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Portrait of Jacques Rigaut by Man Ray

Yesterday, I began a series of posts examining my novel in progress, Housebreaking the Muse. As I noted, the manuscript has hit a kind of critical mass, so I’ve begun analyzing it for clues concerning the work I’m trying to accomplish and how I’m going about it. As I said, I prefer the work of fiction writing to be a process of discovery. This post continues my analysis.

When I embarked on Housebreaking the Muse, I intended to write a more-or-less straightforward historical novel centered on the life and times of Jacques Rigaut. Through an allusion to Rigaut in Paul Auster’s novel Moon Palace, I’d discovered the broad outline of Rigaut’s story: Rigaut, the dada-gigolo, attempted suicide at the age of 19 and, when the gun he’d pointed to his head failed to discharge, he vowed to wait 10 years before trying again. Then, on the appointed day 10 years later, he tried again and succeeded. Auster, no doubt, cribbed this summary from André Breton’s introduction to the Rigaut piece that appears in Anthologie de L’Humour Noir. In the margin on the page of Moon Palace on which the Rigaut allusion appears, I wrote “If true, a story?”

I did, in fact, write a story based on Rigaut: “Jacques Rigaut’s Happiest Bedtime Story.” This short work, however, had little to do with actual events in Rigaut’s life. And the story did not flush from my system the deep interest I’d developed in Rigaut: I remained intrigued. Slowly, I started conceiving the idea of the historical novel. Over time, Rigaut became something of an obsession for me. But the more I researched, the deeper I got into my translation of Rigaut’s collected works (Écrits, Gallimard 1970), the more questions I had about this character. Very few accounts of Rigaut’s life exist, and these are both brief and, generally, limited to the events of his death. How much, I wondered, of the Rigaut presented in these pieces is apocryphal? Beyond these elegies and reminiscences, there are brief allusions to Rigaut in a number of disparate works, including Man Ray’s autobiography, Self Portrait. I also had access to the useful, if telegraphic, chronology of the major events in Rigaut’s life presented in Écrits.

Having so little to work from, I came to the realization that were I to do a novel solely focused on Rigaut, it would by necessity involve a great deal of speculation on my part and, I suspected, a deep dive into the interior of JR. These are not bad things, and to a great degree I’ve engaged in the speculation and the deep dive in Housebreaking the Muse. But I questioned my ability to sustain this kind of narrative in a work of novel length. I also suspected that due diligence on the research would demand I travel to Paris, an expedition I could ill afford.

Despite these doubts, I continued speculating about how to fill in the gaps in the Rigaut record, about what JR’s life meant. These speculations resulted in experimental sketches. The first was a chapter-length portrait, written in third person, of JR at the front in Lorraine during World War I. I suppose it was suitable enough, but the idea of writing 20 more chapters like that one just didn’t grab me aesthetically. I need to be excited by what I’m writing, and working this way just didn’t get me fired up. I also tried a chapter presenting, in first person, Rigaut on the eve of his suicide. I found that much more satisfying, but again I became concerned about my ability to sustain the voice of JR over 300-400 pages. I also quickly became concerned about the amount of time I would have to spend imagining myself into JR’s brain and the effect this would have on my own mental stability—suffice to say the writing of that first-person chapter took a lot out of me. I started wondering whether some sort of polyvocal, multiple-perspective approach might lend itself to JR’s story.

While considering my options, swept up as I was in both Rigaut and Dada fever, I revisited Alfred Jarry’s seminal work Ubu Roi (Père Ubu). While reading it, the idea crossed my mind of a play based on an Ubu that had become refined and erudite: “Ubu Réformé.” And then, in one of those twists of mind that stack thought upon thought, I said to myself, “Ubu Réformé is the narrator of the World War I chapter.” This moved the entire novel out of the historic and into another realm, a realm that added more complications and raised more questions, but complications and questions wholly my own to work out and deal with. Now, Rigaut could become a figure in a polyvocal narrative reality in which, ultimately, authority remains in doubt as opposed to a fictionalized Rigaut secured by strong roots to an ostensible authority existing outside the work. Bingo!

So, ultimately, I started to question what this obsession with Rigaut had to say about me. I started to wonder about how characters insinuate themselves on your consciousness and take control. What’s going on when “the voice of Rigaut,” a Rigaut on the brink of bringing his own life to an end, impresses itself on my brain and I find myself writing

Having made felo-de-se a vocation I suppose, ten years into my career and at last decided, following through with the ultimate acte gratuit constitutes retirement. Certainly, my commitment has run its course. If nothing else, I am a man of commitment. What a delicious motto I erected to buttress my will: Just try to stop a man who walks around with suicide pinned to his lapel. Top that! Well, perhaps I overstate my case. I suppose some may see things differently. But I insist: to this act I’ve remained committed. The rest has only been window dressing. Truth be told, I’ve had doubts of late. The good doctors here have done their work, interrupted my compulsions, and, as the poisons drain from my body, my lust for them seems to wane. And now the drugs, having become one more species of boredom, cease to fascinate me, fail to amuse me. Society says this is a good thing. It’s noble to kick your habits, a liberating experience. But, rather than liberated, my Coco, I feel myself more than ever a slave to my vocation. I truly seek not to die, but how get around it? The arc of my career, like a delicate artillery shell streaming to its target, traces its inexorable path to the conclusion I conceived–can it be?–ten years ago. As it nears its resolution, it achieves an irresistible velocity.

This process led me to introduce a third major narrative entity to the novel, but I’ll have more to say about him later. Through this process, however, I’ve transformed the Rigaut of history into the idea of a Jacques Rigaut who serves as a foil for this third narrative entity who, it turns out, is the true protagonist of the work. This idea of Rigaut provides me a useful and entertaining tool I can use to work out some of Rigaut’s major themes, along with key touchpoints in his life, in ways that–I hope–can resonate in a contemporary world in which the worst of what Dada sought to destroy has reasserted itself with even greater force.