A giant worm playing a zither; a black whalebone statue moving on rails made out of calves' lungs; a wind-powered road-mending tool constructing an intricate mosaic of human teeth; a furless cat whose body is electrically charged with a current strong enough to bring the fetid head of Danton back to life. As his most notorious images may imply, there is nothing that isn't extraordinary about the French writer Raymond Roussel. To Jean Cocteau, he represented 'genius in its pure state'. 2 To Louis Aragon he was 'The Emperor of the Republic of Dreams'. 3 Although he endured endless public ridicule in his lifetime, the Surrealists and Dadaists both championed his work. Since his mysterious death (suicide or accidental overdose?) in Palermo in 1933, Roussel's work has profoundly influenced diverse groups of writers and artists, from Marcel Duchamp and André Breton to Oulipians such as Georges Perec and Italo Calvino.
At least initially, Roussel's estimation of his own worth was even higher. At the age of 19, while writing his first poem, La doublure (The Understudy, 1897), an immense, somewhat tawdry tale about a failed theatrical understudy, he experienced la gloire - a transcendental, overwhelming conviction of his own literary genius. As he later told his psychiatrist, Pierre Janet: '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 [...] no author has been, or ever can be greater than I, although no one is aware of this yet today'.4
After La doublure was unleashed on an utterly indifferent world - published, like all Roussel's works, at his own expense - such delusions of grandeur were immediately quashed. Apart from a rather patronizing note of praise from his young contemporary Proust (who was born on the same Parisian street as Roussel), the volume sank without trace. Reeling with dismay, Roussel suffered a nervous disorder and broke out in a rash that covered his entire body.
He never really recovered from his experience of la gloire. He also never gave up his misguided quest for popular acclaim, and even adapted his two novels Impressions d'Afrique (Impressions of Africa, 1910) and Locus solus (1914) for the stage in the hope of reaching a wider audience. The plays merely provoked riots and public outcry that their fantastically rich author should have squandered huge sums on the lavish production of what the audience saw as patent nonsense. Avant-garde artists of the time may have rallied to his cause, but this was scant consolation. 'People say I'm a Dadaist', he once moaned, 'but I don't even know what Dadaism is!' And the Surrealists, to his mind, were merely 'un peu obscur'. Roussel's own artistic tastes remained for the most part popular and conventional - with Jules Verne, Victor Hugo and Pierre Loti constituting his own literary holy trinity.
It is not hard to see why popular success eluded him. Roussel's writing revels in obsessive visual descriptions and inexplicable digressions - hardly the stuff of blockbusters. Take, for instance, La doublure, which begins with a relatively straightforward if rather dull love story before launching into a 4,000-line microscopic description of revellers' costumes at a carnival in Nice that engulfs the remaining two-thirds of the poem. After this marathon of minute observation, the poem suddenly comes to an abrupt, inconclusive ending. Its brief prefatory note was also equally likely to bemuse contemporary readers:
As this book is a novel, one must begin on the first page and finish on the last.
Another early work, La vue (The View, 1904), offers a 60-page description of a miniature beach scene set into the lens of a pen-holder, while Le concert (The Concert, 1903) and La source (The Spring, 1904) focus in turn, with equally demented precision, on the letterhead of a piece of hotel stationery and the label of a bottle of mineral water. Unsurprisingly, this trio of intriguingly two-dimensional poems, which Roussel republished in one volume also entitled La vue (1904), fared no better commercially than La doublure. The meagre print run of 550 copies didn't sell out until 1953, 20 years after Roussel's death.
Even a glance at his last great poem, Nouvelles Impressions d'Afrique (New Impressions of Africa, 1932), betrays its bewilderingly tangential narrative techniques. Almost every other line breaks off into a bracket or rhymed footnote, with parentheses and irrelevancies sprouting from the text so regularly that what 'story' there is disintegrates. In the poem's first canto, for instance, Roussel describes someone having his photo taken whilewondering if his breathing will blur the image. This reflection prompts a digressive list of 54 other examples of people and things wondering: an animal-tamer being eaten by one of his wild beasts wonders if his widow will still be dressed in black a year later; a wall battered by a window shutter during windy weather wonders what fault it has committed to receive such treatment. And so the chain of tangential connections goes on and on. The result is unreadable, even though Roussel calculated that writing each line cost him '15 hours of hard labour', and that the poem as a whole was seven years in the making. 5 Another typically Roussellian touch to Nouvelles Impressions d'Afrique is the strangely banal prints dotted throughout the poem, which were commissioned from a hack illustrator, Henri A. Zo. Rather than speak to Zo personally, Roussel employed a detective agency to contact him with very specific instructions for each print, for instance: '43. A parrot on a perch seeming to talk to a passer-by. No other people.' The agency was also under strict instructions not to reveal Roussel's identity to Zo. The resulting illustrations resonate peculiarly with the parenthetical complexities of the text. In a sense they are spectacularly inappropriate, which seems to have been the effect Roussel desired.
The novels Impressions d'Afrique and Locus solus, while by no means quite as superficially arbitrary or difficult to read, are equally unnerving because of their total resistance to anything resembling conventional plot development, coupled with the alien strangeness of the worlds they describe. Both books use a none too subtle narrative device - a shipwreck off the coast of Africa, and a tour around the huge gardens of a prodigiously inventive scientist respectively - as a springboard for a relentless catalogue of seemingly unrelated, fantastical events. More disturbingly, the novels lack any subjectivity whatsoever: their dazzling descriptions of mechanical marvels are rendered in a distressingly neutral tone that allows the reader no point of entry. Their pristine, reflective surfaces are quite simply impenetrable.
In person, Roussel was just as obsessed with immaculate surfaces. As depicted by Mark Ford in his wonderful new biography Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams (2000) (the only in-depth study of Roussel available in English, although Atlas Press is currently preparing Ian Monk's translation of François Caradec's defintive 1972 biography Raymond Roussel www.atlaspress.co.uk), he was an 'extreme embodiment of the fastidious dandy'. He would wear his collars only once, his neckties three times, and a suit, an overcoat and suspenders 15 times, likening the sensation of wearing brand-new clothes to 'walking on eggs'. 6 His culinary tastes were no less meticulous. Rather than eat at the usual times, Roussel preferred to compress all his meals into one epic five-hour repast in the middle of the day. Bizarrely, he also gave strict orders that none of the vegetables prepared for him by his chef should bear any trace of the knife with which they had been cut.
His letters from his numerous travels around the world - often in his famous roulotte, a kind of precursor of the motor-home which he had custom-built - are astoundingly dry and matter-of-fact in tone. He visited India, Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, China, Japan and America, but insisted that these peregrinations had no influence at all on his writings. A postcard he sent from Melbourne gives a good indication of his curt epistolary style: 'Near here there are two bathing resorts which are called Brighton and Menton[e]. It's well worth the trouble of coming so far as to make excursions to Brighton and Menton[e], which is what I've done.'
Outside literature he dabbled in various devious exploits - patenting a form of household insulation, inventing the world's first camper-van (the aforementioned roulotte), and devising a celebrated endgame in chess. Meanwhile his paid companion Charlotte Dufrène provided a respectable public cover for his private appetite for homosexual encounters with blue-collar workers and sailors. Similarly, underneath the berserk façades of his poems and novels lurks a meticulous, ingeniously constructed system of language machines - what Roussel called his 'process'. In 1932, when he had all but abandoned literature for the fascinations of barbiturates and chess, he delivered an essay to his publishers under the strict proviso that it was only to be published after his death. Comment j'ai écrit certains de mes livres (How I Wrote Certain of My Books) which appeared, rather appropriately, on 1 April 1935, revealed the previously hidden techniques embedded in his texts.
Essentially, the 'process' is a system for generating images and narrative based on homonyms and the double meanings of the words. Roussel began by substituting the second meanings of words in a phrase for the first, and then finding a narrative to bridge the chasm formed within the folds of language. The most famous example is probably his short story Parmi les noirs (Amongst the Blacks, 1900), which starts with 'Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard' (The letters [of the alphabet] in white [chalk] on the cushions of the old billiard table) and ends with 'les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard' (the letters sent by the white man about the hordes of the old plunderer). Later stages of the 'process' involved taking random phrases from various sources and then distorting them slightly to produce new permutations.
Such covert stratagems, as well as producing an endless stream of outlandish images and stories (which were mistakenly taken in his lifetime for the products of a fevered, freewheeling imagination), exploit the intrinsically duplicitous nature of language to disconcerting effect. Roussel's extreme secrecy about his methods until after his death also raises questions as to what else he may have been hiding. As Foucault has pointed out, his fiendishly meticulous techniques turn 'each word into a possible trap, which is the same as a real trap, since the mere possibility of a false floor opens [...] a space of infinite uncertainty'. 7 The dizzying potential of discovering a sequence of endlessly nested linguistic compartments in Roussel's writing inspires a kind of textual vertigo - like an even more diabolical version of Borges' Book of Sand (1979). Roussel's work literally begs to be deconstructed, and an ever growing band of critics has indeed attempted to pick apart its manifold mysteries. Yet the only certainty for the attentive reader of Roussel remains that of never quite knowing what he was really up to. As John Ashbery has commented, after reading Roussel your 'feelings about language will never be the same again'.
In 1989 a box of Roussel documents was discovered in a Parisian warehouse containing photos, rough drafts and a number of unpublished works, which are currently being translated for a projected 12-volume Oeuvres complètes. They may have proved, as Ford says, 'stubbornly unilluminating' as regards Roussel's personality, but who knows how they will affect his hitherto neglected literary stature? What other revelations lie in wait? Perhaps Roussel will achieve la gloire after all.
1. Raymond Roussel, 'L'Etoile au Front', La Révolution Surréaliste, no. 4, 1925, reprinted in Bizarre, no. 34-35, 1964.
2. Jean Cocteau, Opium: The Illustrated Diary of His Cure, trans. Margaret Crosland, Peter Owen, London, 1990
3. Louis Aragon, Une vague de rêves, first published in 1924, collected in Chroniques, Stock, Paris, 1998, p. 198.
4. Pierre Janet, De l'angoisse à l'extase, Alcan, Paris, 1926.
5. A hypertext version of sections of Roussel's Nouvelles Impressions d'Afrique, translated into English by Andrew Hugill, is available at http://www.staff.dmu.ac.uk/~ahu/nia/preface.html.
6. Mark Ford, Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams, Faber, London, 2000.
7. Michel Foucault, Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel, trans. Charles Ruas, Athlone Press, London, 1987.