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Scientist of the Fantastic

Impressions of Africa

by Raymond Roussel, translated by Lindy Foord, by Rayner Heppenstall
John Calder/Riverrun Press, 317 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Locus Solus

by Raymond Roussel, translated by Rupert Copeland Cunningham
John Calder/Riverrun Press, 254 pp., $9.95 (paper)

How I Wrote Certain of My Books

by Raymond Roussel, translated, with notes and a bibliography, by Trevor Winkfield, with two essays on Roussel by John Ashbery, a translation of Canto III of Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique by Kenneth Koch
SUN, 75 pp., $7.00 (paper)

Raymond Roussel

by Rayner Heppenstall
John Calder/Riverrun Press, 97 pp., $12.95

In the annals of twentieth-century literature, few cases are as strange as that of Raymond Roussel. In the first place, so little is really known about his life that all kinds of things can easily be imagined. More important is the dizzying succession of paradoxes concerning his work: he was the most prosaic of poets, the most literal-minded of phantasts. His prose is so clear that it requires decoding. He could generate so many stories that his books have no progression. He was a literary conservative who was claimed by nearly every succeeding avant-garde in France. He strove all his life to write popular literature, in both senses of the term, only to end up in a limbo of notorious, even chic, obscurity, being much alluded to but seldom read.

The known outline of his life is skeletal. He was born in 1877 to a bourgeois Parisian family. His father died when he was seventeen, and he grew up devoted to his eccentric and formidable mother. His family was socially ambitious: his mother traveled in high circles and was an intimate of Mme. Proust’s; his sister married the Duc d’Elchingen, grandson of Marshal Ney. He first studied the piano, quite seriously, in fact, but at the age of eighteen decided his real vocation lay in writing. While working on his first book, a novel in verse called La Doublure, he felt “an extraordinarily intense sensation of universal glory.” The prominent psychologist Pierre Janet, who included his case history in a volume called De l’Angoisse à l’Extase, quoted Roussel as saying: “What I wrote was surrounded by rays of light. I closed the curtains, fearing that the smallest crack would let out the rays of light emitting from my pen. I wanted to remove the screen all at once and illuminate the world. If those papers had been left lying around, the rays of light would have reached China, and the bewildered mob would have stormed the house.” 1 He felt himself to be the peer of Dante and Shakespeare; he knew the same glory as Hugo at seventy, Napoleon in 1811, Tannhäuser at the Venusberg. When the book was published, in 1897, he was amazed to find that life went on as usual and that nobody stopped him on the street.

When he recovered from that breakdown he went back to writing, only momentarily shaken in the faith that glory was within his reach. He wrote another long work in verse, La Vue, in 1904, then the novels Impressions d’Afrique, in 1910, and Locus Solus, in 1914. Both of the novels were staged as plays, at Roussel’s considerable expense (the publication costs of the books were also underwritten by him), only to meet with ridicule and scorn. His later plays, L’Etoile au Front and La Poussière de Soleils, were received with even more violent abuse, the former actually prompting a small riot, but were defended by a new-found group of young admirers from the Surrealist camp. Roussel found them as bewildering as the world found him. “Un peu obscur” was his judgment. He went on to write Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique (1932), which had little connection with his similarly titled novel and was, in fact, a poem composed of four long cantos. After his death, Comment j’ai écrit certains de mes Livers was published, setting forth details of the cipher he used in composing various of his works.

Beyond the bibliographical data, what is known of Roussel’s life boils down to a collection of odd anecdotes. These do little more than place him among the great literary eccentrics, such as Gérard de Nerval, who was once seen leading a lobster down the street on a leash, and Ronald Firbank, who once made an elaborate meal of a single pea, carving it into numerous portions. Roussel’s travels are memorable: he sailed to Tahiti and, when he got there, declined to leave his cabin; a brief tour of Peking sufficed him, after which he returned to his hotel for the remaining days of the visit. (In this peculiarity he was probably influenced by his mother, who sailed to India and, arriving in sight of its shores, commanded the captain to turn around and sail back to France.) Roussel designed and commissioned one of the first mobile homes, a luxurious vehicle that included a drawing room, bed, and bath, thus enabling him to continue his travels in even more hermetic fashion.

These adventures, as well as his literary career, were financed by a substantial legacy from his stockbroker father. Wealth enabled his family to leave town whenever one of his literary or theatrical disgraces burst upon the scene. It also permitted them to hire a mistress to disguise his lack of any permissible sexual activity. Roussel could only stand new clothes and would never wear any article more than a few times. He was legendary as a host; the meals were so long they usually abutted one another, so that guests would sit down to lunch and go on to consume tea, dinner, and perhaps a light supper before arising from the table some twelve hours later.

Roussel’s gourmandise extended to his consumption of drugs. He swallowed vast quantities of tranquilizers in elaborate and ever-changing combinations, hoping to achieve both euphoria and a good night’s sleep. Abuse of drugs eventually caused his death at the age of fifty-six. The actual circumstances of his end, in a Palermo hotel, with his paid mistress in an adjoining room, remain shadowy. The story involves one or more suicide attempts with a razor blade, a locked connecting door, a mattress lugged off the bed, a disappearing chauffeur, numerous articles of melodrama. The Italian novelist Leonardo Sciascia tried and failed to solve the puzzle in his book Actes relatifs à la mort de Raymond Roussel.2

No substantial portrait of Roussel emerges from these facts. We are left with an array of speculations concerning a more or less pathological character. He was possibly infantile, although photographs deny any physical evidence of this. There is certainly no question that he was withdrawn, and that repression forms the very cornerstone of his work. What is always in question with Roussel, though, is how much of reality he actually perceived, and so whether various aspects of his work are intentional or not. Upon being asked for his impression of the First World War, he replied, “I’ve never seen so many men.” Was this benighted literalness or was it camp? Roussel cuts a figure not unlike Andy Warhol’s: people will always be knocking themselves out trying to decide whether he was terribly advanced or merely naive.

With these four new editions, most of what has ever been available by or about Roussel in English is now in print at the same time. (The three Calder volumes were last printed between 1966 and 1970, the SUN collection in 1977.) Together, they form a good introduction to Roussel’s work and method and, given the onerous difficulties he presents to the translator, they may be all that is available to the English-language reader for some time.

Impressions of Africa was Roussel’s first prose novel. The title’s banality, suggesting a collection of stray observations by a dilettante traveler, serves to underscore the wild eccentricity of the book itself. The first half describes the festivities attending the coronation of Talu VII, Emperor of Ponukele and King of Drelshkaf. Many of the spectacles are engineered by Europeans, and in the book’s second half, a long flashback, we learn the details of their shipwreck and of their capture by Talu’s forces. The festivities are the focal center of the novel: there are the zither-playing worm, the Breton who plays a flute made from his tibia, the statue constructed entirely of whalebones intended for corsets, rolling on rails made of calves’ lungs; there are a windclock, a dwarf whose head is the size of the rest of his body, various scenes from history and literature recreated for the edification of all. These mechanisms and displays are described with pedantic detail and in a prose that comes as close as is possible to a perfect lack of style. Aside from the strangeness of what is being described, the only formal note is the use of the flashback. Even here, though, Roussel may have had second thoughts. In the second edition of the book (which was labeled “tenth edition” and which did not appear until twenty-two years after the first) a slip was inserted suggesting that the reader might want to start in the middle and then go back and read the beginning.

The effect of the collision of bizarre content and plain prose is hypnotic, with an insanely reasonable dream-logic. The same is true of his other prose novel, Locus Solus, in which an inventor, Martial Canterel, escorts a party around the estate of the title, demonstrating and explaining his many fabulous inventions. At the end of the book, they all return to the villa for “a cheerful dinner.” That is all that happens, but here, too, the content of the book consists of the explanatory anecdotes generated by each mechanism as it passes in review.

Roussel’s disappointment at the failure of his various efforts was not merely the result of wounded pride. He genuinely felt himself to be endowed with a mission. Somehow there was a message he needed to transmit to the world, and the world did not understand. When Impressions of Africa and Locus Solus were not understood as novels, he transferred them to the stage, in the hope of making his message more accessible. The nature of this message has been the object of much speculation. Roussel’s work contains so many sorts of codes and systems that nobody has ever been quite certain where to look for that crucial element. It may, in fact, not be a mystery at all.

Roussel’s work can be read simply as fantastic literature. Unlike most fantastic literature, however, it does not have any sort of supernatural character, and dispenses with any realistic pretext. This alien materialism presents a paradox that André Breton, among others, could not digest, choosing instead to see a mystical or alchemical design lurking in the shadows. But Roussel had absorbed a turn-of-the-century scientism that simply did not admit of the mystical. One of his most eerie passages is the scene in Locus Solus in which Canterel demonstrates corpses that have been treated with two chemicals of his invention, vitalium and resurrectine. These bodies, although quite dead, are animated by the chemicals to endlessly reenact the crucial moment of their lives. John Ashbery notes that Roussel wrote this shortly after the death of his mother, and it undoubtedly served to mitigate a grief, but the passage contains no suggestion of immortality or the existence of a soul. The boundaries of science, however stretched, enclosed Roussel’s world.

  1. 1

    Les Caractères psychologiques de l’Extase,” excerpted in Comment j’ai écrit certains de mes Livres (Paris: Jean-Jacques Pauvert, 1963).

  2. 2

    (Paris: L’Herne, 1972).

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