Vol. 19 No. 10 · 22 May 1997

Genius in Its Pure State

Mark Ford writes about the Raymond Roussel archive

5229 words

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,

was surrounded by rays of light; I would close the curtains for fear the shining rays that were emanating from my pen would escape through the smallest chink; I wanted to throw back the screen and suddenly light up the world. To leave these papers lying about would have sent out rays of light as far as China and the desperate crowd would have flung themselves upon my house ... No doubt, when the volume appeared, the blinding furnace would be revealed and illuminate the entire universe.

Published in 1897, La Doublure sank without trace, and Roussel was plunged into a profound nervous depression. His skin erupted in a red rash and he felt he’d ‘plummeted to earth from the prodigious summits of glory’. Nevertheless, this crisis seems not to have fundamentally weakened his faith in his own destiny. On recovery he spent some years ‘prospecting’, as he calls it in ‘Comment j’ai ècrit’, exhaustively seeking new ways of revealing his genius. ‘This prospecting tortured me,’ Roussel records, ‘and usually ended with my rolling around on the floor, raging against my failure to attain those sensations of art for which I had striven.’

La Seine and Claude et Luce, the two most startling additions to the Roussel canon discovered among his papers, both derive from this period. La Seine (probably composed between 1900 and 1903) is one of the strangest plays ever written. Its opening act suggests a wholly standard domestic drama: Raoul suddenly decides to leave his wife and child for his mistress Jeanne, whom he has rescued from life on the streets. The enormous second act, almost five thousand lines long, presents an evening spent by the couple at the Moulin Rouge. They are, however, by no means its sole concern; Roussel introduces character after character, and the act unfolds as a seemingly endless series of new people, new conversations, new stories, from grisly murders to mild flirtations, from aesthetic theories to unsettling dreams. In all, the play offers over four hundred speaking parts and would take the best part of a day to perform. Act III, set in the Bois de Boulogne, is just as discursive. Only in Act IV does Roussel think to return to his narrative: Raoul, now abandoned by Jeanne and tortured by jealousy, hurls himself from a bridge into the Seine. A related fragment, ‘La Tonsure’, projects a different outcome; here Raoul has become a Trappist monk, and a remorseful Jeanne arrives at his monastery to beg for his return.

La Seine runs to roughly seven thousand lines. Claude et Luce is much longer, nearer twenty thousand, and even so far from complete. It’s harder to date than La Seine, but was certainly composed before Roussel evolved his procédé at around the age of thirty. It exists in various states of transcription, from sketchy worksheets to revised fair copies, and presents a number of editorial difficulties. Hundreds of pages of Acts II and III of its final section are only roughly drafted; many consist of a few scattered words per line, and some of not much more than rhyme words jotted down the right-hand side of the page. There follows an extended, densely written plot outline, and then a final plan detailing further narrative developments. The whole cycle consists of some 2900 pages of manuscript, not all of it easily legible.

Its main plot is not, however, any more complex than that of La Seine. Claude works in a bookshop and Luce as a seamstress. One Easter Monday they take a trip on a pleasure boat to the Bois de Vincennes. Parts I and II both consist of crazily minute descriptions of every aspect of this outing. Roussel devotes pages and pages, for example, to charting the progress of a series of soap-bubbles blown by a young boy on the terrace of a café where the couple stop for a drink. As in La Seine, an obsession with circumstantial detail continually overwhelms the storyline’s all but arrested progress. Part II breaks off late at night in the wood with Luce seemingly on the point of succumbing to Claude. A fragment appended to this section presents a different evening that ends more explicitly, with Claude and Luce embracing behind the locked door of her room. A rough outline suggests that Roussel intended the poem to end, like La Seine, tragically: Claude has left to take up a job in Africa, Luce is pregnant, dismissed from her job, homeless and preparing to sleep à la belle étoile. Yet another draft of the ending has the abandoned and visibly pregnant Luce confronting Claude, who is now accompanied by a new girlfriend, at the Moulin Rouge.

The third part of the poem, however, turns away from its principals. ‘A l’Ambigu’ (a now defunct Parisian theatre) describes a gruesome melodrama attended by Claude and Luce in which a gang of criminals attempt to blackmail the wife of a dissolute rake found murdered in the Bois de Boulogne by making public her son’s illegitimacy – or at least this seems to be the main narrative, but others proliferate around it with furious abandon. In addition, Roussel makes use of the intervals in the play to offer us the young lovers’ impressions of the performance they’re witnessing. One thinks of Henry James’s remark in the Preface to Roderick Hudson about the artist’s need to draw a circle around relations that really stop nowhere: the young Roussel seems unaware of this need. Texts like La Seine or Claude et Luce might continue for ever, mes-merically in thrall to the world’s banality and open-endedness.

Yet they fail to deliver those ‘sensations of art’ that Roussel craved. It is only through the procédé, which converts all words into double-entendres, that Roussel was able to fuse narrative and language. His first experiments in this direction were the stories posthumously collected under the punning title Textes de grande jeunesse ou textes-genèse. The first and last phrases of these stories are identical except for a single letter, but each major word is used in a different sense. ‘Parmi les Noirs’, for example, begins: ‘Les lettres du blanc sur les nancies du vieux billard’ (‘The letters [as of the alphabet] in white [chalk] on the cushions of the old billiard-table’), and concludes: ‘les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard’ (‘the letters [i.e. missives] sent by the white man about the hordes of the old plunderer’). ‘The two phrases found,’ Roussel comments, ‘it was a case of writing a story which could begin with the first and end with the second.’ ‘Parmi les Noirs’ opens with the narrator composing a cryptogram on the cushions of a billiard table as part of a country-house parlour game; this cryptogram in turn alludes to a novel by one of the guests concerning a white man held hostage in Africa who manages to send letters to his wife by carrier pigeon, in which he relates the exploits of his aged captor and his plundering hordes. It was by extending the principle of such double meanings that Roussel evolved the word-games that generate the narratives of Impressions d’Afrique and Locus solus, both the baleine à ilot type, and the more complex deformations also described in ‘Comment j’ai écrit’ based on a random phrase or line of poetry broken down into discrete phonetic units. Contrary to expectations, one learns nothing of the development or deployment of the procédé from the manuscript versions of these two novels.

Impressions d’ Afrique greatly expands the narrative suggested by the billard/pillard rhyme of ‘Parmi les Noirs’. It concerns a group of passengers shipwrecked on their way to Buenos Aires, and held hostage on the west coast of Africa. While waiting for the arrival of the ransom money demanded by King Talou VII, they form a club called Les Incomparables and prepare a gala to celebrate the day of their release. The performers include, among many others, the marksman Balbet, who shoots away the white of a distantly placed soft-boiled egg without disturbing the yolk; the colossally mouthed Ludovic, capable of singing all four parts of ‘Frère Jacques’ simultaneously; a worm who has been trained to play Hungarian melodies on the zither; the one-legged Lelgoualch, who performs Breton airs on a flute carved out of his own tibia; and the sculptor Fuxier, who creates miniature tableaux within the pulp of white grapes.

The intensively worked manuscripts of Impressions d’Afrique contain a number of events and characters missing from the published novel, but in general it is much less ruthlessly edited than its successor, Locus solus, from which Roussel removed a whole series of fully developed episodes. In the successive versions of Impressions d’Afrique Roussel’s writing becomes richer, more surprising, less easy to absorb. King Talou, for instance – originally Bangoja – is presented in the early drafts as a stereotypical savage chieftain. When one of the European artistes appears riding a bicycle and brandishing a racket in each hand, with which he bats four shuttlecocks in the air, Bangoja interrupts and attempts the feat himself, only to fall sprawling in the dirt. Talou is a much purer embodiment of the Rousselian than his primitive prototype, as his first appearance in the book makes strikingly clear: he arrives at the head of his troops dressed as a music-hall chanteuse, in a blue dress with a low neckline, on which the figures 472 are sewn in black. On his head he sports a woman’s wig of magnificent waved golden hair.

The gala is won in the published text by the ten-year-old Marius Boucharessas, owner of a troop of cats who, at a word of command, execute a thrilling game of prisoners’ base. In early versions this act is more original still: the cats arrive, each wearing a schoolboy’s cap, in a small chariot pulled by two clams, stimulated into motion by a few drops of a corrosive liquid. As a further embellishment the star of the group, an Angora cat named Tito, leafs through an atlas and puts his paw on any town or region the young impresario – here called Roger Danglés – asks him to find. Many other performances and experiments are similarly refined by Roussel’s revisions, and on occasion the effect they produce is completely reversed. The drafts, for example, portray the historian Tinglet – who becomes Juillard – as an arrogant, lecherous boor and his interminable lecture on a variety of literary and historical topics is greeted by an enraged audience with hoots and stones. By the final version he has metamorphosed into a brilliant speaker whose lucid and witty account of the history of the Electors of Brandenburg holds his listeners spellbound.

The Baroque fecundity of Impressions d’Afrique contrasts sharply with the severe, almost classical, rigour of Roussel’s next work, Locus solus. The later book’s formal elegance was achieved, it now emerges, only after numerous reshapings; Roussel quarried its seven self-contained chapters from a vast, sprawling draft almost twice as long as the published version. This involved discarding the further adventures of characters, such as the sybil Felicity, who nonetheless appear in the final text, as well as a number of wholly new storylines. Nearly all the excised material is as lively and inventive as the episodes Roussel finally chose to retain.

‘Locus solus’ is the name of the spacious estate on the outskirts of Paris where the savant, Martial Canterel, conducts his research. One Thursday in early April he invites a select group of friends to admire his unique objets d’art and various works in progress. Roussel probably began work on Locus solus soon after his mother died in 1911. Her sudden death disrupted performances of his theatrical adaptation of Impressions d’Afrique – a typescript version of which has happily turned up among the rediscovered papers – and Roussel was so grief-stricken he had a glass pane inserted in her coffin so he could gaze on her beloved features up to the very moment of her interment. Locus solus is Roussel’s most disturbing and moving work; its cornucopia of stories, many of which feature violence and trauma, evinces a profound melancholy. The episodes omitted embody equally elaborately the desire for some impossible restitution, the need to recover and reanimate by any means possible tokens or simulacra of the irretrievably lost.

The most complicated of these involves an apparatus capable of recording and reproducing the winds, a harp whose strings are made from wax tears shed by the wives of 15 brothers, Shakespeare’s hollowed-our rib, the cracked chime of a London clock and an engraved zinc flower. A friend of Boudet (as Canterel is here called), one Isaac Zabulon, has learned from the papers of a Biblical ancestor of a drug which, taken orally, converts a weeper’s tears into wax. These wax tears, once solidified, possess strange acoustic powers, as the Biblical Zabulon discovered when he fitted them to an Aeolian harp which he placed in a windy desert. He also found that if each string were made from a wax tear shed by women married to the brothers, the music emitted became more intoxicating still. Together Boudet and Zabulon reconstruct this unique auditory experience, with the help of 15 wax tears shed by the 15 Mesdames Pelognes, and a specially built wind-machine for which a friend based in North Africa has recorded a raging simoom. The resulting sounds induce an unimaginable ecstasy.

Boudet then thinks to expand the experiment further. He has recently come into possession of Shakespeare’s second left rib, plundered from the bard’s grave by the 18th-century English lord, Albert of Dewsbury. Dewsbury was obsessed by the need to discover the precise location of the seat of the soul within the body, and spent many years travelling the world comparing the opinions of different peoples and cultures on this matter. Not until reaching the west coast of Australia did he find a satisfactory answer to the mystery: there he stumbled across a tribe called the Terani who believed the soul to be lodged in the second left rib. This bone was accordingly removed from the body of every recently deceased person, carefully hollowed out, and affixed to a stake planted in a vast field, each rib facing into the east wind. Visiting this unique burial ground, Dewsbury was amazed to hear the sound of the wind through each bone form, if not exactly a language, a number of different vowels, easily construed by the Terani into words of advice or consolation. Exhilarated, Dewsbury returned to England where he conceived and carried out the mad scheme of stealing Shakespeare’s second left rib and attempting to coax from it some sort of communication. Dewsbury’s experiments – which involved co-ordinating, for extra resonance, the sound of the wind through the rib with both the chimes of a cracked church bell and music performed on a violin so expertly made that anyone could play it like a maestro – proved only partially successful, but before his sudden death in a riding accident the rib did produce ‘a human, conscious moan’, and the clearly distinguishable vowels, e, i and a. Dewsbury kept the rib, and a manuscript explaining his research, in a secret hiding place in the library of his castle on the banks of the Thames, where it remained buried until chanced on one day by the property’s current owner, the Italian tragedienne, Adinolfa. She in turn passed the precious bone on for further investigation to Boudet, who, substituting the harp for the violin and continuously reproducing the cracked chime of the church clock by the complex use of electromagnets, eventually also managed to derive from the rib the vowels e, i and a. As a final flourish, he has the vowels projected against a flower which has grafted onto it the metal zinc, and on which a jeweller has engraved the three scenes which eventually appear as the bas-reliefs introducing the second story in the first chapter of Locus solus; the petals unfold in response to the syllables, and thus on a all three images are disclosed.

Roussel’s stories often fit together like so many Chinese boxes but lead nowhere beyond their own implausible recoveries and conjunctions. The recorded simoon blows through the harp and the hollowed-out rib, the clock chimes, the bone produces the vowels e, i or a, according to the wind’s strength, and in turn a scene engraved on the zinc flower is revealed or covered up. Some random word-pattern achieves narrative fulfilment at unimaginable cost – ‘I shed blood over every phrase,’ Roussel once told Janet – but the writing’s inner motivations and ulterior purposes remain obscure. Each experiment is pursued for its own sake, within its own terms, its applications confined rigorously to the requirements of the story. Another episode cut from Locus solus concerns a formula for a ‘gaz évolutif’ capable of making young aquatic life-forms instantly adult. This formula was divulged by a young monk Gru ... (Roussel often left names incomplete) to the Emperor Constantine in the presence of Saint Eusèbe. The horrified Emperor has the monk put instantly to death, but Eusèbe decides to preserve the dangerous secret through a cleverly encoded cryptogram, for which he employs the bizarre lower lip of a friend of his called Lao ... On a pilgrimage to the Holy Land Lao ... had stopped by a spring to restand been tempted by the fruit of a tree growing nearby. That evening he fell ill with a fierce fever and his lower lip became both enormous and terribly scarred. Eusèbe recalls an old story relating a similar distension and malformation of the lower lip afflicting ten neophytes who also ate the fruit of this alluring tree, and is able to establish that in each case the pattern traced by the scarring was identical. Eusèbe copies the letters of the formula on a piece of parchment using the zig-zag shadows cast by the scars of Lao ...’s lower lip as a grid; to make the mystery harder to solve, he doesn’t disclose at what time of day he made this transcription – hence at what angle the sun shone through the lip – and he incorporates the 137 letters strewn across the parchment into an elaborate description of Constantine’s burning of the piece of paper on which Gur ... had written his discovery. Eusèbe includes this account in his Vie de Constantin, but he has the page-long parchment on which the formula is encrypted buried with him in a casket in his tomb. Centuries later an intrepid alchemist, R ..., retrieves this manuscript from the grave and cracks the code, only to be condemned to death at the stake as a sorcerer. Boudet happens to have purchased R ...’s copy of the Vie de Constantin in the binding of which he finds an account of R ...’s researches hastily written just before his arrest. Boudet accordingly makes a number of manuscript copies of the passage about the parchment-burning on different sizes of paper, while his friend Fra ... sets off for the desert, finds the tree, eats the fruit and develops the vast cicatrised lower lip which enables Boudet eventually to piece together the formula of ‘gaz évolutif’. A young tadpole released into water infused with this gas almost immediately develops into a mature frog.

The grid of Lao ... and Fra ...’s lower lips is one of dozens of strange encoding and decoding processes to be found in Roussel’s writings. A number of French critics have suggested his work conceals some secret system of correspondences which, once brought to light, would explain the motives behind his procedures. André Breton, for instance, was convinced Roussel was concealing esoteric alchemical messages relating to the search for the Grand Oeuvre or Philosopher’s Stone. Nothing in his recovered papers lends credence to this hypothesis, or points to the existence of some ultimate key to the Rousselian. His fanatically worked manuscripts demonstrate, rather, an intense, almost Flaubertian obsession with the mot juste, a wholly single-minded quest for those ‘sensations of art’ on which he felt his existence depended. He seems never to have considered the procédé as in itself a justification of his writing, only as a catalyst. ‘It is essentially a poetic method,’ he observes in ‘Comment j’ai écrit’; ‘just as one can use rhymes to compose good or bad verses, so one can use this method to produce good or bad works.’

The excellence of so much of the material Roussel chose not to publish does, however, lead one to question his critical judgment. In ‘Comment j’ai écrit’ he rather dismisses the superb L’Allée aux lucioles, begun just after Locus solus but interrupted by mobilisation for World War One. Episodes from this unfinished work exist in several revised typescripts: it is set mainly in the summer court of Frederick II, and features a new chapter of Candide, a game which involves fireflies enclosed in dice and a manual written by a Spanish boatman, an attempt by Don Juan to seduce an abbess, a cure for baldness, the invention of a weightless cloth called lin d’Icare, and non-melting ice figurines that keep wine cool in hot weather without diluting it, much to the delight of the young Frederick and his famous guest, Voltaire.

It is not clear why Roussel abandoned this enchanting prose work to begin the composition of a long poem to be called Nouvelles impressions d’Afrique in which he planned to describe a tourist’s souvenir of Egypt, a miniature pair of opera-glasses which, held up to the eye, show photographs of a Cairo bazaar on one side and of the Nile at Luxor on the other. After five years’ intense labour Roussel renounced this project too, and began work on another poem also to be called Nouvelles impressions d’Afrique which – aside from eighteen months spent writing his two plays, of which no manuscripts exist – absorbed him for the remainder of his creative life. This poem again presents various Egyptian scenes, but this time fractured by innumerable brackets, so one has to read the first and last lines of its four cantos first, and then work one’s way back and forth through the canto connecting the disjointed sentences. The manuscript pages of the final Nouvelles impressions d’Afrique that have been preserved present an almost illegible morass of erasures and revisions; despite its bewildering disjunctions each canto rhymes perfectly throughout, and even the footnotes are in alexandrines. Roussel estimated each of its lines cost him 15 hours of work.

Of course literary manuscripts form only a part of the ten thousand or so pages that make up the Fonds Roussel; also discovered were numerous photographs, hundreds of letters received, a diary of a trip to Egypt in 1906, documents relating to the patent Roussel applied for in 1922 for a new method of vacuum insulation he’d invented, ruinous bills, endless laundry lists, a notebook recording all his dedications (to such as Mussolini – hailed in a copy of La Poussière de soleils as a ‘modern Julius Caesar’ – Proust, Colette, Robert Desnos, Pierre Loti ‘dont on ne doit prononcer le nom qu’à genoux’), self-promoting publicity handouts, details of his extravagant theatrical ventures, press clippings describing his roulotte, a luxury caravan he had custom-built and of which he was so proud he tried to have it driven into the Vatican to show the Pope. This mass of material exponentially augments our knowledge of Roussel’s social milieux and activities, his family, his travels and his finances, yet his life and work lose none of their power to intrigue and confound. Admirers of Roussel may be relieved to learn that he seems likely to remain as enigmatic and unassimilable as ever, a radiant paradigm of what Cocteau once called ‘genius in its pure state’.

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