In the Anti-World

Nicholas Jenkins

  • Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams by Mark Ford
    Faber, 312 pp, £25.00, November 2000, ISBN 0 571 17409 4

In 1924 the Surrealist Benjamin Péret was eager, like many artists then and since, to relate his own interests to the works of the rich, bizarre and innovative French poet, novelist and playwright Raymond Roussel. In Paris, Péret contacted Roussel’s business manager, hoping to arrange a meeting with the man whom Louis Aragon called ‘the President of the Republic of Dreams’. Members of the Surrealist group, including Péret, had consistently championed Roussel’s expensively disastrous confrontations with good taste in Parisian theatres. At a performance of L’Etoile au front in Paris earlier in 1924, for example, the Surrealists had vociferously applauded while the more conventional members of the (invited) audience jeered, hurling coins and baked apples – cruelly poetic projectiles to throw at actors performing the work of a very well-off man who suffered from anguishing food phobias.

But Roussel shrank from the clutches of any avant-garde clique, insisting, not unreasonably, on his own artistic uniqueness. Péret got seigneurially squashed at long distance, dismissed like a pleading scullion firmly refused entry at the closed doors of the Master’s study. Speaking by telephone from London, Roussel urged his agent to fob off the young poet with the comment that ‘Il ne se classe lui-même dans aucune école.’

Until almost the end of his life Roussel lived in a world that no other artist was either wealthy or neurotic enough to experience. ‘No author has been, or can ever be greater than I,’ he once claimed. And then added: ‘no one is aware of this yet today.’ But this ‘greatness’ was made interesting and anomalous by his writing’s absorption in the everyday, the small, the tangible and the banal. The exquisitely prolonged care that Proust, once Roussel’s near neighbour on the boulevard Malesherbes, lavished on describing the minutest ripples of the interior life are balanced by Roussel’s infinitely patient love of mundane exteriority and the world of objects – dust motes, bubbles, a cork, pencils, a piece of hotel notepaper, grapes, green beans, even the sight of a mildly inflamed uvula. (A distasteful glimpse into the depths of an infected mouth is the nearest that Roussel’s writing ever comes to entering the inner world of another person.)

Mark Ford is alive to the idiosyncratic nature of Roussel’s ‘self-evident uniqueness’ and ‘unassailable self-referentiality’, just as he is aware of the dangers of seeking to contextualise or even to ‘understand’ Roussel’s work, rendering it less freakish or more explicable than it actually is. The man whom Ford describes as ‘the most peculiar of writers’, and whom Fredric Jameson in a phrase of generous understatement has called one of ‘the more aberrant moderns’, seems intransigently committed to an aesthetic of the one-off and anti-real. Roussel’s exceptionally long but tightly constructed works, Ford notes, are inhabited by things such as ‘a bottle-imp containing miniature figurines dramatising a large bird’s attempt to strangle Alexander the Great with a golden thread, or a bas-relief of a girl extracting from a cushion the doll of a one-eyed dwarf dressed entirely in pink, or a skull engraved with Old Norse runes sporting a lady barrister’s cap made out of pages … from the Times’. No other art from the same period insists so calmly and completely on its unassimilablity to conventional canons of the normal, the insightful, the informative, or even the sane.

Eventually and very reluctantly, Roussel came to expect only a ‘little posthumous fame’ for himself. But for most of his life his fantasy of a mass audience and his quest for popular esteem stimulated him to produce a series of extraordinarily complex and original texts. Ford remarks that Roussel believed his writing was ‘destined to convert the masses’, but adds dryly that it has ‘been kept alive only by the interest of successive avant-gardes’. He elaborates on that assertion with plentiful details of the engagement with Roussel’s work of Cocteau, Desnos, Leiris, Soupault, Picabia, Duchamp, Breton, Aragon, Queneau, Perec, Robbe-Grillet, Foucault, Calvino and Ashbery (who contributes a foreword to Ford’s book). ‘I abandoned myself, out of my depth, in the Gulf Steam of your fantasy,’ André Gide wrote to Roussel in 1918 after receiving one of his books, with a sensuous intimacy that Roussel must have hurried to disregard.

Any reader will be able to add further instances to Mark Ford’s impressive list of artists with an interest in Roussel. Take, for instance, Paul Muldoon’s poem ‘The Lass of Aughrim’, which has a character playing a tune on a hollowed-out and drilled human tibia, just as Roussel has in his novel Locus Solus. And the title of Muldoon’s opera libretto, Shining Brow, is drawn from Roussel’s description of himself as one of those gifted souls who carry a star ‘on their shining brow’. A Franco-Irish interchange like this may seem surprising, but that is largely because the current proclivity for embedding authors’ works in sealed and solipsistic national literary traditions makes it that much harder to see just how transnational the whole business of writing then was and still remains. It was Flaubert who said: ‘I am as much Chinese as French.’

Like Gide, Ford allows himself to float trustingly in the immense, meandering, warm(ish) current of Roussel’s writing. But he does so while remaining resourceful in his marshalling of scholarly sources, passionate in his advocacy, and cosmopolitan in his awareness of avant-garde art in several media. Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams is a lucid and often witty volume, wholly worthy of its subject and of absorbing interest both to Roussel aficionados and to those whom Ford envisages as having ‘little or no acquaintance with Roussel’s oeuvre’. Written about an artist who did not ‘class himself as belonging to any school’, it is, aptly enough (and not only because it is the first analysis in English of Roussel and his work since Rayner Heppenstall’s short and now wholly superseded 1966 volume), a book in a class of its own.

Roussel was born in Paris in 1877, the year Edison patented the phonograph, and he died from a drug overdose in 1933, at the height of a Europe-wide yo-yo craze, killing himself in the Palermo hotel where half a century earlier Wagner, one of his artistic heroes, had finished Parsifal. (The hotel’s website currently boasts of being ‘a home-from-home for many illustrious guests’, and mentions Wagner’s triumph, though it does not indicate that Roussel committed suicide in one of the ‘183 rooms’ – the one that is today number 225.)

He was the third child of a colourless speculator in Paris’s booming real estate market and of an independently wealthy mother. Even in hard times (so to speak) in the 1920s, Roussel’s estate in Neuilly, bequeathed to him by his mother, had a staff of 16, including a chef, a governess – he had no children – a maître d’hôtel, two foot servants, a washerwoman, three chauffeurs, three gardeners, three cooks and a valet de chambre. There, a world of dreamlike, amoral, atemporal artifice prevailed. Roussel would order that the entire day’s meals, prepared by an Escoffier-trained cook, be served to him in what Ford calls a ‘single marathon sitting’. At 12.30 in the afternoon a lavish breakfast began, followed immediately around 1.15 by an extensive lunch, succeeded promptly by an early but immodest dinner. Each day Roussel rose from this mighty repast at about 5.30 p.m. with – on account of his eating difficulties – the board still groaning as it had been five hours earlier.

Such pathos-filled extravagance was possible only because Roussel was easily the wealthiest serious author of the 20th century. In fact, delete ‘serious’. He was surely the period’s wealthiest author. In comparison, the circumstances of the very set-up indeed James Merrill (like Roussel an addicted poetic formalist), driving his own Volkswagen and using a homemade Ouija board all those years, seem positively peasant-like and self-reliant. Alison Lurie recently described Merrill in Connecticut, chatting in his kitchen as he sliced up ‘a ripe red tomato with his little serrated knife’. Roussel, by contrast, did not want any indication that the food on his plate in the carefully controlled world of Neuilly had been violated by anyone at all. Forswearing any equivalent to Merrill’s ‘tiny serrated knife’, he returned belowstairs any produce with even the faintest trace of an incision.

The eerie, arbitrarily imposed rules and rituals of Roussel’s adult life were perhaps to be expected from someone who had grown up in a home consecrated to a chilly rigmarole of fancy and play. His mother was an avid collector of faience and fans, porcelain, jewels, Old Master paintings and lapdogs – her Biarritz villa contained minibaths for her brood of chihuahuas. And Mme Roussel amassed other small things besides dogs: she owned a significant collection of Dresden figurines; 78 were in her possession at the time of her death in 1911. Moving among this miniature army of bloodless shepherdesses and porcelain cattle, she inhabited a realm of whimsical petrifaction; one which must have had a formative influence on her favourite son, who grew up to be the creator of some of the strangest scenes and most intricately stylised artefacts in modern literature.

Where Proust spent a lifetime excavating the caverns of childhood memory, Roussel had no inclination to make a representation of his own inner life in words. His travel jottings from the important journey he made to Egypt in 1906 belong to a different verbal universe from Flaubert’s wonderful writing about his trip to that country in 1849-51. Almost as if he were performing a technical experiment in total self-suppression, Roussel makes no mention whatever of his reactions (‘Went to see the Valley of the Kings – Cold lunch – sun – heat’), even though his last and greatest poem, Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique, published in 1932, begins with the provoking sight of an Egyptian door. A few such objects aside, the author of Impressions d’Afrique and Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique seems to have had no impressions of Africa. Which was the point. ‘Chez moi, l’imagination est tout,’ he exulted.

He began writing poetry at the age of 17, in the same year as his father died (in a swimming-pool after, Roussel’s biographer François Caradec reports, drinking iced champagne on a hot day). Two years later he wrote La Doublure, a 5600-line poem which until the end of his life he continued to believe was one of his greatest achievements. It was the first of his works to appear in print (at his own expense, like everything else he wrote). While composing La Doublure, Roussel felt suffused by a total happiness, ‘la gloire’: ‘I was carrying the sun within myself and could do nothing to impede the tremendous light I was radiating.’ And, believing he was writing ‘with a thousand flaming pen-nibs’, Roussel was certain that fame (also in French la gloire) would be his: ‘I was the equal of Dante and of Shakespeare, I was feeling what Victor Hugo had felt when he was 70, what Napoleon had felt in 1811 and what Tannhäuser had felt while musing on Venusberg.’

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