Champion of Words

John Sturrock

  • Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel by Michel Foucault, translated by Charles Ruas
    Athlone, 186 pp, £29.50, April 1987, ISBN 0 485 11336 8
  • Raymond Roussel: Life, Death and Works. Essays and stories by various hands
    Atlas, 157 pp, £5.50, September 1987, ISBN 0 947757 14 7

Michel Foucault, for once and for now, may stand aside: who is the Raymond Roussel about whom he wrote this, his one real essay into literature? Roussel was a writer, of sorts, of the early 20th century; a man both glamorously rich and mentally odd. His money he spent to the hilt in the furtherance of his oddness, for Roussel laboured to write the most uncommercial works and then paid to have them published. He set new standards indeed for vanity publishing, because he paid not only to get his poetry and his fiction into book-form, but also to have his plays put on in Paris. The theatre does not come cheap for those who must be their own angels, but to see his uniquely inauspicious plays performed in public was a deep need and Roussel did not stint on the satisfaction of it. By the end of his life his huge inheritance was exhausted.

Roussel was born, to the financial purple, in 1877. His father was a stockbroker, a wealthy man who had married into money. Young Raymond was more mothered than fathered, however, for in 1894 the father died suddenly, from drinking iced champagne on a hot day. The rich widow Roussel did not falter, she received the cultural gratin and she collected works of art; even if her taste was immaculately bourgeois, like later her son’s, to the extent of paying people to come in and read The Three Musketeers to her. She bought a yacht and cruised, one story had it, all the way to India, where she would only look at the fabled shore through a telescope before ordering the captain to make an about-turn, for Cannes. (Her clothes for the voyage she stored in a coffin.) Either she really was eccentric or those who later reminisced about her wanted to make her sound so, as a fit progenitrix for the peculiar Raymond.

As an adolescent, Roussel was a musician, a successful student at the Paris Conservatoire, a future virtuoso even. But he was already writing and in his third year as a music student, in 1896, his ‘crisis’ happened. He was working night and day at a narrative poem, to be called La Doublure, and doing so in a state of rare exaltation. In his own words, written long afterwards: ‘For a few months I experienced a sensation of universal glory of an extraordinary intensity.’ Or, as reported by the specialist who later treated him: ‘What I was writing was surrounded by radiance, I closed the curtains, for I was afraid of the least crack which would have allowed the rays of light coming from my pen to escape outside, I wanted to withdraw the screen suddenly and illuminate the world.’

For these few months, Roussel felt sure he was a literary genius, the peer of any writer who ever wrote. But then the exaltation passed and he entered on an adult lifetime of psychic distress. His childhood, when he declared he had known years of ‘a perfect happiness’, had gone from him. He became at some uncertain point the patient – the Roussel money talking, no doubt – of the top man in Paris for mind disorders, Pierre Janet, and crops up under a pseudonym as a case-study in Janet’s book, From Anguish to Ecstasy. ‘A shy, scrupulous, neuropathic young man, easily depressed’, Janet sums up his patient, whom he couldn’t cure.

La Doublure, the poem Roussel was writing when the crisis came on him, trails no clouds of glory. It is in alexandrines, and they rhyme: but the style and the matter are the purest prose. Here Roussel reads like a McGonagall of the Côte d’Azur:

A Nice, cet après-midi, dans I’Avenue
de la Gare, une foule énorme et biscornue
Fête le dernier jour qu’on ait de Carnaval ...

He asked that his poem be read as a novel, however, from the beginning through to the end: a first sign of how very highly he valued the business of narration. La Doublure does have a story in it, flat and ordinary like its descriptions, of an incompetent actor who has a brief love-affair and ends up as a strolling player, with only his good memories of Nice in carnival-time to console him.

This melancholy work was published in 1897, at the author’s expense. So unadmiring was its publisher that he never even announced the book’s existence in the Bibliographie de la France. Roussel had hopes, however, and tried complimentary copies on his relations and acquaintances, not forgetting young Marcel Proust, whose path he had very likely crossed socially – in the Boulevard Malesherbes the Prousts were living at No 9 when the Roussels were at No 25. Proust’s short thank-you note later formed part of the dossier Roussel built up of the kinder things written about his work by others; the at that time unproductive Proust said naughtily how much he admired his staying-power, in being able to write a hundred lines of poetry as easily as others might write ten lines of prose.

La Doublure met with an absolute silence; Roussel’s fantasies of fame were exploded. ‘I had the impression of having been dashed to the ground from on top of a prodigious summit of glory.’ He developed rashes on his skin and then the nervous illness which he never shook off. But neurasthenia or no, he did not give up writing. Instead, he perfected a new method of composition, one both secretive and fertile, on which most of his later writing was to depend. This was Roussel’s ‘procedure’, a form of word-play which enabled him to write more or less mechanically. There is no telling from the strange texts so produced the strange manner of their making, but Roussel did not want to die without having revealed it. His literary testament, published only after his death, was an essay called ‘How I wrote certain of my books’, in which he describes his creative ‘procedure’ and gives a frighteningly detached account of his life in literature. He was revealing his methods, he said, so that other writers might now make use of them; as indeed they might, though I question whether any seriously have.

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