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Jacques Roubaud - Biography

Jacques Roubaud, Ph.D., is a French poet, essayist, novelist and mathematician. Jacques Roubaud was born on December 5, 1932, in Caluire-et-Cuire, France. A prolific writer, as of September 2010 he is the author of over 20 books, many of which have been translated into English. Some of his translated publications include: Alix’s Journal (2010), The Loop (2009), The Great Fire of London (2006), The Form of the City Changes Faster, Alas, than the Human Heart (2006), and Hortense is Abducted (2000).

Louis Aragon, the famous French poet and novelist, saw potential very early in Jacques Roubaud’s career. In 1944, at the age of 12, with the encouragement of Aragon, Jacques Roubaud published his first collection of poetry. The collection was appropriately named Poésies Juvéniles (Youthful Poems). And then a second anthology came in 1952 entitled Voyage du soir (Evening journey). Perhaps because he was always a free spirit, he has said that as a student he hated competitive exams. In fact, he even dropped out from his preparatory classes for the difficult entrance examination to one of the three French elite institutions called Écoles Normales Supérieures. This did not, however, prevent Louis Aragon from acceptance.

Indeed, since then Jacques Roubaud’s vocation has in many ways fulfilled its early promises. He has been the recipient of several prestigious literary prizes such as the Grand Prix National de la Poésie (Leading National Prize for Poetry) in 1990 and in 2008 the French Academy Grand prix de littérature Paul-Morand (Leading literature Paul-Morrand Prize).

Jacques Roubaud is interested in the use of mathematics and computer science for Oulipian writing (Oulipian comes from the acronym OULIPO, which stands for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle or workshop of potential literature). Fascinated by fixed forms of poetry such as sonnets, rangas and sestinas, in 1961 he writes a whole book on the writing of sonnets. Here as elsewhere Jacques Roubaud often experiments even though much of his work is also more traditional.

Jacques Roubaud did two doctorates, one in mathematics and one in French literature for which he wrote a dissertation called La Forme du sonnet français de Marot à Malherbe. Recherche de seconde rhétorique (The form of the French sonnet from Marot to Malherbe. Research in second rhetoric). Jacques Roubaud first became a University math professor at Paris X Nanterre and later in Rennes. Mathematics was indeed to have a big influence on his literary work. He is the inventor of numerous poetic binds such as the “baobab” and the “generalised Oulipian haiku”. In 1981 he co-founded with Paul Braffort a literature workshop assisted by mathematics and computers (ALAMA). He was also to become a poetry professor at EHESS (École des hautes études en sciences sociales or School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences).

Jacques Roubaud's fiction often suppresses the rigorous constraints of the Oulipo, indeed calling out such suppression, thus indicating the presence of such constraints. He takes the Oulipian self-consciousness of writing to the extreme. This simultaneity both appears as playful, with his Hortense novels: La belle Hortense (Our Beautiful Heroine), L’exil d’Hortense (Hortense in Exile), and L’enlèvement d’Hortense (Hortense is Abducted), and with the gravity and reflection of the writing act as the affirmation of one's worth and existence in Le Grand Incendie de Londres (The Great Fire of London), which is considered the apogee of his prose.

In 1986 Jacques Roubaud was given the prix France Culture (a prize from the radio station of the same name). And indeed in 1989 he wrote a book that marked the beginning of a new era in his work, which he came to call his “project”: Le Grand Incendie de Londres (The Great Fire of London). After dreaming the title in 1961, he worked out here a system of constraints based on mathematics and minstrel poetics, which were to form the sub-structure of this novel. The system was worthy of a mathematics professor. When Jacques Roubaud's young wife died in 1983, however, the novel ceased to be an intellectual quest and became rather a way of annihilating time. Remnants of the original artifice remained embedded in his new perspective, however: his “unedited-prose constraint,” namely writing by letting one line after another come without attempting to “erase, replace, correct on the spot […] this initial language deposit”.

Jacques Roubaud himself acknowledges several influences on his numerous and diverse works: medieval literature, minstrel poetry, ancient Japanese poetry and literature as well as English literature and especially Lewis Caroll and British poets all the way until the end of the 19th century such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, and finally 20th century American poets. Jacques Roubaud is also well known for his numerous translations which he collected in a book entitled Traduire, Journal (To Translate, Journal), where none of the poems are in their original version. For example, he translated Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark into French.

Many of his works have had an autobiographical influence as well, perhaps understandably linked to his brother’s suicide before Jacques Roubaud was even 30 and by his wife’s death less than three years after they had gotten married. After publishing his wife’s journal, his own works and especially his poetry in, Quelque Chose de Noir (Some Thing Black) and his “memory prose” whose general title Le Grand Incendie de Londres (The Great Fire of London) carry such bereavement. The latter can at first be taken to be a kind of figurative grave for his wife, or a sophisticated autobiographical attempt organized according to a hypertextual structure. However, in the case of Jacques Roubaud, the question of autobiography is to be asked with the greatest caution.

Admitedly Jacques Roubaud’s life is elicited in his writings, however it is done in a fragmentary way. Indeed, it would be naïve simply to identify the individual “Jacques Roubaud” as that of the narrator because the one who says “I” in the verses or in the prose by Jacques Roubaud could very well be fictional. Furthermore, Jacques Roubaud himself has contested the biographical reading of Grand Incendie de Londres, making clear that if there was an autobiography to be deciphered through his work it would be that of an intellectual biography. That is to say, it would be the biography of an author writing or attempting to write his oeuvre. It would be the biography, then, of a work in progress and the reconstruction of the development of in this case, both a literary and mathematical project, as well of the failure of such a project. A complex and determined character, he defines himself as a “composer of mathematics and poetry”.

Jacques Roubaud was a professor of poetry at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where he taught an Intensive Summer Workshop.