Genius in Its Pure State

Mark Ford writes about the Raymond Roussel archive

The French Writer Raymond Roussel was 56 years old when he left Paris for Sicily in the early summer of 1933. It seems clear he had no intention of ever returning to France. His theatrical extravaganzas, legendary generosity and eccentric lifestyle had consumed the bulk of his colossal fortune. He was addicted to drugs. One morning in his hotel in Palermo he opened a vein in his wrist in the bath, but immediately summoned help. ‘How pleasant it is to die,’ he was heard to remark. Eleven days later he was found dead from an overdose of barbiturates.

Roussel’s writings are full of hidden treasures suddenly come to light, particularly discoveries of lost and unlikely manuscripts – a sonnet composed by the youthful Milton on an eggshell, in which he declares his love for the consumptive girl next door; a very peculiar version of Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare’s own hand; a Racine letter describing a play he hopes to write about a third-century Corsican tight-rope walker. On occasions Roussel took active steps to preserve his own literary papers, depositing various manuscripts with his financial adviser, Eugène Leiris – father of Michel – not all of which have come to light. By the time of his departure for Sicily, however, Roussel seems to have lost interest in his literary career. Though he tidied up many personal affairs, and drew up a new will, he left no instructions concerning the thousands of pages of rough drafts, fair copies, typescripts and proofs left behind in the apartment he occupied in the family house on the rue Quentin Bauchart. Boxed up and placed in storage in a furniture warehouse, these papers were only disinterred when the removal company itself moved premises in 1989.

They now form the Fonds Roussel at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and have recently become available for consultation on microfilm. For years a dedicated Rousselian, I finally decided to write a book exploring his life, work and influence on a variety of artists, from Marcel Duchamp to Michel Foucault, John Ashbery to Georges Perec. I recently spent several months working my way through this enormous archive in the stately gloom of the ornately carved Salon de Manuscrits on the first floor of the Bibliothéque Nationale, just down from the Bourse where Roussel père earned the huge fortune which was to fund his son’s literary activities. Initially I felt I was trespassing into the heart of some unfathomable French mystery, the sort not even the French have time for. ‘You write, without losing breath, a hundred verses as another writes ten lines,’ Marcel Proust told Roussel on receiving a copy of his first book, La Doublure. I felt the full weight of Proust’s not entirely complimentary observation: Roussel’s texts seemed to proliferate, like some tropical rainforest, in every direction. I soon came to understand that his bizarre compositional methods were devised not to stimulate his creativity, but to curb this delirium of excess.

Roussel’s unique imaginative world is most fully embodied in his two novels, Impressions d’Afrique (1910) and Locus solus (1914). Both present a dazzling array of virtuosos and freaks, artworks and inventions, performances and discoveries. The opening chapter of Impressions d’Afrique, for instance, includes a description of a life-sized statue of a helot – a Spartan slave – clutching at a sword plunged into his heart. The statue is fashioned out of black corset whalebones, and is fixed to a trolley – also of corset whalebones – whose wheels rest on two rails made of a coarse, red, gelatinous substance that turns out to be calves’ lights (the gastronomic delicacy made from the lungs of young cows); statue, trolley and rails are in turn mounted on a platform bearing the inscription DUAL, followed by a bracket and two forms of an ancient Greek verb. When a carefully trained magpie activates an internal spring with its beak, the platform slowly tilts, and trolley and statue are set gently in motion.

This elaborate creation, we later find out, is the handiwork of Norbert Montalescot and his sister Louise; Louise has been imprisoned by the African King Talou VII for having had an affair with his chief enemy, Yaour, and her release depends on the Montalcscots’ completing this statue and a number of other appallingly difficult tasks. The statue of the helot alludes to a story, supposedly to be found in Thucydides, in which a recalcitrant student-slave is required to learn, on pain of death, the conjugation of various auxiliary verbs. Called to the front of the class, he soon makes a gross mistake in the dual of the aorist, and instantly suffers the threatened punishment.

During his lifetime, despite the howls of derision his work regularly inspired, Roussel steadfastly refused to offer either explanation or justification of his writings. Some time before his death, however, he sent to his publisher a short essay, to be issued posthumously, entitled ‘Comment j’ai écrit certains de mes livres’, in which he outlines the procédé très spéciale underlying the composition of his novels and plays:

I chose a word and then linked it to another by the preposition à; and these two words, each capable of more than one meaning, supplied me with a further creation ... 1st baleine (whale) à ilot (small island); 2nd baleine (corset whalebone) à ilote (helot); 1st duel (combat between two people) à accolade (embrace, as when two adversaries are reconciled after the duel); 2nd duel (‘dual’ as in Greek grammar) à accolade (typographical bracket); 1st mou (spineless individual) à raille (here I was thinking of the raillery directed towards a lazy student by his comrades); 2nd mou (lights of a slaughtered animal) à rail (railway line).

Hence the Montalescots’ extraordinary sculpture. Roussel declares it his duty to disclose this secret method, so that future writers may benefit from his innovations.

Though the essay reveals, with a multitude of examples, how Roussel wrote certain of his books, it doesn’t attempt to explain why he developed and adopted such singular procedures. He directs our attention to the psychologist Pierre Janet’s account in De l’angoisse à l’extase of a nervous crisis the young author suffered when still in his teens for which Janet treated him, but offers nothing himself on the relationship between his life and work, beyond the ‘curious fact’ that though he has travelled all around the world he has never used a single detail from these voyages in his books: ‘It seems to me that this is worth mentioning, since it clearly shows just how much imagination accounts for everything in my work.’

Roussel’s immense wealth enabled him to publish his writings in luxurious editions at his own expense, to hire the most prestigious theatres, actors, directors and set-designers for his plays, and to mount massive publicity campaigns for each new production or publication. He hoped to become as popular as Pierre Loti or Jules Verne and was dismayed when his lavishly presented work encountered only ‘an almost totally hostile incomprehension’. Janet records the young Roussel predicting that his glory would one day outshine that of Victor Hugo or Napoleon, that he felt himself the equal of Dante and Shakespeare. His final testament more modestly hopes that, ‘faute de mieux’, his books may one day gain some measure of posthumous recognition.

It was while composing La Doublure, which he always believed to be his ultimate masterpiece, that Roussel was irresistibly seized by a conviction of his own greatness. ‘Everything I wrote,’ he told Janet,

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