‘I have travelled a great deal,’ Raymond Roussel wrote towards the end of his life, ‘but from all these travels I never took anything for my books.’ It’s an odd thing to hear from the author of Impressions d’Afrique (1910) and Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique (1932). But it makes sense when you consider some of the ‘impressions’ he recorded in his journal during his first visit to Egypt in 1906: ‘Crossed the Nile by boat – Hired donkeys – Went to see the Valley of the Kings – Cold lunch – sun – heat.’ When Roussel later toured Europe in the comfort of a custom-built roulotte – a kind of luxury truck, which caught the attention of both Mussolini and the pope – he barely got around to looking out the window for fear of losing writing time in the vehicle’s onboard atelier. His 1920 trip to Tahiti was taken over entirely by his need to visit spots mentioned in a novel by one of his heroes, Pierre Loti. Of course his family’s wealth had something to do with all this, but it mostly had to do with Roussel’s freakish gift for preventing the actual world from touching the world he carried inside him. Most of the knowledge we have of Roussel’s temperament comes from Michel Leiris (his father, Eugène, was the Roussel family accountant), who wrote: ‘In all the countries he visited, he saw only what he had put there in advance.’ More recently Nicholas Jenkins put it neatly: Roussel, he wrote, appears ‘to have had no impressions of Africa’.
Born in 1877 on the boulevard Malesherbes, a few doors down from the Prousts, Roussel grew up in obscene luxury (the family home contained both the era’s most significant collection of Dresden figurines and a set of tiny bathtubs Madame Roussel had specially made for her chihuahuas). A promising Conservatory student, he started out writing songs, but found that the words came easier than the melody and so abandoned music for poetry. At 19 he completed La Doublure (The Understudy), a verse novel of 5600 alexandrines, 4500 of which describe floats in a Mardi Gras parade. He was convinced he had accomplished something comparable to Dante or Shakespeare, and kept his curtains closed while writing, believing the rays of brilliance flying from the pages would disturb the neighbours and might even reach as far as China. Devastated by the lack of attention La Doublure received on publication (he broke out in a rash when he found the book hadn’t made him famous), he nevertheless managed over the course of his life to complete five huge poems, two novels, four plays (two of which are adapted from the novels) and a handful of stories, all published at his own expense. The plays were flops, the performances ending in chaos and ridicule. But some of the audience – including Apollinaire, Picabia, Desnos and Duchamp – were awed by the work and shot back insults at Roussel’s abusers. André Breton called Roussel a ‘great magnetiser’, and Duchamp said his Large Glass was directly inspired by Impressions d’Afrique. Just weeks after he’d written resignedly that he still hoped for a ‘little posthumous fame for my books’, Roussel was found dead on the floor of a Palermo hotel room from an overdose of the barbiturate Soneryl. Jean Cocteau, who got to know him a few years earlier in a rehab clinic at Saint-Cloud (and who remembered Roussel asking him wearily: ‘Why aren’t I as famous as Pierre Loti?’), wrote Roussel’s obituary for La Nouvelle Revue Française, saying that in his work could be found ‘le génie à l’état pur’.
Impressions d’Afrique follows an eclectic (and manifoldly gifted) group of European tourists who, shipwrecked in equatorial Africa and held captive by the formidable Emperor Talou VII, put on a wild variety show while they are waiting for ransom money to arrive. Adventure story elements are everywhere – castaways, narrow escapes, secret compartments, hidden springs – but stripped of the causal logic that would slot such episodes into a plot. What you get instead is a reimagining of the genre in which the action is replaced by detailed descriptions of the castaways’ elaborate inventions and performances: an immense hydraulic loom weaves stunningly detailed tapestries, a huge earthworm performs on a zither, a thermodynamic machine reproduces the sound of an orchestra, a whalebone sculpture of a Spartan helot glides along rails made of calf’s lungs, grapes ripen in seconds and unfold in their interiors scenes from the Gospel of St Luke and Rousseau’s Emile. One of the more involved episodes centres on a performance of Romeo and Juliet in which Romeo, rather than dying after drinking the poison, has a series of hallucinations, one of which is a vision of the temptation of Eve, which materialises on stage out of ‘a thick, meticulously sculpted billow of smoke’.
More astonishing even than the spectacles and machines Roussel describes is the fact that he has explanations for all of them. The performance of Romeo and Juliet, we learn, is based on lost scenes discovered in an English country house in a manuscript of the play in Shakespeare’s hand; the smoke sculptures are the result of specially designed pastilles made by one of the castaways, the artist Fuxier. Always concerned that his work reach as wide an audience as possible (a perverse hope given its demands), Roussel worried that the reverse chronology would confuse those new to his writing. To remedy this he had an insert pasted into the first edition of the novel: ‘Readers not initiated into the art of Raymond Roussel are advised to read this book from page 212 to page 455, and then from page 1 to page 211.’ As it stands, we’re shuttled straight from the wild inventions to an equally wild explanation of them, in which everything is submitted to exhaustive, diagrammatic analysis. The treating of imaginary objects with the scrupulous attention of the realist is a feature of all Roussel’s work. The overall effect is of a blinding, shadowless transparency, in which nothing is unexamined; this is perhaps what John Ashbery was talking about when he said, in a 1961 essay, that in reading Roussel one needs ‘some sort of protective equipment’.
Cocteau’s characterisation of Roussel’s work as genius in the ‘pure state’ is misleading, though, since many of its effects were arrived at in ways that have nothing to do with the Romantic idea of a sui generis creator. Determined to recover the ecstasy he’d experienced while working on La Doublure, Roussel arrived, after many hours of what he called ‘prospecting’, at a special compositional trick. The method – or procédé, as he called it – involved finding homonyms or homonymic phrases, sometimes linked with the preposition à, and then devising narratives to connect the different meanings. As Roussel revealed in his posthumously published 1935 book Comment j’ai écrit certains de mes livres, the image of a whalebone sculpture moving along rails of calves’ lungs, for example, came from the way the phrase baleine à îlot (whale/small island) can be made to yield baleine à ilote (flexible bone/Spartan serf), which was combined with a comparable move from mou à raille (a spineless person/to tease or ridicule) to mou à rail (lungs of a slaughtered calf/railway lines). Constraints of some kind are of course at work in any composition – what is a sonnet or a sestina, or a chorale, or the blues, or even just metre and rhyme, if not a set of constraints? – but Roussel was unique in the way he wilfully exploited this aspect of composition, and in his methodical pursuit of its possibilities. His constraint-based experiments had a far-reaching influence on 20th-century literature: from the nouveau roman (both Alain Robbe-Grillet and Michel Butor wrote early appreciations of Roussel) to the monthly meetings of the Oulipo collective, to Jean Echenoz’s pastiche genre novel Lac (which unwinds its espionage caper from the point at which flies, les mouches, become spies, les mouchards), to Tom McCarthy’s recent novel Remainder, whose narrator spends his fortune re-enacting a series of ordinary events, eventually trying to re-enact the re-enactments.
In an informative introduction to his translation of Impressions d’Afrique, Mark Polizzotti describes in some detail his effort to arrive at an English comparable to Roussel’s near mathematically concise French. The author of a biography of Breton, a short book on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, and a translator of Echenoz, among others, Polizzotti has a knack for finding pleasingly demotic versions of Roussel’s compressed syntax: ‘la coloration imagée’ becomes ‘vivid tints’; ‘apparitions sans mouvement’ are ‘frozen tableaux’; ‘en vendant sur l’heure, à bas prix’ is ‘selling off at rock-bottom prices’. His translation is a welcome alternative to the cumbersome 1967 version by Rayner Heppenstall and Lindy Foord (the only other English Impressions are extracts, among them Ashbery’s fine 1962 translation of its first chapter). And he rightly points out that in this novel about European tourists stranded in Africa, Roussel ‘manages to avoid many of his day’s most prevalent stereotypes about race’.
Roussel’s long poem Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique has done better in English. Kenneth Koch translated the third canto into rhyming alexandrines in 1964, and Ian Monk the whole poem into pentameter couplets in 2004. But Mark Ford’s facing-pages edition is easily the most comprehensive and reader-friendly to date. The author of the definitive biography of Roussel in English, Ford brings lucidity to his translation of what is by far Roussel’s most ambitious work, and probably his masterpiece.
While the procédé was not used for the composition of Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique, Roussel adds to the basic constraints of metre (hexameter couplets) and rhyme (alternating masculine/feminine) a system of inward-spiralling, syntax-suspending parentheses. Ford describes each canto as having the form of an onion: the first syntactic unit is an outer layer, which parenthetically peels off to reveal another below it, which itself opens onto a new set of parentheses, and so on until the opening unit belatedly returns at the end of the canto, forming a single gigantic sentence. The effect is of getting lost in layers of associative digression only to be surprised to have made it back somehow to the starting point. Again (rightly) concerned about readers’ confusion in the face of this fantastically convoluted constraint, Roussel envisioned an edition of the poem with each layer in a separate colour (but the printing costs were too steep even for him).
Also distributed across the poem’s four cantos are 59 ink drawings by Henri-A. Zo, whom Roussel commissioned anonymously through a detective agency. Insisting that Zo work from specific instructions without reading the poem, Roussel’s requirements make items plucked from the cantos into stark, affectless cutouts (Ashbery says the drawings have a ‘militant banality’). Roussel told Zo that he wanted the image of ‘an astronomer focusing a telescope. If the sky is visible (it’s not indispensable for this to be the case), the telescope should be aimed at a full moon.’ From these simultaneously precise and evasive instructions the picture ends up magnifying only one half of an analogy: if the astronomer looking up at the moon were to see a man walking upside down there (‘S’il y va voir marcher, la tête en bas, un homme’) it would be like seeing a ‘fly wandering slowly over a ceiling’ (‘une mouche errant au plafond à pas lents’).
The longest canto is the second, which Ford calls the ‘Great Pyramid’ of Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique. It’s a stupefying swirl of objects culled from Roussel’s zany idea of the everyday: chess pieces, dentists’ mirrors, playing cards, keys and locks, diamonds, cigar cutters, dominoes, envelopes, blackboards, eyelashes, canaries, fried eggs, fingers, fish-hooks, handcuffs. The brute contingency is scary, but again it seems somehow determined, as if the poem’s leaps and twists were all logically required. The guts of the canto – a huge, unspooling catalogue of analogies stitched together around the word pour – is both rigorous and protracted.
Each canto has an African place name for a title, but in this poem there is no adventure story to require the application of any formal constraints, and there’s no sense of an actual Africa. The poem isn’t easy to read, and Ford’s help becomes a necessity. He points out that line 507 in the second canto takes up a train of thought begun all the way back at line 37; that Roussel’s reference to ‘un impur numéro’ is ‘possibly a reference to Le One-two-two, a brothel at 122 rue de Provence’; that line 58 in the second canto alludes to the version of Romeo and Juliet described in Roussel’s earlier novel. A dizzying glimpse into Roussel’s way of turning even the most banal trinket into a puzzle involves his comparison of ‘two V shapes next to a Greek rough breathing’ to a ‘sign on the toilet door’, which – Ford tells us – refers to the way ‘two small “v” shapes pointing down, if they overlap, would create a “w”, [which if] followed by a Greek dasia or rough breathing diacritical, which resembles a “c”, would form a miniature version of the sign … WC.’
For all its importance to a 20th-century avant-garde – from The Large Glass to the nouveau roman to Oulipo to Ashbery – Roussel’s work still seems to come from the 19th century. What he called the ‘perfect bliss’ of his childhood on the boulevard Malesherbes included regularly reading aloud from Jules Verne’s Voyages extraordinaires, and the cerebral adventures, intricate descriptions and quirky technology in Verne’s work are all indispensable to Roussel’s idea of literature. When Robbe-Grillet says that reading Roussel is like ‘finding a locked drawer, then a key [which] opens the drawer impeccably … and the drawer is empty,’ he sounds like Flaubert in his famous 1852 letter to Louise Colet, in which he claims to want to write a book ‘about nothing’ which would hang together because of the ‘inner strength of its style’. Roussel is often linked to the surrealists – an affiliation he did not court, saying he found their work ‘un peu obscur’ – but his dream logic is closer to Alice in Wonderland than Les Champs magnétiques (indeed, men in the shape of playing cards painting white roses red, or a hookah-smoking caterpillar, might have been cooked up using Roussel’s procédé). Even the eccentric move of revealing a secret compositional method has a precedent in Edgar Allan Poe’s essay ‘The Philosophy of Composition’, in which he claimed to have written ‘The Raven’ in accordance with a series of predetermined steps. One could identify other hangovers from the 19th century (the nihilism and surface gloss of Wilde or Huysmans, say), but Roussel’s work isn’t about decadence or camp. His worlds are so disarmingly literal, their duplicities so brainy and contrived, almost cheerful in their strange plenitude, that artifice in them is less a matter of irony and more a whirring orrery of encrypted obsessions. That Roussel preferred absolute artifice to anything actual, and seems to have viewed the outside world itself as an affront to his work (an idealism assisted in no small part by a grossly material factor: money), doesn’t diminish what he left behind.