Raymond Roussel
Raymond Roussel; drawing by David Levine

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.

At the same time, Roussel despised mere reality. Janet (whose pseudonym for Roussel was “Martial,” after his character in Locus Solus) noted: “Martial has a very interesting conception of literary beauty. It is necessary that the work contain nothing of reality, nor any observation of the world or of the spirits that dwell in it, nothing but completely imaginary combinations. These are already ideas from an extra-human world.” He further remarked that “Martial” insisted that if a description contained any element of reality, it would therefore be ugly. At the point when the initial interviews between Janet and Roussel took place, in 1896, the latter’s work might still have been mistaken for an aestheticism grounded in actual observation. La Doublure, which he published the following year, is a novel in verse that seems on the surface a banal love story, set against the events of the carnival in Nice. Actually, the love story plays a very slight part in the book, which is mostly made up of interminable descriptions of the carnival crowds. His next book, La Vue, goes farther, and describes three scenes in minute detail, landscapes that exist only within the eyepiece set into a pen, the letterhead on a sheet of hotel stationery, and the label on a bottle of mineral water.

These two books are the most conventional of Roussel’s works. With Impressions of Africa, in 1910, came a new kind of peculiarity. At around this time Roussel began hinting at his use of a code, but speculation did not cease until 1935, two years after his death, when How I Wrote Certain of My Books was published. In it, he revealed his procedures, which were of three kinds. In the first, he would choose two phrases, almost identical but with distinct meanings, and attempt to reconcile them. Thus the distance between “les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard” (“the chalk letters on the cushions of the old billiard table”) and “les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard” (“the white man’s letters concerning the old bandit’s gangs”) would generate a story for him. The second way consisted of finding a phrase of two nouns, connected by the adjectival preposition “à,” having a double meaning, such as “palmier à restauration,” which can mean both a certain kind of cake served in a restaurant and a palm tree connected with a restoration. Again, the reconciliation of two nearly random elements would provide an anecdote’s base. In the third, he would take a randomly chosen phrase and transform it into a string of homophonic words: “Tun’en aura pas” (“you won’t have any”) would become “Dune en or a pas” (“golden dune bearing footprints”). Here the fortuitous character of the extracted second phrase would make the basis for a story.

Not for the first time, the French language’s restricted range of sounds bore fruit. Roussel’s idol, Victor Hugo, once achieved the tour de force of a poetic couplet in which each syllable in line B rhymed with its counterpart in line A. Roussel failed to go as far as his contemporary Jean-Pierre Brisset, who decided that homonyms and rhymes peculiar to French explained the whole world, since homonymic words invariably pointed to connections between the objects described by them. The Surrealists went on to add Roussel’s procedures to their repertoire of automatic operations, so that, for example, Robert Desnos could transform the Lord’s Prayer into “Notre paire quiète, ô yeux….”

Roussel’s linguistic chance operations might explain the utter strangeness of his stories, but they do not so much explain as help to illustrate their quality of enclosed circularity. This quality provides a striking metaphor for Roussel’s insularity and repression. Roussel’s voyages into the extrahuman always began and ended with himself, or at least his perception. In La Vue the body of landscape description is framed by the circumstances of the viewer staring at the tiny scene. The “Textes de grande jeunesse, ou textes-genèse” (another pun), which were his earliest experiments with the first of his procedures, isolate the story between two phrases, only existing within their limits and connected to nothing else. The effect is like that of a limited magnetic field.

Roussel’s last completed book, Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique, is his most elaborate work in this direction. The four cantos of the poem each begin with a more or less standard observation concerning an actual African landmark. These ruminations are interrupted by parenthetical divagations, themselves further interrupted by double parentheses, and so on, up to quintuple parentheses, the parentheses in turn interrupted by dashes and footnotes. The chain of assocations goes farther and farther afield until it is brought back, dropping successive ends of parentheses, to the concluding lines, which take up the touristic view begun at the top. The middle lines tend to be catalog-like in nature, enumerating series, such as of things that grow smaller, of big things confused with little things, of reversals of fortune. The effect is of a cluster of circles, or perhaps spheres, but spheres which, as Rayner Heppenstall points out, bear their centers on the outside.

The Nouvelles Impressions seems to be a logical puzzle, something line three-dimensional chess. Various models have been constructed of it using symbolic logic, and a machine has been built to read it which resembles a large Rolodex. This aspect of his work gives at least some credence to Roussel’s own notion that he was a genius. This conviction, which he probably maintained to the end, is simultaneously grand and banal, like so much else about him. His earliest known work is a poem titled “Mon Ame,” written when he was seventeen and published three years later in a newspaper Sunday supplement. It is a work of staggering megalomania, in which he describes the vastness within himself in very literal terms, filling the landscape with armies, factories, oceans. At the close the entire world is seen helplessly salaaming to that name: Raymond Roussel. When he republished it thirty-five years later, as a postface to the Nouvelles Impressions, it had become “L’Ame de Victor Hugo,” and bore an introductory passage describing a dream in which Roussel saw Hugo writing the poem. At the close, the world salaams to the name of Hugo, even though the rhyme scheme clearly calls for Roussel’s.

Michel Leiris, the writer and ethnologist whose father was Roussel’s lawyer, and to whom we owe most of what is known about Roussel, points out that Roussel’s notion of glory was something very physical. Since he did not believe in an afterlife, and therefore had limited interest in posterity as such, he was mostly interested in the trappings of fame: the Legion d’honneur (which he actually achieved), his photograph in popular albums, a street named after him. Furthermore, he thought of glory as producing a physical sensation, namely euphoria, a notion which must have led him to drugs and eventually death. What Roussel wanted above all was the representation of glory, a point stressed by Aragon when he called him “the perfect statue of genius.”

Certainly Roussel’s models of literary glory were conventional at best, and a greater gap between those who influenced him and those he influenced can scarcely be imagined. Besides Hugo, Roussel admired the Parnassians, François Coppée, Pierre Loti, and most of the popular writers of his day, with the significant exception of those who dealt in psychological literature. Above all, above even Hugo, he revered Jules Verne, and links to his work are discernible in the profusion of adventures, inventions, cryptograms, and exotica to be found in Roussel’s. His absorption of popular literature was such that, when he visited Daghdad his letters mainly described how much everything resembled the novels of Loti and the costumes at the Gaieté theater. Roussel invariably snubbed the thing in favor of its reproduction.

On the other hand, while he knew Proust socially, there is no evidence that he ever read the latter’s work, although Cocteau once called Roussel “the Proust of dreams.” Robert de Montesquiou, the dandy and the model for Proust’s Baron de Charlus, was actually the first critic to write kindly about him, and Roussel had bands placed around copies of Locus Solus that reproduced a quote from Montesquiou’s essay: “C’est un art d’infusoire, mais, je m’empresse d’ajouter, infusoire de génie.” Somehow, being called a “protozoan of genius” must have appealed to Roussel.

His decision to stage the novels as plays paid off to the extent of attracting certain appreciative spectators, such as Apollinaire, Duchamp, and the Surrealists, although whether they appreciated Roussel in his intended fashion is debatable. Certainly the Surrealists could find in Roussel another of their “ancestors,” one who had explored the particular resonances that could only be produced via automatic methods. Like the Surrealists, Roussel was also a collector of commonplaces. The strangeness of his stories is set off by the bourgeois insipidity of their constituent parts, much as the collage-novels of Max Ernst are entirely composed of images from fin-de-siècle rotogravure supplements. It was this phenomenon which caused Michel Leiris to write: “It is not rash to think that were a thematic catalog established for Roussel’s work, it would reveal a psychological content equivalent to that of most of the great western mythologies. That is because the products of Roussel’s imagination are, in some way, quintessential commonplaces.”3

Roussel’s heirs have been a mixed lot. Next in line were the nouveau romanciers, who recognized the ancestor of their literature of literal description. Robbe-Grillet, in his For a New Novel,4 hailed Roussel: “Roussel has nothing to say and says it badly,” and then went on to explain how this was a virtue. His novel Le Voyeur was originally entitled La Vue, in homage. If Robbe-Grillet and Butor could be said, after the fashion of Marxists, to be disciples of the “young” Roussel, then the Oulipo group of scientific formalists hoisted the banner of the later Roussel, given to game-playing and linguistic procedures. Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, and François Le Lionnais, among others, conceived of mathematically based ways of using chance in their writing, the results of which often seem like surrealism without the psychic payoff. Within the confines of their spare-time movement, quite apart from the more sustained works they produced independently, they made a literature of randomness, with often quite beautiful effects, but which is finally arid. Related to this school is Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa,5 surely one of the most deliberately Rousselian novels ever written. Abish shapes his narrative by restricting the appearance of words to chapters whose letter-titles match or are farther along the alphabet than their own initials. It is a small but appealing curiosity, which effectively slams the door on that particular avenue of formal exploration.

Roussel’s interpreters are just about as diverse as his heirs. Rayner Heppenstall, for example, would seem an unlikely prospect for Roussel’s English champion. His book is informative but he seems too baffled by Roussel to give much of a critical account. His most original stroke consists of finding something Proustian about La Doublure, the least readable of Roussel’s books. It is regrettable that John Ashbery abandoned a long-projected study some time in the 1960s. His two essays in the SUN volume, brief as they are, provide a satisfying introduction to Roussel’s life and work. Ashbery has been a tireless propagandist for the rediscovery of Roussel and has excavated an impressive amount of unpublished material. The major critical works on Roussel remain the three books by Jean Ferry, 6 products of monastic dedication, which pick over every detail of Impressions of Africa and the Nouvelles Impressions, finding wordplays that Roussel himself doesn’t mention, in context a nearly impossible feat of reverse deduction.

But Roussel is a writer who defies criticism, much as his books defy synopsis, since the work cannot be reduced any further. His premises are so alien that they cannot be gainsaid, and their application is so perfectly consistent that it cannot be faulted. It is at such a point that criticism becomes interpretation, and interpretation increasingly relies on statistics. What is most valuable in Roussel are the liberties he takes with language, but not only does this not translate well, even in French the effect is evanescent and cannot be captured long enough to be examined. In English Roussel will remain a hermetic fabulist of limited impact. His enclosed strangeness has the quaint charm of allegorical photographs, but life has long since outdone art in its production of the dust-free and the artificial.

This Issue

January 31, 1985