June 03, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: the extraordinary Jacques Roubaud

Was French poet Jacques Roubaud amused to hear that a poet named Anne French was to interview him at the Auckland Writers Festival? I'm sure this famed member of Oulipo, the writers group whose work is characterised by wordplay (among other ludic literary techniques such as palindromes, collage, use of mathematical permutations and patterns, even plagiarism, as long as it is playful) enjoyed the plaisanterie. 

He did not, however, smile when Anne said, as part of her introduction, that he teaches poetry at the European Graduate University (where he is Professor of Poetry), interrupting her with a three-line manifesto:

"I don't teach poetry!"

"It's impossible to teach poetry!"

"I don't try."

Jacques Roubaud, Ode to Paris bus line 29, Attila, Paris, 2012 © Editions AttilaSeeing (and hearing) Jacques Roubaud was my Writers Festival stand-out, I have to say. There he was, the man who had sat in Parisian cafés sharing a word game, sharing perhaps a light for their Gauloises, sharing molecules with the great Raymond Queneau, creator of Zazie in the Metrothe man who walked the countryside with the genial Georges Perec, author of Life A User's Manualcomposing poetry as he went, like the wandering Japanese monks of the 12th and 13th centuries who so inspired him; yes, there he was, khaki pants, checked shirt and dark red pullover, corduroy jacket, looking like any man you'd find sitting next to you on a bus in Paris, except that man would likely not be composing a poem called "Ode to Paris Bus Line #29", as Roubaud did while riding the bus, nor be so fascinating to listen to.

Jacques Roubaud is a mathematician as well as a poet. Talented in both fields, eventually he had to decide to study one or the other, mathematics or poetry. He chose mathematics, he tells us, because "I liked numbers". Not because mathematics is an art, as Anne French seems to be about to suggest. "Mathematics is not an art, it is not a science. It is completely apart. It's alone in the world."

In his new book Mathematics: a novel  he elaborates, "I sought out arithmetic to protect myself. But from what? At the time, I would probably have replied: from vagueness, from a lack of rigor, from literature."

The talk turns to his poetry and Roubaud has an excellent phrase for what happens in the translation of a poem: "le droit de douane", customs duty. He once decided to meet the challenge by writing a poem which could be translated into all languages and lose nothing.

It's a sonnet entitled "La vie",  and he recites it for us in its English version, "Life". The entire crowd in the chock-full Lower New Zealand Room listens quiet as a mouse, breathing as one.


000000 0000 01
011010 111 001
101011 101 001
110011 0011 01

000101 0001 01
010101 011 001
010111 001 001
010101 0001 01

01 01 01 0010 11
01 01 01 01 01 11
001 001 010 101

000 1 0 1 001 000
0 0 0 0 0 110 0 0 0 101
0 0 0 0 01 0 0 0 0 0 0

The applause, and Anne, invite him to go on. He tells us about a book of poems he wrote which were ordered black, white, black, white, like a game of  'Go'. "I was 'White'. I left the game unfinished.. The last poem was a 'White'. I was young, I had some hope."

He is now 81, and working on a long, experimental Project which he calls a "treatise of memory", not a memoir, of which Mathematics is the third volume out of seven completed -- so far. Only the first three volumes have been translated into English.
What Jacques Roubaud is probably most famous for is belonging to Oulipo, which stands for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, "Workshop of potential literature". It's a group of French-speaking writers who create works using "constrained writing techniques" as a way of triggering ideas and inspiration. Notable members have included Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino.

syndetics-lcAsked if he can give some examples of Oulipo writing, he starts with one of the more famous works, Perec's  La disparition, literally The Disappearance, published in English as A void.

"Well, the book looks a bit weird but it is a very fascinating novel -- it has this character who has disappeared. The character is Mister E. The characters in the novel try to find Mr. E."

Mr. E is the letter "e". The entire book is written without a single word containing "e", except for the author's name.

He gives a few other examples of Oulipo constraints, and then, ah, this one as well: "One cannot be a member of Oulipo if one wants to be a member of Oulipo. It's the exact opposite of the Academie Francaise. It can take seven years to decide on a name. Sometimes we tell people they are now members and it has taken so long they have forgotten they were candidates."

Roubaud feels that a poem must "move with the times" in the head of the person who received it, so that it is an always "mobile" work, a work "in the process".

He asks if he may recite again, an emblematic poem in this sense. Here it is:

Les nuages

That's it.


Question time:

"Is there anyone here from Auckland Libraries? I want to say that I am shocked that Auckland Libraries doesn't have your books, except the one with some other author! "

I am too far in the back to be able to make my way down the aisle to assure the indignant fan that copies of Roubaud's works are undoubtedly on order, but probably not easy to get (even the Festival bookstall was only able to put their hands on a handful of copies of Mathematics, which were swooped down on and quickly purchased by the first to arrive).

I can see that Anne French is casting about for a way to sidestep the issue and not finding it. Jacques Roubaud, who has been leaning forward, listening attentively, holds up a finger.

"May I comment?" he asks politely. "I am not surprised. I do not have a lot of readers. I have [pause] 100 readers, worldwide."

After such a great performance, I suspect there will now be a real number (to use a mathematical metaphor) in Auckland. And here's what Auckland Libraries has or will soon have for them:

syndetics-lcMathematics : (a novel) by Jacques Roubaud ; translated by Ian Monk.

The form of a city changes faster, alas, than the human heart : one hundred fifty poems (1991-1998) by Jacques Roubaud ; translation by Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop (on order)

Exchanges of light by Jacques Roubaud (on order)

And the book "with another author": 53 days by Georges Perec, edited by Jacques Roubaud and Harry Mathews (Perec died leaving the book unfinished, Roubaud and Mathews put it together from his notes), translated by David Bellos. Two copies of this one, both out at the moment, one to me.

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 14:56


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