The very wonderful Visual Editions
are doing an ace job in standing up for the tactile, book-as-object book at the moment. Their edition of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes
is rightly picking up a good bit of attention (I love, for example, Abebooks UK’s ‘Die-Cuts to Die For’
feature), and now, for the first time in the UK, they’ve published Richard Howard’s translation of Marc Saporta’s infamous book-in-a-box/novel-as-card-game, Composition No. 1
Although the rather serious Wikipedia entry on Ergodic literature
is good for points of reference for the book (Apollinaire, Queneau and Oulipo, B.S. Johnson’s less daring book-in-a-box The Unfortunates
, leading right up to current internet-led notions of textuality), one thing I’m interested in, predictably, is the nouveau roman
background to the Composition No. 1
Composition No. 1 was first published in 1962 by Editions de Seuil, and, although I don’t know too much about how it went down in France, I do know that over here, in Britain, it was pretty comprehensively jeered at by all and sundry. Peter Lennon, for example, writing in The Guardian (19 January 1963) gave it as an example of one of the “unfortunate side effects” of the new vogue for the Robbe-Grilletesque “anti-novel”, saying it was “an experiment which could have been done without, since it has nothing to do with a genuine attempt at self-expression”. More pithily, writing in The Observer (5 August 1962), Barbara Bray summed it up as containing a “robbery, a rape, a motor accident, a death from cancer, assorted erotica and hysteria, a certain amount of routine Robbe-Grillery”. I think, having read it now, that Bray’s pretty much on the money here – it’s certainly got Robbe-Grillet’s often domineering and violent obsession with the female body, people in uniforms, and a cool camera-type focalistion, narrated in the present tense, where the perceiving individual (if there is one at all) is radically elided.
However, when I was reading Composition No. 1, I was far more interested in how brilliant an experiment it was in bringing the reader face-to-face with the very act of reading, and highlighting all the presumptions and preconceptions we have about what it is to read a book, precisely by unpicking them.
The first question I had to ask myself was how I was going to go about reading the darn thing. It’s not exactly a book you can curl up with, and it would be pretty awkward to read in the bath, so I settled on this solution (tea and cake optional):
I decided to shuffle it a bit before starting, just to assert my independence. It would have rude not to, no? I guess the obvious point of the undetermined order is to bring to the fore that, given a set of scenes, with some hint that there are causal, character, anaological, chronological etc. links between them, as Saporta does, the reader will always impose some sort of ordering principle, some kind of coherence. Consequently, it would seem less cloyingly dictatorial on the author’s part to not bind the scenes (literally in this case) into a particular order. Composition No. 1 allows you to generate your own connections and resonances, rather than offering you a set of wink-wink nudge-nudge “unrelated” ordered juxtapositions: it achieves the modern(ist) fragmented narrative thing with much less of a bad conscience. In other historical terms, I guess this all resembles John Cage’s aleatory experiments in music, although it also shows up how old-fashionedly author-focussed one of Marc Saporta’s experimental contemporaries was: William Burroughs’s cut-up prose in this light seems elitist and pretty imperious, even arrogant, the reader forced to watch the writer enact his own personal freedom to randomly determine how the book he deigns to offer, in a fixed order, to the reader will be. No chance of any open, basic participation there.
Mid-way through reading, it suddenly occurred to me that I was slipping into conventional book manners myself. I’d shuffled it to start, but was then just diligently following the order set by that one ordering. I realised that no rules were binding me not to shuffle the remainder of the pages again, so I did, and did it a few more times after this too. It’s exciting to think that, very literally, the book you are in the course of reading is, in very basic terms, in no way predetermined. The road ahead isn’t fixed, it’s ready to be remade. This also got me to thinking that there would also be no reason that, Finnegans Wake-like, the book couldn’t go on infinitely, in that you could insert pages (all of them, or even just the ones you liked, for a finite, but longer experience) back into the order that lies ahead of you. Going further, then, with its 150 or so pages, you wouldn’t end up fully repeating an order (if my maths is right, which it’s pretty liable not to be) until the 5.71338396 x 10-to-the-power-of-262th time round, by which time you’re pretty much guaranteed to have gone mad, died, or started reading The Da Vinci Code on the sly.
The book has a lot of scenes in it about office work, administration, drudgery, and I thought this reflected well for me in the way I felt compelled to read it – very much upright at a table, everything neatly defined, piled into a kind of in-out pile system. This really made me reflect on reading as a bodily experience. Reading a book, you have to make certain choices about how you interact with the book – where you position it in relation to your torso and your face, whether you choose to keep hold of it as you read, as if conducting its electricity up your arm, or whether you want to do as I did with Composition No. 1, and set it out in front of you, looking over it without touching, like it were a piece of scripture or an exam paper.
A lot of these things brought me back to thinking about Michel Butor’s writings from the time about narrative and the book – in translation, his Inventory (1970) is full of things that resonate massively, wonderfully, with Saporta’s.
I think, though, to finish, I have to harp on a bit about how good a job Visual Editions have done with this. It’s clearly a labour of real love, made with great care and thought. The design is brilliant – a great, bold yellow, a madly touchable textured material for the outside of the box. The wonderful haphazard spillage-of-letters design on the box bleeds through into the design of the book itself, as each individual page has on its back a different image of what seems to be thousands of individual bits of type undulating about in a viscous liquid. It looks really, really good. An object to be treasured. There’s even a little insert that they’ve put in that folds out (more tactile excitement) and has Salvador Plascencia
explaining the terms for different parts of a book. Ultimately, I think that this little addition to the experience of reading Visual Editions’s Composition No. 1
gives the game away fabulously: the edition and Saporta’s text are both shrines to The Book – acknowledging its flaws, accepting its part-death, but also reaffirming it, its brilliance, its power, and its hold over human culture.