A year before overdosing on barbiturates in 1933, the novelist, playwright and poet Raymond Roussel commissioned an undertaker to make a grandiose watercolour design for his marble tombstone: a life-size, 19-year-old Roussel posing in the corner of an entombing library. That monument was never built, but this watercolour was one of the many archival documents, art works, illustrations, photographs and books on view in ‘Raymond Roussel – The President of the Republic of Dreams’, curated by François Peron. The show elegantly documented the earnest flights of fancy of this bizarre, obliquely influential French writer.
Roussel’s tragic flaw – in both writing and life – was to try to ground pipe dreams in the domain of the real. Foiling this tendency with an assembly of archival effects, the exhibition began as Roussel himself did: with the books of popular (science) fiction that fed his hyperactive imagination. From 1897, he self-published ten novels, trying in vain to emulate the scientific vision and popularity of Jules Verne, in particular. But Roussel’s hallucinatory, pathologically detailed descriptions of invented machines, rituals and tribal encounters were met with either silence or derision.
The colossal fortune left to Roussel and his mother by his stockbroker father bankrolled his upbringing in a lavish belle époque atmosphere. A series of family photographs taken during his youth illustrated this Proustian milieu: a young Roussel as pampered as one of the toy dogs he appears beside, on the beach, or at the estate in Neuilly. But unlike Marcel Proust, Roussel aggressively courted his public. In the only documented exchange between the two, Proust noted to Roussel that the latter writes ‘a hundred lines’ the way most men write ten, alluding with polite remove to Roussel’s lengthy, fractal descriptions, and encapsulating Roussel’s bewildered reception by the literary mainstream.
Roussel became progressively unstable after the publication of his first book (his own psychiatrist regarded him as a lunatic), and came to develop a near-mechanic, proto-Oulipean technique of writing. The posthumously published Comment j’ai écrit certains de mes livres (How I Wrote Certain of My Books, 1935) elucidates Roussel’s method of uniting near-homonyms, such as billiard and pillard (pill and looter), and letting a narrative arise from their juxtaposition.
In the mid-1920s, Roussel toured Europe in a roulotte, a deluxe ‘land yacht’ he designed and built, complete with electricity and servants’ quarters. The curtained windows of the house-on-wheels – shown in the exhibition via an advert Roussel placed in an automobile industry magazine – makes it look like a colossal hearse. Still, according to Michel Leiris, who admired Roussel and knew him as a child, ‘Roussel never really travelled […] only [seeing] what he had put there in advance.’ The same could be said of the writers and artists who came to cultishly revere Roussel: contemporary Dadaists and Surrealists (who admired his anti-rational bent); later Oulipeans (who borrowed from his ‘mechanic’ writing method); and John Ashbery (who named his magazine after Roussel’s 1914 novel Locus Solus). In the audience during the catastrophic May 1912 production of Roussel’s faux-ethnographic travelogue/novel Impressions d’Afrique (1910) were Guillame Apollinaire, Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia, who took appreciative note as the rest of the audience jeered. André Breton, Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard were also supporters.
Roussel never liked the Surrealists but he improbably became their avant-garde hero. The most triumphant two rooms of this exhibition are given to Roussel’s posthumous reception. Duchamp, who loudly championed Roussel as a fellow chess aficionado and as discoverer of the ‘verbal readymade’ (popular songs, clichés, mass-produced objects abounding in his work), named Roussel a key inspiration behind The Large Glass (1912–23). For his 1975 exhibition Junggesellenmaschinen at the Kunsthalle Bern, Harald Szeemann commissioned ‘pataphysicist artist Jacques Carelman to produce two sculptures based on detailed passages in Roussel’s Locus Solus and Impressions d’Afrique. They were exhibited here, in a kind of gesture that lent material credence to these figures’ fantastic obsessions: the large, detailed and disgusting La hie (1975) is a machine, comprised of pressure pumps, planet-like balls and a metal shaft, ostensibly creating a horizontal mosaic depicting a German Reiter in human teeth; Le diamant (1975) is a kind of theatrical geodesic structure filled with figurines on string (Richard Wagner’s mother, Voltaire, Pontius Pilate, a shaved cat). To a large degree, the narrative of Roussel as a literary touchstone is as imaginary as the ‘places’ he did not see – that is, hallucinatory, simultaneously there and not. His being oblivious to the popular imagination but picked up by avant-garde movements was typical of 20th-century aesthetic history, and is the condition of his sustained interest today. Figures have taken from him what they will – pilferers of an ornate, effaced tomb.