Impressions of Africa
How I Wrote Certain of My Books
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.