Alix’s Journal by Alix Cleo Roubaud (trans. Jan Steyn; intro Jacques Roubaud). Dalkey Archive Press. 120 pp., $13.95.
“Photography is a future perfect being endlessly ripped out.I mean by this the practice of taking daily photographic self-portraits ,a practice which has to be renewed every single day.” So writes Alix Cleo Roubaud, the wife of the Oulipian poet and mathematician Jacques Roubaud, in her journal, in May 1980. (And one should note early on that the atypical punctuation is Roubaud’s.) Her journals from late 1979 to early 1983 were brought out in English earlier this year by Dalkey Archive, in a beautiful paperback that features many of Roubaud’s photographs. The journals, and the photographs, are themselves a “future perfect being endlessly ripped out”—Roubaud died in 1983 of a pulmonary embolism at age 31. Severely asthmatic all of her life, she writes with an awareness of death hanging over her, and this produces an understandable amount of apprehension in the reader and lends the journals an air of almost unbearable sadness. The reader is forced to come to terms with Roubaud’s death long before she has. Her last entry is dated January 19, 1983—her birthday, and nine days before her death.
Conceived as an “artistic project,” according to Roubaud’s translator, Jan Steyn, the journals were not initially intended for publication. The most immediate impression they give is of a fragmented approach to language and thought, reflective, perhaps, of the fact that Roubaud, a French-Canadian, was never entirely comfortable in either French or English. In his introduction, Jacques Roubaud attributes this to her nomadic upbringing (she was born in Mexico and grew up in South Africa, Egypt, Portugal, and Greece, before living in Montreal and Ottowa, then Aix-en-Provence, and then finally Paris). The entries move from English to French and back again, the linguistic shifts indicated by the translator with asterisks. In his sensitive translation Steyn has retained what he calls Alix’s “idiosyncratic grammar, lexicon, and punctuation.”
Jacques Roubaud explains that Alix would copy out passages on her typewriter and reinsert them into the journals. This forms part of her “profoundly original” style, which Jacques Roubaud claims makes the Journal more than a “mere document,” gives it an appeal beyond that of “autobiographical endeavors.” Such claims, though weighty, feel accurate. Take this entry, from July 14, 1980, which could serve as a microcosm of the Journals:
.Of all the attempted divisions:English/French;prose/non-prose;photo/journal;none of them works.Only one rule:always have a notebook and write in it almosteveryday:everything;despiteeverything;include everything:the simplest of resolutions;stop smoking…,incidents,photographs,everything.
She refuses hard and fast divisions between languages, genres, and media: it seems clear that in systematically adapting “grammar, lexicon, and punctuation” to her own purposes, Alix was up to something more specific than finding expression for her own idiosyncrasies.
That thing, it becomes evident, has much to do with photography. Throughout the journals she attempts to articulate some kind of aesthetic theory of the image, one that is very much rooted in the writings of Walter Benjamin and Ludwig Wittgenstein, on whom Roubaud was writing a dissertation at the time of her death. (Included as an appendix to the journals is an aphoristic manifesto of sorts called “All Portraits are Childhood Portraits” that Roubaud wrote in 1980.) Jacques Roubaud notes that her fascination with Wittgenstein was “not exclusively intellectual,” although he does not suggest what other kind of fascination it was, if not intellectual. For my part, I would suggest it is a visceral interest. Her take on photography is intensely corporeal, to the point that she dubs the photographic image the “living image” and the image in the photographic negative the “piction” which needs to be printed in order to bring the piction “into motion and truly make an image.” Jacques Roubaud writes, “She did all her own printing, and recognized as part of her oeuvre only those images that she herself had consigned to paper. . . . Any photographic work that she signed was composed by her own hand with the aid of light and chemistry.” For this reason, for Alix there could be no posthumous prints.
There is something very Benjaminian about this philosophy, but Benjamin in reverse, as if Roubaud is trying to secure an aura for the photograph as a work of art. We can connect this view of photography with the project of her diaries. The idiosyncratic spacing and punctuation in this respect is like the work of the photographer: taking the organized “reality” of language and reshaping it so that it is still recognizable but has been remade through her perspective.
Photography and writing are closely linked, for Roubaud:
Photography allies itself with calligraphy through the repetition of an exercise that aims to achieve a flawless instant;at least it is true of straight photography and its esthetic;It’s like this that despite its realism which is in full opposition to painting,it is nonetheless close to gestural painting.Jackson Pollock also tries to maintain the flawless instant in the moment of production.As for me, I try to use a brush of light.
Her photographs often feature layers of images, some gauzy and faint; as if the images had a veil over them, or as if there were a ghostly presence there. Roubaud balances the corporeality of the self-portrait with a fascination for light, for the instant. Writing the body with light is a way of lightening the body, of escaping its earthward drag. She is interested in heavy things made light, which explains her affinity for Japanese ink drawings, and mono no aware (a wistful appreciation for the ephemerality of all things):
Went to look at things Japanese (illustrations for Genji):rambled back all along rue des Francs-Bourgeois,dreaming of protohaiku on exquisite paper,monochrome yet with dull gold glistening shadows,finely powdered,and prints tacked to wooden frames like insects,the curl of the delicate paper like the wing of an insect:precious things;natural things;a fine fine sense of asymmetry;no fearfulness;dull gold and black and cream,and the photographed lacquered in their even curl on each side;in praise of light;shadow:praise reversed.Handwriting on the print as well:on the print,all over the print
For Roubaud, inspired by Japanese calligraphy, words are as much forms and images as photographs or illustrations. If she plays with the spacing of words on the page, it is at least partly due to this influence.
The most arresting aspect of Roubaud’s theories about photography is that they are occasionally inseparable from her love for her husband:
January 6/7 1980
Oh to free the soul of things.Their incorporeal double.Your other face,the one you don’t see,before you look out,beyond your life:a redoubling born of an amorous gaze— yes, I love you that far.
The book includes several photographs of Alix and Jacques lying in bed together, in various states of undress. They lie together in one picture, and in another they embrace. There is something very sweet and sad about Alix’s garter-belt and stockings, her round behind, Jacques’s limp hair and penis. It is this relationship that is at the heart of Alix’s emotional and creative life. He is her favorite subject, the photosensitive paper on which she processes her art: “[T]he paradox of photographing a tranquil face when one knows that it belongs to you in the most absolute sense;the lens closes it in,” she notes, on photographing Jacques. “A photograph sensitively selects from this, my sensitive surface.” “O darling I’m a wreck and you know it why did you? marry me?” she asks, reflecting again and again on her insufficiencies as a wife, on the unreality of marriage, on the essential unknowability of her partner. “Would that we could be the dark room for one another.” Her protests that she can’t write are addressed to him:
O my sweet love please listen carefully:I am not a writer in any conceivable sense(…)I do not possess any language of my own to write in;I own no single language enough to write in I ; however that may be i HAVE to write,as often as possible, everyday if I can; an exercise both vital and horrible because none of its products can ever be shown to anyone as long as I am alive.Not really.No.Not really.No. O darling it doesn’t matter if you do not understand as long as you know.
Even her darkest premonitions are addressed to him. “You will lose me, my love.”
It’s a devastating read.
Lauren Elkin is a writer, literary critic, and Ph.D. candidate in English literature. She writes about books and French culture on her blog, Maîtresse, and lives in Paris.
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