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Composition No. 1 by Marc Saporta

Saporta, Marc. Composition No. 1. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963.

Marc Saporta’s book in a box Composition No. 1 is one of those books that people like to refer to in an off-hand-“it’s a book in a box where the pages can be read randomly”-way, but almost no one reads it (or at least almost no one seems to have anything to say if they did read it). It isn’t all that surprising as there are few copies out there to be easily (or cheaply) found.

The book qua book is an almost unique entity. The closest thing I’m aware of is B.S. Johnson’s novel The Unfortunates (1969) which is a book consisting of twenty-some sections of various pages, one of which is noted “first”, another “last”, the others to be read in any order. In contrast Saporta’s novel is 150 loose pages, unpaginated, printed on one side. One is the title page; all the others make up the novel. They are enclosed in a box that folds open. The cover provides instructions: “The pages of this book may be read in any order. The reader is requested to shuffle them like a deck of cards.” Shuffling the pages provides an early difficulty in reading the novel. It doesn’t look like it would be easy. I opted to assume that the previous owner (my copy was bought used) had shuffled the pages at least a bit, so I just read the pages as they were, with the exception that I started with the last one.

Inside on the left half of the box (the inside front cover, as it were), a text offers a description of the novel (the back of the box, where one normally expects to find a summary or blurbs is conspicuously empty of anything but the publisher’s name, the price ($3.95!), and the name of the box’s designer), which is worth quoting at length, as it not only provides the summary of the main aspects of the story, but also shows a bit of subterfuge on the part of the author (I assume he wrote the text in question):

“The reader is requested to shuffle these pages like a deck of cards; to cut, if he likes, with his left hand, as at a fortuneteller’s. The order the pages then assume will orient X’s fate.
“For the time and order of events control a man’s life more than the nature of such events. Certainly there is a framework which history imposes: the presence of a man in the resistance, his transfer to the Army of Occupation in Germany, relate to a specific period. Similarly, the events that marked his childhood cannot be presented in the same way as those which he experienced as an adult.
“Nor is it a matter of indifference to know if he met his mistress Dagmar before or after his marriage; if he took advantage of Helga at the time of her adolescence or her maturity; if the theft he has committed occurred under cover of the resistance or in less troubles times; if the automobile accident in which he has been hurt is unrelated to the theft — or the rape — or if it occurred during his getaway.
“Whether the story ends well or badly depends on the concatenation of circumstances. A life if composed of many elements. But the number of possible compositions is infinite.”

Below that section is the text of one of the novel’s odder pages: seventeen lines of dialogue by seventeen different characters that appear in the novel, all prefaced by “[character name] says:” (italics in the original). More on this later, as I want to deal with the main description of the novel first.

It’s a lie, most every sentence of the description. The book is almost disguising itself as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book before the fact, yet the order will not decide X’s fate. The events of childhood are presented in the same way as the adults experiences. It is a matter of indifference about all the order of events. Regardless of the order of the pages X’s fate is the same, and whether it ends well or badly is unaffected. Even the title of the work — Composition No. 1 — belies the infinite compositions. It is all one composition.

This lying is not unrelated to the text. On numerous occasions there are references to lying, for no purpose or to discover truth. Is there perhaps some connection between Saporta’s lying and the lying in the novel?

That said… on to the text itself. Each page is a self-contained element, almost every one takes up the majority of the page (an impressive feat making them all so uniform in length so as to fit on one page). Obviously there is no linear plot to follow, one realizes that before even starting, but it quickly becomes obvious that these pages are not independent of each other: characters reappear, certain settings recur, scenes appear in fragments. The elements in the description are apparent: the lover Dagmar, the wife (Marianne), the young Helga, the resistance, the theft, the car accident. They all appear in fragments often quite disjointed; some, particularly the scenes with Helga, have an illusion of close connection in time, yet parts repeat or overlap.

Everything occurs in the present tense. There is no past or future, just continuous disjointed present, like all those voices speaking at once under the description.

The main character — “X” as the description would have him (it is clearly a he) — is never described, never speaks, and seems to almost not exist. “X” is the narrator, a narrator that is almost invisible: characters respond to words we don’t see/read/hear, characters interact with a presence that is almost non-existent but for the occasional contact. The whole thing is narrated from a perspective much like that of Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy or The Voyeur (the story is also quite reminiscent of him: the sexual violence with the girl, the detective-like elements, the soldiers, the repetition). We are, in a way, inside the narrator. The “X” not only hides a name, it is also “x“, the variable. It takes a little getting used to, but I found it easy to assimilate my reading to this style, focusing the narration through this character, which brings a certain coherence to the disparate elements (such as the few childhood scenes).

The scenes of the car crash and its (subsequent?) trip to the hospital are the most abstract in the piece. It is almost as if the narrator is hallucinating, which lead me to the impression that the novel is the narrator’s memory, like a whole life flashing before one’s eyes. Like the wandering memory there are at times inconsistencies (at least I thought there were inconsistencies) and some items that just don’t seem to fit at all with the rest (a page on a rose bush; a page involving two characters that I don’t believe appeared anywhere else in the book). The shuffled pages of the novel are like the fragments of memory in the mind. They don’t appear with any logic or order.

The constraint at work is, obviously, in the pages, writing a work in one page elements that are completely interchangeable. In its combinatoric form it is reminiscent of Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards Poemes, except it retains coherence in the semantic rather than the formal (rhythm/rhyme) aspects. Interestingly, on page 190 of the Oulipo Compendium in the minutes of one of the Oulipo’s meeting, Saporta is “rejected” as “no good” though there is “structure there”.

The novel itself makes for an entertaining read. I’m not sure how it would stand up to rereadings, as part of the charm of it comes from wanting to see what happens “next” and piecing together the puzzle of events. While, it would be easy to dismiss this work as a gimmick, as so many constrained works are, Composition No. 1 is a serious work. While it is not a great work of literature, as an experiment, it opens up the potential for future creation.

As mentioned earlier this novel is oft-referred to but rarely examined. I’ve found little on it either online or in a few databases (MLA for one). Most frequently it is cited as a “hypertext precursor” (I first heard of it back when I was researching hypertext fiction) alongside Cortazar’s Hopscotch and others. Like Queneau’s sonnets, it would lend itself to a computerized version. Pages could be more easily shuffled, and alternate ways of reading could be found by organizing the pages in different ways.

Online Nick Montfort (whose “Ad Verbum” I linked to last week, and who curated the Harry Mathews show I mentioned yesterday) offers a “reading” of it on his website, mostly a sort of summary with a few comments (and a few misreadings, in my opinion).

Reinhold Grimm’s “Marc Saporta: The Novel as Card Game” (Contemporary Literature 19.3 (1978): 280-99) is an excellent and interesting reading of the novel. He ties in literary precursors, discusses the novel as an “aleatory novel of consciousness” (I’m still trying to figure that one out), and makes an interesting connection between the form of the novel and the painting in the novel called “Composition No. 1”. There is also one book (as far as I have found) on Saporta’s novels, which I have not yet seen: Eros chez Thanatos: essai sur les romans de Marc Saporta by Pietro Ferrua (Paris: Avant-Garde, 1979).