Earthworm on Zither

Paul Grimstad

  • Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel, translated by Mark Polizzotti
    Dalkey, 280 pp, £10.99, June 2011, ISBN 978 1 56478 624 1
  • New Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel, translated by Mark Ford
    Princeton, 264 pp, £16.95, April 2011, ISBN 978 0 691 14459 7

‘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’.

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[*] Nicholas Jenkins wrote about Roussel in the LRB of 6 September 2001.