. A very cold night, which was a rare phenomenon. It doesn’t freeze much in the Aude region. I try to think of a very cold winter: 1940? 1942? There was at least one very cold winter during that war. It long remained in everyone’s memory, including my own, and was all the more memorable because people did not heat their houses, at least we didn’t. Our bedroom was not heated. If this image is correct, and pure, if it is not distorted or mixed with others, through resemblance, confusion, or mere repetition, if it is indeed the lower pane of the window that I see, then it must be the earliest, the first possible winter. But as soon as one breathes on any image, any memory, it is covered with mist, and reveals itself to be thoroughly imbued with imprecision. Around it is the past which, like the dark night of that winter, is impenetrable.

To the left of the window, I see my bed: this is another image, another moment, or the same? I don’t know. I feel the cube of the room around me, the bed square in the corner against two walls, lengthwise in relation to me, behind my head; a little farther, the door opens, is open (this “around” belongs to vision which, like light, is sometimes able to “turn corners”). Of certain bedrooms, certain beds, I can evoke only a single image that always remains the same, and everything that is not in this image remains hermetically sealed to me. But of this old room I have a multiple but unified vision, assembled like a collage, through the superimposition and then the fusion of numerous separate visions that have since become indiscernible, beginning from a particular point, the one from which “this” is seen, a central point, at the top of the bed, almost in the corner. There is a “top” and a “bottom” of the bed, as if while lying in it one imagined oneself as vertical, the “point” of vision being at the top of the “page.” It is there that, in a letter, one puts the address of the sender. No colors, no, there are no colors. To see gathered together in this way all the other images from this same place, the fingernail on the frost-covered window, the nighttime windowpanes, what the daylight will make visible through the window, all this assumes multiple eyes, innumerable hands. Whoever remembers is at once an Argos, a creature with a hundred eyes, and an octopus, a creature with a hundred arms.

In the cold, my bed was divided into different regions, warm and cold; the intense cold bordered sharply on the warmth; it pinched my ears, my nose. Here, then, is something truly “inevitable,” the very banality of temperature. In the evening one conquers as many territories of the cold as possible, waging battles analogous to a Russian campaign, which provided a strategic model for this game of conquest, renewed night after night (I’m not speaking of the historic one, the disastrous Napoleonic campaign, but of the one that unfolded at the time, and contemporaneously, in the immense bed of the Ukraine, which was unveiled for us every evening on the radio from London, with the “allied” victories confirmed, after a delay, when the radio from occupied Paris announced the new “elastic retreats” of the Germans). The Siberian regions of the three edges, bounded by the vertical sides of the mattress and the covers that were tucked in well underneath it, always remained impervious to comfort; in the morning, the diffuse warmth of the sleeping body had reduced the pockets of resistance, that Stalingrad with its armies of ice.

In that room there were two other beds that I see; on the other side of the window, my sister Denise’s; at the far end (still looking from the same point) my brother Pierre’s, to the left of the door; seen from the door, on the contrary, this layout, which was of parental origin (I mean it was decided by our parents), organized the space of the bedroom according to the age of its occupants (that is, if one grasps this space in the movement of sight, as I am in the habit of doing, and as if the flat surface of the world, and not only that of the bed, had become vertical, it too like a page: from left to right, and from top to bottom). It seems to me that the spartan light did indeed come from a naked bulb on the ceiling; just about all the rest has disappeared.




p.s. Hey. ** Mint ice, Oh, hello. That restaurant looks pretty enticing. I’ll check it out. ** David Ehrenstein, Well, at long last, awesome, really great news! Huge congratulations to you and to them! I love Melba Toast. Does Melba Toast still exist? ** Bill, Hi. Exactly. Yury always immediately updates, and more than once he has then spent days trying to de-update. I’m not a huge Kentridge fan, but I’ll seek documentation and give it a shot. Thanks! Le Grice isn’t dry, David’s just being David-y. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi. Yeah, well, there you go as evidence of the ridiculous negligence  of experimental cinema when even the UK’s reigning maestro of the genre is obscured. Cool, I hope they spring for screening his stuff. ** Nik, Howdy, Nik! Nah, pure coincidence that I seem to be into zoetropes at the moment, I mean in the sense that, no, no relationship to our film. Just one of those fascination jags that happen. I’m using the vacation from TV script work to try to finish my new GIF novel and getting seriously into seeking out possible funding situations for our new film mostly. Awesome that Fence is proving to be as fruitful as one imagines it would be. Oh, UAlbany dropped them? Strange but that sounds like a plus. Yeah, that sounds great. Very different, more open/experimenting seeming zine than Conjunctions is, so I can imagine. Owen Land, yes? Have I done a post on him? Maybe, I can’t remember. I’ll look. I will if I haven’t. Strange and amusing and kind of great in a weird way films. Nice combo, him and Frampton. I’m happy to hear you trekked out to see that. Bon day, bud. ** Steve Erickson, That is a real shame about Studio Daily. I look at it frequently, and it has helped with my post making. Damn. So sorry to hear that for your sake too. Ugh. ** Okay. Today DC’s spotlights one of the great books by the great writer Jacques Roubaud, whom I hope at least some of you have read in your journeys. If not, here’s an intro and an excellent place in his work to start. See you tomorrow.


  1. As fas as I know Melba Toast is still around.

    Jacques Riboud is marvelous. His concerns about memory match y own, needless to say. Nice pics of Derrida, BTW

    I have a chapter on OWen Land (aka. George Landow) in my book Film: The Front Line — 1984 “Deeply strange” doesn’t begi to describe him. He was among other things the finest rojectionist I’ve ever known. He took meticulous care of the 16mm prints screened at the Filmmaker’s Cinematheque back in the day. Hiseveolution from Tibetan Buddhism to Jeaus Freakdom is weird enough. Weirder still is at the time of his death he was making a film about the history of the American Avtant-Garde film movement that was an out and out comedy with a number ofamatuer actors cast as Brakhage, Sidney Peterson, Markopoulos et. al. I have a picture o him a bout half a year before he died, looking thin and quite haggard. I always liked him personally but who he “really was” remains a Total Mystery. Owen/George is why I find Malcolm LeGrice so “Melba”

  2. I love Roubaud’s ideas here but fear I couldn’t handle 700+ pages of the stuff. Maybe the poems in Something Black could be easier to go at? I get intimidated by thick heavy books.

    Right now I’m building up to the forthcoming short story class by keeping a daily eye on X-R-A-Y for examples of the form. Reading one a day and absorbing the ideas.

  3. It’s a real loss. I am planning to copy the music video director interviews I conducted for them onto my blog, at the very least, because I want to pitch some other outlets about keeping this series going.

    Tomorrow, we record the voice-over for my film. I am looking forward to this. My editor will be there. I have already gotten 2 MP3s of the actor reading the complete v/o which go in the direction I want, so hopefully it’ll go smoothly.

    Did you read about Netflix picking up Olivier Assayas’ WASP NETWORK?

  4. Dennis! I saw my boy Jacques and had to say hi. I discovered Great Fire of London through a post on this blog ages ago and that book remains one of the most moving things I’ve ever read.

    Just wanted to let you know that we have physical galleys of my book now! Which is surreal! Let me know if you’d like one—I can ask my publisher to send one out next week.

    What’s new for you? Were the haunted houses in LA productive? I sure hope so. Things here have been mellow but the pre-pub hype is starting to ramp up and it’s really trippy. It’s funny: I definitely don’t miss being dangerously broke and unpublished but I do miss having no emails, no obligations, no notes to write to include in galley after galley. The professional and creative sides of this business always seem to be at war, don’t they?

    Hope things are lovely w you. Are you going to read CLEANNESS? I got to meet Greenwell on Weds and he’s such a charmer.

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