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.

In the Procedure Mark One, Roussel would find two French sentences which sounded very alike but could be made to mean quite different things. The two sentences, for example: Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard and Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard. These differ by only the one phoneme, which in French distinguishes a billiard-table from a plunderer. That is already quite a difference, but Roussel is only just starting; the semantic gap between the sentences can be further widened by taking their other nouns in divergent senses. In the first sentence, lettres may be read as typographical signs, blanc as a cube of white marking-chalk and bandes as the cushions of the billiard-table: thus, ‘The characters in white chalk on the cushions of the old billiard-table.’ Which is not at all like the second sentence, where lettres are now missives, the blanc is a white man, and bandes are the plunderer’s hordes. Roussel now has two sentences with which to start and finish; all he needs to do is to write a story which will join them up logically. Roussel took to this way of verbal creation because, I think, it was so beautifully inexpressive. It meant that he could work at his writing without the painful risks of self-revelation.

From this one texte-genèse he claims that he was able to derive the whole of his Impressions d’Afrique, though neither of the key sentences occurs verbatim in that 300-page book. What they gave him was first a plot and then a literary asylum. The plot involves the temporary captivity in equatorial Africa of a party of impossibly dextrous European tourists: acrobats, musicians, inventors, scientists – star performers all and the very stuff of Roussel’s fiction. They are waiting to be ransomed and will pass the time in exhibitions of their supernal skills. Once he gets his money, the local emperor, or ‘old plunderer’, will send them on their way. This of course is not the Africa of ethnology, but an Africa of the most commonplace contemporary imaginaire, no further from Europe than the word pillard is from billard. But the Impressions d’Afrique do mark a passage in the mind, from the familiar to the alien, conditioned by those two near, not-so-random homophones. For Roussel, billiards were real, they went with his smart milieu, they were a game to be escaped from. Black African plunderers were something else, something made-up and childishly unreal, a game to be escaped into.

His two big books, the Impressions d’Afrique and Locus Solus, are a disjointed series of scenes, tableaux and stories in which human dexterity and obsession are taken to monstrous lengths. They are epics of prestidigitation, set in a world where technique is absolute. Roussel’s own technique is first to amaze us with some enigmatic or marvellous spectacle and then to say why it takes the form it does. But the spectacle and its dubious rationale may be far apart in the text, because the writer wants to enthral us doubly, with the presentation and later the resolution of his puzzles. In the Impressions, for example, the enigmas displayed in the first half of the book are none of them ‘explained’ until the second half, when we find out how these European visitors came to be in Africa at all. Into the very first edition, of 1909, a perhaps nervous Roussel inserted a notice to the effect that readers not ‘initiated’ into his art should read the second half of the book first, even though, as a more or less complete unknown, it was a little too soon for him to have had any ‘initiates’.

The format of these two books is that of the circus or the music-hall. Turn follows fast on turn, in a frantic accumulation of wonders. For a specimen performance, I take that of Skarioffszky, a very Hungarian Hungarian, who comes on stage in the Impressions having trained a giant but docile worm to produce music from a zither by using the contortions of its body to release drops of some unknown liquid onto the strings. Roussel goes into much difficult detail over the mechanics of this animal-act, but since the means are as fantastic as the product, the technology, too, is fictive and fails to restore us to the everyday world. Then, two hundred pages further on, we get the story of how Skarioffszky first found and trained his worm. This redistributes the credit for his act somewhat, for it turns out that the worm was already a natural melomane when found by Skarioffszky, living in some magic medium which resembles water but is not water. As a worm-tamer, Skarioffszky has had things relatively easy. He had come to Africa as himself the star zither-player, but he abdicates cheerfully in favour of the gifted native (the French for a worm being ver, there must be a play here on ver-tuose). Like so many of Roussel’s fictional surrogates, Skarioffszky is adept at profiting from life’s contingencies; his act is one of an inspired collaboration with alien forces, and as such neatly analogous with Roussel’s own collaboration with the French language.

But there is something else about the worm. Once trained in the use of its zither, it plays music every bit as expressive as that which Skarioffszky has been used to making. Roussel, the Conservatoire drop-out, describes how the reptile attacks in turn a csardas, a medley of operetta tunes, and a ‘captivating’ Hungarian rhapsody. The performance is scrupulously mechanical yet its effects are held to be identical with those achieved by a human player. Worms being famously contemptible creatures, it might seem that Roussel is being sardonic in choosing one for his supreme artiste, but I think not. Rather, the worm is evidence of his passion to prove that expressiveness in art, in writing as in music, is a function of the medium, not of some supposed inner capacity of the soul. Which, come to think of it, is straight Post-Structuralism.

In 1911, the zither-playing worm had a premiere, along with others of Roussel’s African prodigies, in his own stage version of the Impressions. The explicit theatricality of the book, with its sequences of ‘turns’ and supporting narratives, lent itself to public performance, even if the consistent impossibility of all that happens must also have made its representation both arduous and disappointing – the natural laws are not so easily bent on stage. Roussel paid for everything, it seems: the hire of the theatre, the cast, the effects, the sets. This first time round, the Impressions lasted only two nights, because Roussel’s mother then died and he called it off; six months later, it was put on again and was a noisy failure, the first of a series of such costly fiascos which marked Roussel’s efforts to get himself known as a playwright. Coins were thrown at the actors and the playwright was mocked. But there were a few enthusiasts in the audience: a knot of coming Surrealists and Dadaists, Apollinaire, Marcel Duchamp, Picabia, who were the first to take Roussel up. In the Twenties, he was to be quite a favourite with the avant-garde, who loved the fact that someone of such deplorable and solemn good taste could produce works so bizarrely way-out.

At the end of 1913, Roussel published his other masterpiece, Locus Solus, which is as richly and freakishly imaginary as Impressions d’Afrique. There was no need this time for him to travel anywhere as fictive as ‘Africa’; the setting of Locus Solus is a private estate only a quarter of an hour out of Paris. The owner of this ‘solitary place’ is Martial Canterel, who shows off its astonishing tableaux and contrivances to select parties of guests. Canterel is a scientific magus, a figment comparable with those dreamed up by the writer whom Roussel most revered, Jules Verne. He enjoys an inordinate power both over things and, through his words, over people. For not only is Canterel the creator of an awesome science-park, he is also a guide with a positively orphic ability to charm, ‘one of the champions of the word’.

Canterel’s feats of invention are extravagant, even measured against those of the Impressions. What, for instance, of his paviour’s beetle, suspended from a small balloon, which is slowly creating a mosaic picture out of a vast store of human teeth – painlessly removed by some patented new method. Some of the teeth are a healthy white, others have been helpfully yellowed by nicotine, others still are blue or black, or reddened at the roots from their extraction. The mosaic is polychrome therefore, and also figurative: it shows a Germanic knight or reiter asleep in a crypt beside a subterreanean lake, with other figures wreathed in smoke representing emanations from the dormant brain. The mechanism by which the beetle operates is recounted in unintelligible detail, as though this were some authentic if whimsical form of new technology. But in order to make it set the teeth down where they are needed for the picture, Canterel has first to be a master of meteorology, since the aerostat controlling the beetle is itself at the mercy of the winds. Canterel, happily, is able to predict wind conditions with total accuracy up to ten days ahead, so the rightful completion of his mosaic is assured. As with Skarioffszky and his musical worm, Canterel’s prowess combines the aleatory with the deliberate, or accident with hard work. Such, for Roussel, was the ideology of artistic creation.

His own hard work in the making of Locus Solus was of a slightly different kind from that which he had put into the Impressions. His ‘procedure’ had by now evolved into a Mark Two version, though there was still a touch of Mark One in the fabrication of the beetle. For this, Roussel had started from the words demoiselle à prétendant or ‘young girl with a suitor’ and converted them into demoiselle à reître en dents or ‘paviour’s beetle’ – another meaning of demoiselle – ‘with a reiter out of teeth’ – he came to lean very heavily on the grammatically versatile form à in his semantic games.

The Procedure Mark Two involves twisting existing French words or phrases phonetically into new ones, as prétendant into reître à dents. For instance, the phrase ‘Napoléon premier empereur’ he turned for his creative purposes into the near-nonsense string of substantives, Nappe ollé ombre miettes hampe air heure: hence, in the text, Spanish dancers (olé) dancing on a table-cloth (nappe) where there is a shadow (ombre) of some crumbs (miettes), followed by a wind (air)-driven clock (heure)mounted on a pole (hampe). Or another choice trouvaille: the brand-name Phonotypia gave him the set fausse-note tibia: hence an amputated Breton fisherman who plays flute tunes on his own tibia. This evolved procedure enabled Roussel to work from series of dislocated nouns, to which his own contribution would be the syntax linking them. But the Phonotypia example shows, too, how freely he distorted the sounds he began with; this was a looser procedure than the earlier one and gave him a wider choice of possibilities.

To many, Roussel will seem a petty or a futile writer: a punster who even hid the evidence of his punning. But the word-play on which he counted was a most serious business for him; it kept him working and in work alone lay the promise that the lost gloire might be won back, as ultimate literary fame if not as an immediate radiance. Roussel’s is a literature of therapy and its hallmark is a concern with flawless repetition. The elaborate performances in which his two large books abound cannot go wrong, the command invested in the performer is total. And with command there comes release. Among the geniuses of Impressions d’Afrique is a young female impersonator, Carmichaël, who sings perfect soprano. But trying to repeat the lines of a crushingly repetitive epic poem written by the emperor in celebration of his own exploits, Carmichaël actually gets a word wrong. The emperor punishes him with a three-hour detention. The next time he recites the poem Carmichaël is word-perfect, and both he and the other Europeans are free to leave ‘Africa’. Life returns, you might say, only once the text is absolutely right.

Roussel served through the 1914-18 War in the French Army, by his own account as a driver, though no one believed that a man reputedly incapable of opening a bottle could learn to drive a lorry. After the war he returned to his writing. Locus Solus was expensively adapted for the stage, and performed in 1922, to more derision. The Surrealists defended it, but elsewhere there was much earnest grumbling about rich men being able to hire public theatres and put on rubbish. Concluding next that adaptations would never succeed, he wrote two plays directly for the stage, but these failed too. The second of them, La Poussière des Soleils, passed off almost quietly, and his jovial claque felt cheated, worried that their man might be declining fatally into sound sense.

For seven years also Roussel worked on his Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique, a poem in alexandrines (even the footnotes are alexandrines) which he calculated had cost him more than nineteen thousand hours of work. The Nouvelles Impressions are scarcely more African than the Impressions, even if each section of the poem does set out to describe a particular scene in Egypt. But it is very quickly led astray, as Roussel pursues the promptings of language rather than those of the landscape. From the banks of the Nile to a Paris salon is for him the shortest of steps:

Rasant le Nil, je vois fuir deux rives couvertes
De fleurs, d’ailes, d’éclairs, de riches plantes vertes
Dont une suffirait à vingt de nos salons ...

And once into the salon there is no going back to the Nile, as Roussel’s verses devolve into a sequence of parentheses, the next of which invariably opens before the previous one has closed, so that you may come upon embedded parentheses up to the power of five or six, which does nothing for the poem’s continuity. For all their occasional charm, the Nouvelles Impressions were another commercial flop. The text was too short to make a book on its own, so Roussel thought to get it illustrated. The artist he hired through a detective agency, but he would not meet him, nor let him read the poem. Instructions were sent, however, and the pictures done. But they appeared in the book en bloc, all 59 of them, rather than placed appropriately through the text, and the book itself was printed in such a way that until the pages were cut only Roussel’s parts, the poetry, showed.

Roussel continued in these years to be treated by doctors. In 1928, he was in the same maison de santé as Jean Cocteau, then being got off opium. Cocteau noticed, as others had, how like Proust Roussel was – in voice, in physique and in nervousness. Roussel, on the other hand, spoilt the comparison by asking Cocteau one day why he, Roussel, could not be famous like a very much less highbrow writer, the ‘exotic’ novelist Pierre Loti. By the end of the Twenties, it seems certain that Roussel had spent his way through his family money and had begun to think positively about dying. He took new and this time more practical steps towards securing a name for himself in death. When he sold the villa in Neuilly which he had inherited from his mother, it was on the understanding that if a projected road was made through the gardens, it would be called the Avenue Raymond Roussel (it never was); and he bought for himself a concession in the Père-Lachaise cemetery, ordering for it a large monument in best Carrara marble which would show him standing authorially before a bookcase (this was never made either). The sculptor was to work from a photograph, but one taken when Roussel was still a hopeful 19-year-old.

In 1933, Roussel went to stay in Palermo, in the very hotel in which Wagner had written Parsifal. With him was Charlotte Dufrène, who had been his ‘mistress’ for many years, taken, it was assumed, as a cover for his homosexuality. He was now on a regime of barbiturates. In Palermo he took one overdose but was quickly found and revived. The death-wish was strong, but not yet strong enough for him to be able to end his life by his own hand. He turned one last time to his money to ease the way: first he tried to bribe Charlotte to shoot him with his revolver and then, when she refused, asked his valet to cut his wrists for him. The valet wouldn’t. So Roussel cut his own wrists, in the bath, but called for help and was saved once again. Finally, still a guest in the same remarkably tolerant hotel, he took a second, this time definitive overdose of Soneryl. He was buried where he had wanted, in the Père Lachaise, without his statue, but in a vault divided into 32 compartments, in apparent homage to another of his ludic obsessions, the game of chess.

Post-Structuralism could and should now make something of Roussel, a writer who actually found comfort in allowing language to determine his literary agenda. In the age of Derrida he has a fresh opportunity to find a certain gloire. It is not the first such: the Surrealists did their bit for Roussel, but patronisingly, looking on him as a source of literary scandal rather than as an intellectual force. He had a second opportunity in the days of the Nouveau Roman, when Robbe-Grillet, especially, picked Roussel out as an enlightened precursor in the search for an absolute impassivity in writing. It was as a consequence of this clear and interesting affiliation that, in the early Sixties, Roussel was taken notice of for the first time in this country, when Rayner Heppenstall, together with his daughter, translated his major works into English and published a short study of him.

That modest volume served Roussel’s cause far better than will the present translation of Foucault’s dispiritingly portentous essay of 1963, a lugubrious introduction to Roussel’s essentially charming, lightweight oeuvre. Parts of it are impenetrable, which may be Foucault or may be his supine translator. Roussel could have done without these obscure attentions and without Foucault’s determination to locate in his writings an ‘emptiness of being’. You do not have to read far into Roussel to realise that here the ontological question is in delightful suspense. He wished to replace our real reality for the space of a book with obvious and above all engaging fakes; he longed to be, like Canterel, ‘a champion of the word’. Much more useful than Death and the Labyrinth is Raymond Roussel: Life, Death and Works, an excellent anthology which contains all the best analyses made of Roussel, by such as Michel Leiris, Butor, Robbe-Grillet and Jean Ferry.