Translated from the French by Jeff Fort (Dalkey Archive Press)
1 During the night, the mist on the window
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 left-hand 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, but an almost transparent frost, forming patterns; a web of translucent patterns, with a certain thickness, the slight thickness of frost, but with variations in this thickness, and, because of these miniscule variations, forming patterns on the glass, like a vegetal network, an entire system of veins, a surface vegetation, a cluster of flat ferns; or a flower.
I scratched a fingernail against this snow, this false snow: neither white nor powdery; not melting but fading, the dirty snow of springtime lingering on the sidewalks under the boxwood trees; or crushed snow, rather: 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 because of 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 against the glass, and under its pressure the clump of frost became a sheet of glassy ice, so that the night suddenly showed through, almost watchful in its proximity; all the vegetation of the frozen traces erased, with its imaginary petals,
stamens, and corollas; now it was smooth, like glass on glass: the map of my hand, the sensitive network of its lines, left no imprint.
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, directly adjacent to the night, contiguous with that still impenetrable mass, blue and somber; but only for a moment, for this space was soon covered in mist: a fine mist, impartial and isolating, the same mist that floated through the air in clouds, born from respiration; at every moment this breath-turned-mist held the nocturnal exterior at bay, and if I rubbed it with my elbow, with my pajama sleeve, it reappeared immediately. From this thicket of images one could deduce that it was cold inside the room as well: not so cold as outside, perhaps, so that the mist could still cling to the window, but cold enough for the air to condense those frozen vocables (I see them) like words escaping from a silent voice.
But this would mean indulging in a superfluous exercise of deduction, since at the very moment of my saying what could be deduced, before saying it, I know it; this 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. This memory, my memory, knows that it was so: It was nighttime, and it was winter; it was cold; cold outside and inside the room; I scratched with my fingernail, I let the granito of foggy crystals from the mist accumulate against my nail, I lay my hand against the pane, I pressed against the pane 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 precisely here that error, if there is any error, lies in wait for me at every turn: because in memories, in my memories (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, without sensuous qualities, as they arise gray and pasty, made of some kind of conceptual clay (according to some of the first theories of memory from Antiquity). 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 frozen dust scraped under my nail. I know—because it is universal and common knowledge that frost exists and that this mode of the physical existence of water is cold—I know, then, that the night was cold, and therefore know everything that follows from this. And I can recall this knowledge from 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 always also a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of all things. True, a certain kind of mythifying fiction has sometimes tried to change this metaphor into its opposite, by imagining a message engraved on eternal glaciers, in the deep polar snow, protected on all sides by the uniform whiteness, a kind of immense graffiti—indeed, it would have to be a message of colossal proportions—and preferably in an incomprehensible and therefore immortal language, presenting a truth at once indispensable and indecipherable. And yet, from the moment one first masters the gestures of writing—and probably, for some people, up until their writing hand can move no more—there is a compulsion, a desire mixed with anguish, to write words and signs that can be erased almost immediately: in sand by a wave, in dust by footsteps, in pencil by an eraser; or else by 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 couldn’t have been in that room before the first date, or after the second. Since the mist had frozen, it must have been towards morning. 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 from this period: 1940? 1942? There was at least one very cold winter during the war. It was bad enough to have stuck in everyone’s memory for a long time, including my own, and was all the more memorable because people didn’t heat their houses then, or at least we didn’t. Our bedroom was unheated. If this image is correct, and pure, if it’s 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 too becomes covered with mist, and reveals itself to be thoroughly webbed 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: is this another image, another moment, or the same one? I don’t know. I feel the cube of the room around me, the bed in the corner, square against two walls, lengthwise in relation to me, behind my head; a little farther, the door opens, is open (this sense of what is “around” me is part of a retrospective 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 isn’t part of 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 images that have since become inseparable: beginning from a particular point, the one from which “this” is seen—a central point, at the “top” of the bed, almost in the very corner of the room. (Seen from above, the bed has a “top” and a “bottom,” as if while lying on it I imagined myself as vertical—the “point” of my vision being at the top left corner of the “page,” where one writes the return address on a letter.) No colors, no, there are no colors. To see all the other images I recall from this same place gathered together in the same way—the fingernail on the frost-covered window, the nighttime windowpanes, what the daylight will make visible through the window—all this presupposes a viewer with multiple eyes, innumerable hands. He who remembers is at once Argos, the giant with a hundred eyes, and an octopus, a creature with a hundred arms.
In the cold of the room, my bed was divided into different regions, warm and cold; the intense cold bordered sharply on the warmth; it nipped at my ears, my nose. Here, then, is something truly “inevitable”: the banality of temperature. In the evening, one conquered as many territories held by 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 am speaking not of the disastrous Napoleonic campaign, but of the one that was unfolding contemporaneously, at the time I am recalling, in the immense bed of the Ukraine, news of which was relayed to us every evening on the London radio broadcasts, filled with details of the “Allied” victories, and then confirmed after a delay when the broadcast from occupied Paris announced new “elastic retreats” on the part 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; but in the morning, the diffuse warmth of my sleeping body had beaten back these pockets of resistance, this Stalingrad and its armies of ice.
There were two other beds in that room, I see them; on the other side of the window, my sister Denise’s; and at the far end of the room (still looking out from that same point), to the left of the door, my brother Pierre’s; seen from the door, however, this layout, which was of parental origin (I mean it was determined by our parents), organized the space of the bedroom according to the age of its occupants (that is, if one imagines this space as unfolding along the natural movement of one’s sight, as I am in the habit of doing, and as if the flat surface of the world, not only that of my bed, had become vertical, like a page: read 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; everything else has disappeared, more or less.
51 (§ 1) a vegetal network, an entire system of veins, a surface vegetation, a cluster of flat ferns . . . The map of my hand, the sensitive network of its lines, left no imprint.
The image evoked this comparison, image upon image, and I did not refuse it. Because the comparison itself evokes a passage from another branch of this work, whose general title is “the great fire of London” (you’re reading the second branch): “a roadmap of a country . . . the hydrographic network . . . the skeleton . . . the veins in green leaves.” In that context, the above is both a series of images & a way of imagining the work that I envisioned as a whole, and thus the “great fire of London” as a segment of the overarching Project (this Project, whose destruction I attempted to recount in branch one, and did recount (in part)). It was necessary for me to admit this correspondence here, by virtue of the pact of sorts that I signed (unilaterally, I admit) with my reader. But how to make this admission?
Branch one of my book separated two types of insertion from the main body of its story: interpolations and bifurcations (“every time I come upon divergent paths (in the story)—after choosing the main road, which, simply expressed, means the one I’ll lead you down uninterruptedly . . . I . . . prepare insertions”) (I settled on this procedure only after some hesitation about giving them that particular name) (they were isolated both typographically and geographically from the story itself).
But can what I am writing now be considered an interpolation? and, if so, where should it be inserted? If it is indeed a proper interpolation, it should appear here, of course (and it would be an “upward” thread on the very large sheet of mural paper on which I once invited you to imagine “the great fire of London” written out in its totality (the insertions were indicated there by colored lines and arrows); but by virtue of its connection to this volume’s predecessor, it should also appear in branch one itself (it would be a reversible insertion, a two-way arrow), which statement implies (and this implication will no doubt become more and more prevalent as this story progresses) that additions can indeed be made after the fact to branch one (and, later on, to the other branches as well), contrary to the (repeated) assertion that it was written entirely in the present (without preparation and without revisions), & therefore that it is finished, since by now it’s not only complete but published (and the same contradiction would be true of the other branches as well, at the moment of their completion and publication)).
It’s true that this is a minimal addition (a new interpolation into a completed branch). It’s also true that the potential for the contradiction this raises was already present in branch one, during its composition and eventual publication, since I announce many more insertions than actually appear in the volume. I could of course declare, somewhat speciously, that minimal additions of this kind (provided with a numbered reference indicating an “address” somewhere within an as yet imaginary edition of the entire work, in which all the branches would be included under one cover) do not call into question the veracity of my basic affirmation (allow me to state for my new readers and restate for my old the claim that my narration and the process of its being written are always exactly contemporaneous) (yes, I could resign myself even to this). But, finally, it seems to me that—despite everything—in this particular case (the first of its kind), I must renounce giving this interpolation the combined status of an interpolation into both branch one and branch two (naturally it’s an interpolation into the present branch—that is, in the present of its composition—since I happened upon it here, at this point in the text: decided it needed saying, but that it wasn’t the primary thing I had to say) because at that moment of the story, at that point in branch one, and in the absence of precisely the sort of explanatory development that I refuse to include in this work (nothing is “foreshadowed” in my book, but neither is anything après coup or “after the fact”): it was and remains something extra that has been added on later.
This means that it will be necessary for me to introduce a third (or fourth) type of insertion: notes (I don’t really like using this word—they would still be insertions, strictly speaking, and therefore still a part of the text, not exterior to it. “Notes” is strictly a provisional designation). Besides, even though I didn’t have recourse to using notes in the first branch, I sometimes felt, if not a need for notes in the ordinary sense—which do not recount but inform, explain, specify (and thus are outside the story, outside the timeframe of the story)—at least the likelihood that they would be useful. I can verify (at this moment) that I did not, then, exclude the future use of other species of insertion aside from interpolations and bifurcations (branch one, § 14: “These continual leaps in my book, potentially represented by the bifurcations, interpolations, and every category along the lines of an insertion, correspond to one of reading’s absolute privileges: namely, the ability upon opening a book to be anywhere at once inside it . . .”). At that point, without thinking too much about it, I had renounced the use of notes, partly so as not to add to the complexity of the book’s composition (since that branch was meant to become a book), but also to avoid the risk of erasing the peculiar character of the first two types of insertions by using such a traditional procedure (the insertions aren’t notes. Nor are they glosses, fragments, variants, remnants, or ruins; they aren’t some kind of pan perdut in prose).
Perhaps, someday, in the complete book, the present development could be made into a note for branch one, and could appear as such in the text, modified and discreetly furnished with the appropriate reference marker; if, that is, any branches other than branch one ever come to completion, and if they ever go into print once finished (this remains as uncertain as the response to the same question regarding branch one was, back when I was still writing it) (in saying this, I’m speaking of a deeper uncertainty than the trivial one which always reminds us that a book isn’t finished until you actually reach the end, and that until it’s published, it hasn’t actually entered the world: I mean that I hadn’t decided whether I would ever finish it, much less whether I would ever publish it, quite simply because I didn’t know and couldn’t anticipate (not until the very moment this decision was finally made, after it became clear to me at a certain moment in the story (and this was a necessary consequence of the “axioms” of composition) what the conditions of its completion had to be)).
Jeff Fort was recipient of the French-American Foundation’s prize for his translation of Blanchot’s Aminadab. In 2007 he was given a fellowship at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, to work on The Loop. He is assistant professor of French at the University of California, Davis.
Jacques Roubaud was born in 1932 in Caluire-et-Cuire, France. He has been a professor of mathematics at the University of Paris X and is one of the most accomplished members of the Oulipo (the Workshop for Potential Literature). He is the author of numerous books of prose, theater, and poetry, including Some Thing Black; The Form of a City Changes Faster, Alas, Than the Human Heart; The Great Fire of London, and Hortense in Exile. Jacques Roubaud will be reading along with many of his fellow Oulipans on April 1st at the New School and on April 3rd at the Pierogi Gallery.