Maybe You Should Start Again
By Colin Herd.
First published in 1962, Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1 is a “book in a box” that predates other better-known examples like B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates (1969) and Robert Grenier’s poem sequence Sentences (1978). Out of print for years, and almost impossible to get hold of, it’s just been reissued in a gorgeous design by London-based publisher Visual Editions, whose recent publications include an edition of Tristram Shandy and Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer. Composition No. 1 is a box containing 150 loose pages each about three-quarters filled with text, intended to be shuffled into a random order before reading. Each page is both in a sense complete in itself and part of a larger narrative that unfolds differently for each reader depending on the order of the pages.
Saporta’s book was, along with Cortazar’s Hopscotch, one of the first modern pieces of what Espen Aarseth has called “ergodic literature”, i.e. literature that requires effort (other than turning pages) on the part of the reader to traverse the text. Saporta’s book is often seen as a proto-hypertext novel, of importance to writers of later hypertext cybernovels, such as Michael Joyce’s afternoon: a story (1987). Visual Editions have stressed this aspect or extension of the formal implications of the text by including an introduction by Google and Youtube creative director Tom Uglow, who pretty poetically calls the unbinding of the pages of the book an “uninnovation” and says “if the story doesn’t capture you, maybe you should start again.” Meanwhile, by including a sheet of drawings “the anatomy of your favourite novel” by Salvador Plascencia, they link Saporta’s formal decision backwards to the development of the novel in general and its physical conventions.
The first thing the formal gesture of the loose leaves does is force you to make decisions about, or at the very least be conscious of, how you’re going to read the text. To my mind it does this even more overtly than hypertext, confronting you with paper and more brazenly daring you or begging you to disrupt the order of the pages. The decisions needing made, I guess, are: you could accept the pages in the order they are in when you open the box; or you could adopt some kind of strategy while keeping that order basically intact, say by making no changes to the order except reading the last page first, kind of charmingly breaking that “don’t read the end before you’ve got to it” taboo, as one book blogger I found online reports to have done; you could read the book in reverse order from how it arrived, by starting at the back of the pile and finishing at the front; you could shuffle the pages before commencing to read the book and then accept the random order you’ve generated and stick with it for the duration of reading the book; you could shuffle the pages continually while reading, so that the order is constantly randomising as you read and chance is more actively worked into the process of reading; or you could adopt a similar approach but rather than an active sense of chance, work active choice into the reading process by laying the loose sheaves out on the floor and skimming through for a page that seems (by whatever criteria) that it might follow on in an interesting way from what you’ve just read.
Whichever reading method you choose, it seems like the novel resists the fragmentation and disorientation that its formal loose-leafness suggests it might have. One of the most remarkable things about the book is how important the order the pages are read in is to the book you read. This is a completely different scenario to The Unfortunates, where, I’d argue, the random nature of the middle portions of text is to do with the fragmentary nature of memory and experience and essentially, the order you read them in makes little difference to the experience of the novel. In Composition No. 1, the order is crucial in almost every way: crucial to the way you react to characters, to the narrator, crucial to how you understand the plot, and how you understand the formal dynamic of the text. Testament to this is the radically different takes on the book that can be found online in the few sources that discuss it. For example, one of the dramatic or controversial aspects of the plot centres around a character called Helga. One reading of the novel sees Helga raped by the protagonist (called X) while she’s underage. But, if you don’t encounter the rape passages until later in the novel, and depending on the other passages surrounding this one, you might not think she’s underage at all, and you may not even view the rape as clear-cut either, it could be read as seduction.
This kind of ambiguity is possible because all the fragments are written in the present tense. Other details of the plot as they came to me in my reading of the text are a car crash in which X is killed, and a love triangle of X, his wife Marianne and lover Dagmar. At one point Marianne is writing a novel. At another point Dagmar is in the middle of an abstract painting called Composition No. 1. And yet, for most of the novel, the narrator would seem to be X.
In the original English translation edition of the novel (Simon and Schuster 1963), the loose leaves were contained within board covers and held in place by an elastic band. On one of the covers, there were printed instructions from Saporta on how to read the novel:
“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.”
I find it strange that Visual Editions have chosen to miss this from their edition, even though I admire the smart minimalist beauty of the red and black type-written letters on yellow box, and the gorgeous textual illustrations that occupy the back of each loose page. I’m in two minds about the omission. On the one hand, the instructions get in the way of the reader-led consumption/construction of the novel. They’re a kind of authorial intervention before the reader even gets astarted shuffling, like a parent anticipating a child falling and so never letting go of the saddle of the trike. But on the other hand, maybe that authorial intervention is necessary. For me, Composition No. 1 is not, really, a playful book, after the initial thrill of being at license to shuffle the pages. It’s a serious novel, with serious consequences, and Saporta’s intro draws attention to some of those consequences.
It’s a novel where attention to circumstance and context are crucial to making moral and critical judgments, and a novel where the reader is made critically aware that their version of events is only one version of events. In a 2008 issue of the journal L’Esprit Créateur, the critic Warren Motte calls Composition No. 1 a “detective novel”, and that description works pretty well for me, except you’ve got to imagine the “big reveal”, the scene when Poirot gathers all “the principals” to work out all the loose ends; in Composition No. 1 the loose ends tie up, but then there’s a whole different set that ties up too, and a whole different set that ties up, and another, and another. As the novel itself puts it: “each choice is a tiny pang.”
I hope above all that this edition encourages other publishers to bring out Saporta’s other books (Le furet, La distribution, Les Invites and La Quete) in translation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Colin Herd lives and writes in Edinburgh. He is co-editor of Anything Anymore Anywhere. Poems have appeared in Shampoo, Streetcake, Velvet Mafia, Gutter and Pop Serial, and reviews in the blog of Chroma journal. His chapbook, Like, is published by Knives Forks and Spoons Press and his poetry collection, too ok, by BlazeVOX.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, September 25th, 2011.