Composition No. 1 by Marc Saporta

Monday, January 31, 2011 § 0

Composition No. 1: An Innovative Novel-in-a-Box Inspired by Abstract Painting

A Book Review by 
David Detrich

Composition No. 1 (1962) by Marc Saporta is an innovative novel-in-a-box first published by Éditions du Seuil. It was later translated by Richard Howard and published by Simon & Schuster in an inexpensive edition that has become a collector's item appearing in the special collections display box at Logos Books. A new edition by Visual Editions, London, with an introduction by Tom Uglow of Creative Labs Google, and drawings by Salvador Plascencia, has been available since the spring of 2011 with an elegant yellow book-in-a-box designed by Universal Everything. With Composition No. 1 by Marc Saporta the innovative novel is becoming a work of publishing mastery as it progresses in design and esthetic concept towards the book arts object. Composition No. 1 is written in loose unbound pages which can be shuffled into a chance composition, a concept developed in the 1960s when John Cage experimented with ways of freeing composition from authoritarian determination. Chance composition is a way of creating an open form where the pages of the novel can be read in a structure that is created by the reader. If the reader is to shuffle the pages like "a deck of cards," then the reading of the novel will become a game of chance. This is a theme introduced by Stéphane Mallarmé in A Toss of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance (1897), where the spatial design of the typographic poem affirms the future success of the inevitable, chance itself, which cannot be abolished.

The events of Composition No. 1 take place in Paris where the characters have experiences which show an intertextuality with a future reading, a time when the plot lines have taken on a literary significance. The characters are led by X who instructs the reader to shuffle the pages, there is Marianne "at her desk," Buisson who says "We'll take care of you after school," Helga who "buzzes like a golden insect in the sun," and Dagmar who is "sitting on the low couch." The characters of Composition No. 1 are students, and the plot is gradually unfolding before the reader in a style that seems futuristic, mildly erotic, and written in an objective style of prose with a multiplicity of interactions that make up a complex cast of personalities.

"Marianne is at her desk. The scribbled papers accumulate around her, covering each other. The writing is almost a shriek. Illegible. No single letter is actually formed. No sentence seems finished. Some sheets show only a few words. Others are completely covered. Once the page is filled, Marianne has written in the margins, vertically. The text is full of crossings-out and rewritings. No sheet is numbered; she can't possibly find where she is in all this mess. ... Finally she stands up. She says, 'I've begun to write a novel.'"
                                                            Composition No. 1
                                                            Marc Saporta

The description of Marianne working at her desk suggests the idea of metafiction, a novel about a woman writing a novel, where "no sentence seems finished," an Abstract Expressionist perspective on her writing technique, and "Marianne has written in the margins, vertically," suggesting the idea of a novel written in columns. This is similar to my own novel-in-progress Dream the Presence of the Circular Breast Starfish Topography which is written in columns with typographic design in the margins. 

Composition No. 1 anticipates the innovative novel of the 21st Century with the use of typographical design, with sentences which are left unfinished, and with an achronological time frame produced by the chance shuffling of the pages. The meaning of events are more a product of their position in a time sequence than of the importance of the events in themselves, so that a historical framework places events in the context of the 20th Century, even when the narrator may wish to transcend his present situation, his place in the present epoch, and the context in which the novel occurs.

"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...
                                                           Composition No. 1
                                                           Marc Saporta

The novel is influenced by Abstract Expressionism in painting with both a Parisian and New York trend developing in the 1960s, and Marc Saporta exemplifies the open structure in fiction with the unbound pages that were inspired by an abstract painting. The evolution of representation in the novel has moved away from objective realism towards abstraction in sentence structure, where each sentence is like an expressionistic brush stroke left unfinished, and with an open mobile-like structure for the pages that foreshadows the futuristic ultramodernism of architecture.   

At the left is the studio, which also serves as a living room and bedroom. The easel stands in front of the window. It is the only place in the room that is clearly lighted by the big skylight opening onto a prospect of roofs. On the wall, an abstract work, unframed and tacked above the drawing board. The canvas is signed by a young artist whose last show made a stir. ... The couch, along the wall, is covered with a Mexican serape. Dagmar is sitting there with her legs folded under her. Above her head, contrasting violently with her blond hair, the dark abstract painting with clots of color that seem to be on fire is still unfinished. It is called Composition No. 1.
                                                           Composition No. 1
                                                           Marc Saporta

Composition No. 1 is itself an abstraction of the novel form with a non-linear structure, so that the reader may create a phenomenological perception of the significance of events which occur at random in a chance composition.In so many ways, Composition No.1 was published ahead of its time: the book raises all the questions we ask ourselves today about user-centric, non-linear screen driven ways of reading.

So it made sense to develop a screen version too: Composition No. 1 as an iPad app. While the printed book asks readers to shuffle pages, the screen version is an automatic screen shuffle that forces readers to get involved.
                                                           Visual Editions

Composition No. 1 (1962) by Marc Saporta has become an electronic text like the new innovative novels written for a specific application. This will give the reader a more sophisticated esthetic appreciation for the novel if it can be adapted to a computer interface, and furthers the chance composition possibilities of interpreting the significance of events if the pages appear in an unbound book-in-a-box.

David Detrich lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where he has just completed The Convergence of Two Narrative Lines Ascending, an ultramodern Surrealist novel written in minimal squares. He is working on Dream the Presence of the Circular Breast Starfish Topography, a monumental Surrealist novel written with innovative typographical design. His first novel Big Sur Marvels & Wondrous Delights (2001) is available from Amazon. He is the editor of Innovative Fiction Magazine and Surrealist Star Clustered Illuminations.

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