27 January 12 | Chad W. Post

One of the precursors to the Oulipo, and cult-author extraordinaire, Raymond Roussel is one of those authors that everyone of a certain aesthetic leaning likes to rave about. He is the admiration of many a literary fan-boy, and if there was an international fiction cosplay festival, his hat, cane, and ‘stach would adorn many a nerd.

That said, his books still aren’t as widely read as they should be. Part of that is due to the fact that for the longest time Calder was the only publisher of Locus Solus and Impressions of Africa. Calder is a great home for both of these books (the quality of the Calder list taken as a whole will likely never be replicated), but there were various distribution and availability issues.

Thankfully, last summer Dalkey Archive issued Impressions of Africa in Mark Polizzotti’s new translation.

I haven’t read this version, but knowing the book, and knowing Mark, I’m 100% sure that it’s brilliant. And for those of you unfamiliar with this book, here’s the Dalkey description:

In a mythical African land, some shipwrecked and uniquely talented passengers stage a grand gala to entertain themselves and their captor, the great chieftain Talou. In performance after bizarre performance—starring, among others, a zither-playing worm, a marksman who can peel an egg at fifty yards, a railway car that rolls on calves’ lungs, and fabulous machines that paint, weave, and compose music—Raymond Roussel demonstrates why it is that André Breton termed him “the greatest mesmerizer of modern times.” But even more remarkable than the mindbending events Roussel details—as well as their outlandish, touching, or tawdry backstories—is the principle behind the novel’s genesis, a complex system of puns and double-entendres that anticipated (and helped inspire) such movements as Surrealism and Oulipo. Newly translated and with an introduction by Mark Polizzotti, this edition of Impressions of Africa vividly restores the humor, linguistic legerdemain, and conceptual wonder of Raymond Roussel’s magnum opus.

Anyway, the main point of this post is to gush on about Roussel in context of this fantastic essay by Alice Gregory that went up on the Poetry Foundation website earlier this week.

First of all, anything with the subtitle “the upside of crazy” is effing awesome in my book. But more importantly, this is a really interesting look at Roussel’s odd being and its relation to his very strange works. You really have to read the whole article, but here are a few bits:

“Whatever I wrote was surrounded by rays of light,” a young Raymond Roussel told his psychoanalyst, Pierre Janet. “I used to close the curtains, for I was afraid that the shining rays emanating from my pen might escape into the outside world through even the smallest chink; I wanted suddenly to throw back the screen and light up the world.” Roussel was speaking literally, and Janet, who would treat Roussel for years, was taking notes.

Though nobody knows for sure, it’s suspected that Roussel first started seeing Janet in the years just before World War I, almost a decade after that first ecstatic experience he described in their early sessions. The manic spell coincided with the editing of La Doublure, a novel in verse that took most of Roussel’s adolescence to complete and that he believed “would illuminate the entire universe” when it was published. When it finally was published in 1897, La Doublure was ignored by critics. The reception to his obsessively detailed and obviously unsalable work ushered in a lifelong series of public disappointments for Roussel, a writer whose work was met—in his own words—with “an almost totally hostile incomprehension.”

In later sessions with Janet, Roussel proved himself to be outlandishly hubristic and deluded about his chances at fame, predicting, for instance, that he would “enjoy greater glory than Victor Hugo or Napoleon.” Over dinner recently, I quoted this prophecy to a friend and roussellâtre (what one calls a Roussel enthusiast), and he laughed. “That’s what’s so insane about him,” my friend shouted over the restaurant’s ambient noise. “He actually thought that what he wrote was normal, that people would like it, that he deserved—and would find—a mainstream audience!” [. . .]

Roussel’s world is strange because it is so specific, and his imaginative audacity reminds me of nothing so much as anime. Like Hayao Miyazaki movies—in which buses look like cats, amphibious girls have mouths full of salubrious saliva, monsters vomit up bathhouse employees, and decapitated spirit heads cure leprosy—Roussel’s works are littered with inconceivable amalgams. But at least in anime, there are protagonists with motives, however simplistic—they avenge family members, fall in love with characters that look like themselves, and seek adventure in parallel worlds. Roussel’s characters, if they can even be called that, express almost nothing a reader could identify as emotions. Bearing witness to the products of Roussel’s imagination isn’t nearly so unnerving as the moment that comes—quite late, it seems—when you are finally struck by the severe lack of human feeling. Janet outlines what he understands to be some of Roussel’s aesthetic principles: “The work must contain nothing real,” he deduces, “no observations on the world or the mind, nothing but completely imaginary combinations.” [. . .]

Roussel’s eccentricities were sundry and systematic. His biographer, Mark Ford, generously identifies them as “attempt[s] to screen out or neutralize the anxieties of living.” He fasted for days, wore garments for only limited amounts of time (collars, once; neckties, three times; suspenders, 15 times), and started and stopped work always on the hour. Roussel’s love for his own mother bordered on the erotic, and when she died, he had a pane of glass inserted into the lid of her coffin so that he could look at her corpse just a bit longer. There are more impish examples too, like his habit of tearing pages from his favorite books so that nobody could see what he was reading and then devouring them in the back seat of a chauffeured car. Most telling of what was clearly a personality disorder was Roussel’s conduct at social events, where “he became so afraid of causing offence, or of himself being offended, that he would pre-empt all potentially upsetting topics by asking an endless series of factual questions.”

That last little bit is so amazing . . . I think I’m going to employ it next time I’m anxious at some social event . . .

But seriously, you should check out this article and then read the new translation of Impressions of Africa.


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