Raymond Roussel (1877-1933) is one of the most distinctive and compelling French writers of the twentieth century, yet many aspects of Roussel’s life remain shrouded in mystery. An extremely wealthy and always exquisitely dressed homosexual dandy, Roussel was also a compulsive writer. Despite the strangeness of his work, he was convinced that it would make him as popular as Victor Hugo or Shakespeare. His suicide at the age of 56 was in part prompted by the continual disappointment of his hopes for fame.
The full extent of Roussel’s writing only became clear in 1989 when a trunk was unearthed in a furniture warehouse containing a vast trove of his manuscripts. The most exciting discoveries were the full draft of Locus Solus (over twice as long as the published version) and the typescript of what would have been his third novel, The Alley of Fireflies, which is translated here for the first time into English by the leading Roussel scholar, Mark Ford. Ford has also translated two haunting extracts from the drafts of Locus Solus, and versions of two of the young Roussel’s most intriguing short stories, “Chiquenaude” and “Among the Blacks.”
Roussel’s work was vociferously championed by Surrealist writers and painters such as André Breton, Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dalì, and later proved a significant influence on Oulipians (particularly Georges Perec), on nouveaux romanciers like Alain Robbe-Grillet, as well as on John Ashbery and Harry Mathews, who named their pioneering magazine of the 1960s Locus Solus, after Roussel’s second novel.
Quotes about Roussel:
Genius in its pure state. – Jean Cocteau
The President of the Republic of Dreams. – Louis Aragon
He who pointed the way. – Marcel Duchamp
It is true that there is hidden in Roussel something so strong, so ominous, and so pregnant with the darkness of “infinite spaces”… that one feels the need for some sort of protective equipment when one reads him. – John Ashbery
Things, words, vision and death, the sun and language make a unique form… Roussel, in some way, has defined its geometry. – Michel Foucault
By Mark Ford
The photograph of Raymond Roussel used as the frontispiece for this volume was taken in Milan in October of 1896. Roussel was nineteen, and some months earlier had begun writing a novel in verse called La Doublure (The Understudy – although it is worth remembering that doublure can also mean the lining of a garment). While he was writing La Doublure – whose main character, Gaspard, is initially employed as an understudy in a Parisian theatre – Roussel became convinced that he was destined for the most extraordinary literary greatness:
One understands by some peculiar means that one is creating a masterpiece, that one is a prodigy; there are child prodigies who have revealed their genius at the age of eight – I was revealing mine at the age of nineteen. I was the equal of Dante and Shakespeare.
Indeed, so powerful was Roussel’s experience of inspiration, or la gloire as he termed it, that he would compose only in a darkened room:
Whatever I wrote was surrounded by rays of light; 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. To leave these papers lying about would have sent out rays of light as far as China, and the desperate crowd would have flung themselves upon my house. But it was in vain I took such precautions, for rays of light were streaming from me and through the walls, I was carrying the sun within myself and could do nothing to impede the tremendous light I was radiating. Each line was repeated in a thousand copies, and I wrote with a thousand flaming pen-nibs.
La Doublure consists mainly of relentlessly precise descriptions, in somewhat monotonous alexandrine couplets, of the floats and gigantic papier-mâché figures that feature in the annual carnival at Nice, and wouldn’t find an appreciative audience until the emergence of nouveaux romanciers such as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Michel Butor in the 1960s. Nevertheless, when the book was published (at Roussel’s own expense) and attracted only two short reviews, one of which called it “more or less unintelligible” while the other complained that it was “very boring,” Roussel felt as if he had “plummeted to earth from the prodigious heights of glory”:
The shock brought me out in a kind of skin disease, which took the form of a rash covering my entire body; my mother, who believed I had measles, had me examined by our doctor. The shock resulted, most crucially, in my developing a dreadful nervous illness, from which I suffered for many years.
There followed a period of what Roussel later called ‘prospecting’, which eventually led to the development of his procédé, the bizarre compositional method that underlies his two novels, Impressions d’Afrique (1910) and Locus Solus (1914), and his two plays, L’Étoile au front (1925) and La Poussière de soleils (1927). Roussel only revealed his special method in a posthumously published autobiographical text entitled Comment j’ai écrit certains de mes livres (How I wrote certain of my books). In this short memoir Roussel ventured to hope that his compositional discovery might prove useful to succeeding authors, and outlined the various phases of its evolution.
The most elementary of these phases is on display in the two short stories that open this volume, Chiquenaude (literally, a flick of the finger) and Parmi les noirs (Among the Blacks). They belong to a series of stories that Roussel wrote, in the wake of the failure of La Doublure, in his early twenties, and which he punningly labelled “Textes de grande jeunesse ou Textes-genèse.”
The pun or homonym is at the heart of Roussel’s procédé, which is based on the fact that words can have more than one meaning. All of the Textes-genèse begin and end with the same set of words, with the exception of one or, in the case of Chiquenaude, two letters, but the meaning of each of the main words in these opening and closing phrases is different. Chiquenaude, for instance, begins with the sentence: “Les vers de la doublure dans la pièce du Forban Talon Rouge [avaient été composés par moi].” (The verses of the understudy in the play The Red-Heeled Buccaneer [had been composed by me.]) It concludes: “Les vers de la doublure dans la pièce du fort pantalon rouge! …” But here vers means worms, not verses, doublure means lining, not understudy, pièce means piece, not play, and Forban Talon Rouge has become fort pantalon rouge – making this final phrase mean: “The worms in the lining of the piece of strong red trouser! …” “Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard” opens Among the Blacks – “The letters (ie alphabetical letters) in white chalk on the cushions of the old billiard table.” In its concluding clause, billard has been changed to pillard: “Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard,” meaning “The letters (ie. missives) from the white man about the hordes of the old pillager.” “The two phrases found,” Roussel comments in How I Wrote Certain of my Books “it was a question of writing a story that could begin with the first and end with the second.”
Roussel composed about twenty stories that make use of this primary phase of the procédé, but Chiquenaude was the only one that he allowed to see the light of day in his lifetime. It was issued by Alphonse Lemerre (a not entirely reputable firm who charged Roussel exorbitant sums to print, advertise and distribute his works) as a 24-page plaquette in the autumn of 1900. Alas, like the weighty La Doublure (which runs to over 5,600 lines), it failed to find the adoring readership that Roussel craved; as late as the 1930s Lemerre was still trying to dispose of unsold stock.
Roussel’s fascination with linguistic doubleness is explicit in the Textes-genèse, which may have been one reason why he chose not to publish while he was alive any of those that he composed after Chiquenaude. In my critical biography Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams (2000), I connected his obsession with the cryptic, with language’s doubleness or homophonic linings, with his secret life as an inordinately wealthy belle époque homosexual. Roussel was furnished by his mother with a maîtresse de convenance to preserve appearances, but he was also subject to blackmail by sailors and stable boys and chauffeurs. The procédé, in other words, might be seen as analogous to Oscar Wilde’s use of puns in The Importance of Being Earnest, as a form of linguistic bunburying. Like Wilde, Roussel discovered in the duplicity of language a means of transposing into his writing his own double life.
Is the point, both Roussel’s and Wilde’s puns prompt us to inquire, to reveal or to conceal the secret buried in the word’s lining? Or merely to signal its existence? Among the Blacks is accorded a special status by Roussel in How I Wrote Certain of my Books as the text that enabled him to move beyond the agonies of prospecting – agonies that became so acute that he would often roll around on the floor in fits of rage. Anticipating in subject matter Impressions of Africa, Among the Blacks initiated the binary between black and white that would become such a dominant feature of his imagination. Further, the story itself concerns the solving of a puzzle, and operates through a series of antitheses and parallels that look forward to the hall-of-mirrors effects achieved by Roussel in his later novels and plays. It is striking that he gives the story’s main characters names that are almost allegorical: Among the Blacks is the name of the novel written by the story’s character Balancier (which can mean pendulum or scale-maker), and on either side of his scales, or the swings of his pendulum, are the white captured sea captain Compas (a compass), who sends letters home by carrier pigeon to his wife (les lettres du blanc), and the old pillaging black chieftain Tombola, the triumphant feats of whose voracious hordes (les bandes du vieux pillard) are described in these letters. Balancier, it appears, depicts Tombola in his novel as a stereotypical cannibal out of a routine adventure story set in darkest Africa, yet his name connects him with Roussel’s conviction while writing La Doublure that he had won le grand lot, first prize in the great literary tombola. Cannibalism, in this instance, can be construed as a metaphor for the unleashed powers of the unchecked imagination, which need a compass and scales – or a procédé – to be turned into the all-conquering black words printed on the white pages of books that would, Roussel fervently believed, make him as famous as Dante or Shakespeare.
1 On 30 May 1933, some six weeks before his death, Roussel wrote beneath this photograph: “En tête de tous mes livres sur les tirages posthumes” (To be used as a frontispiece on all posthumous editions of my books).
2 These quotations are drawn from the psychologist Pierre Janet’s diagnosis of Roussel in his study of nervous disorders of 1926, De l’angoisse à l’extase. Roussel chose to reprint Janet’s account of his case in the Citations Documentaires section of Comment j’ai écrit certains de mes livres.
Bertha the Child-Flower
An Episode from the Newly Discovered Drafts of Locus Solus
At that moment there advanced towards us a woman who looked like a well-built rustic. She carried in front of her, in both hands, a sort of rack painted pink, on which was stretched a body which was the same bright pink, and which greatly intrigued us, for it seemed half-human and half-vegetal.
‘This is Catherine Seyeux and her daughter Bertha,’ said Boudet, as he hailed the woman, who joined us at once. Stretched flat on the rack, Bertha was sleeping naked in the sun, and her mother was making no effort to shelter her from its burning rays. About six weeks old, the child had a perplexing and distressing appearance. Her skin, of an unheard-of delicacy and transparency, exactly resembled the petal of a flower, and was an entirely even rose colour all over. Within this incredible epidermis ran an equally strange network of veins, whose greenish hue contained hints of a tincture similar to that found in certain flowers. This skin was so completely diaphanous that it was possible to see through it the various organs of the body
Responding to the look of mute inquiry on our faces, Boudet explained to us how Catherine Seyeux came to give birth to such a strange creature.
For a long time Boudet had been haunted by the idea of artificially fertilizing a woman with the pollen of a flower. He had made several attempts at this, using peasant women he had carefully selected for their strength and fertility. But he found that whatever sort of pollen he used, these attempts always failed.
One day he was glancing through an illustrated newspaper and saw the portrait of a rural woman from Texas; she was thirty-eight years old and had no fewer than forty-five boys and girls, having given birth to twins or triplets every year since she was eighteen. The picture showed the smiling mother standing next to her husband and surrounded by their forty-five offspring, all in perfect health. The newspaper gave the woman’s name and that of her village.
Struck by her procreative abilities, Boudet decided she would be the ideal candidate for his experiment, and would present a better chance than any other of success. He wrote to her, explaining in detail what he expected of her, and offering her the most magnificent rewards if she would agree to come over to France and participate in his plans. Catherine showed the letter to her husband, who, although a well-to-do farmer, could not remain indifferent in the face of such a significant sum of money, given the costs of raising such a large family. He gave his consent to his wife, who took the first steamer available, and one fine morning arrived on Boudet’s doorstep.
The first attempt was made with the pollen of , and was successful. Overjoyed, Boudet followed the phases of Catherine’s pregnancy with great anxiety.
Six weeks before our visit, Catherine, after the usual gestation period, gave birth to the frail little girl before our eyes, who was half way between a flower and a child. It was impossible to dress her in clothing, for her skin was so fragile that the gentlest contact might tear it.
So that her vulnerable body might be touched as little as possible, Boudet had ordered constructed a sort of rack on which she could lie, and he had it painted a bright pink that was exactly the colour of the skin of the little girl, who had been named Bertha.
Stretched out on her rack that was, on account of her incredible lightness, not at all uncomfortable or sharp, Bertha had flourished. Her mother breast-fed her like a normal infant, but with much smaller quantities of milk than would usually be given.
During the day she was kept continually out of doors and as much as possible in the sun. The vegetal side of her nature meant that there was no danger of sunburn, and she adapted wonderfully to this regime. The least shadow falling on her head or body threw her into a state of discontent, but as soon as she was back in the rays of the sun the little creature recovered her equanimity and bloomed.
While Boudet was speaking, Bertha had been gently stirring, as if she were about to wake up. Finally she opened her eyes, whose strange glints resembled a little the tincture of her veins.
Consulting his watch, Boudet saw that it was time for her to be fed, and asked Catherine to breast-feed her in front of us, so that we could see how alert and animated she was.
Catherine opened her blouse and, holding the rack in one hand, carefully turned Bertha, who seized the proffered breast in her two little hands and directed it eagerly to her lips.
Thanks to the transparent nature of the tissues of this strange creature, we were able to see the milk, in a jet of pure white, pass gently down the oesophagus and eventually into the stomach.
After several seconds, Boudet, judging that we had seen sufficient evidence of the healthy appetite of the child-flower, made a sign to Catherine to continue her walk, and we set off again behind him.
1 Boudet was the name given in the drafts of Locus Solus to the character Roussel eventually called Martial Canterel.
Raymond Roussel with his mother, Marguerite Roussel, c. 1910.
Raymond Roussel was born in Paris in 1877 and died in Palermo in 1933. He is best known for his novels Impressions of Africa (1910) and Locus Solus (1914), and for his posthumously published account of his peculiar compositional techniques, How I Wrote Certain of My Books (1935).
Mark Ford is the author of Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams (2000), and of four collections of poetry: Landlocked (1992), Soft Sift (2001), Six Children (2011), and Enter, Fleeing (2018). His translation of Roussel’s final long poem, New Impressions of Africa (1932), was published in 2011. He teaches in the English Department at University College London.
p.s. Hey. Thanks to the brilliant writer/dude Jeff Jackson and the truly stellar press Song Cave, we get to spend the weekend ushering an exciting new (!) book by the all-time great Raymond Roussel into the world. We’re very lucky, in other words. So please do scour the post and feast upon its subject matter during your allotted local time this weekend. Huge thanks to Jeff and to Song Cave for the honor! ** John Fram, Hi. Variegation, yes, so on point. I saw your email in my box, and I’ll get to it this weekend. Thanks for it, and enjoy your world’s portion of Saturday and Sunday’s show. ** David Ehrenstein, Ha ha, I don’t, but, yes, it does seem like half the world does these days. ** KeatonOhYeah, I’m trying to put the words ‘cute’ and ‘baby poop’ together and get where you’re going. Perhaps I’ll check in with the profiles of the ABDL loving set. I’ve never had a longing to be in Florida for its own sake, but it is the world capitol of amusement parks, which does give it holy status as a relative context at least. A cool thing about mole sauce is that it’s weird on non-sweet food, but it would be just as weird on sweet food, so it’s kind of an alien in the UFO sense. I bet the fingers of men who frequent escorts frequently smell like Dior. ** Bernard Welt, Oh, shit. I hate this blog’s glitch-based persnicketiness. You did not, unless I’m blanking, mention your talk on Klimt. Timing city! Oh, sure, a Klimt post, you bet, yes. Thank you if so. And for any Dream Day fixings that transpire. Sweet. That’s not ego-y to me, and I do pick up on the ego-y pretty well. I did not know the Soderbergh story, and, naturally, I am richer for it and all because of you. So same old. ** Sypha, Ha ha. Well, it’s proof that Goth still exists as a marketable erotic schtick at least. Goth is still pretty alive in a general sense LA, unless something drastic has happened since I was there last month. ** JM, Thanks for checking in. I have, of course, been thinking about you and how you are right now. What a fucking horror show. Jesus. ** Statictick, Greetings to you from within the frame of your presumably bright new screen. Enjoy Mark Eitzel, and I know you will. Cool. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi. The photo looks nice, or I mean the show is photogenic. I sadly have to agree with you that my instincts about how Brexit will end align perfectly with you, which is just so grisly. ** Steve Erickson, Good question. I’m glad you’re feeling at least a bit more up. Seems like half of everybody is doing Patreon these days, which one presumes means it works? Yeah, that makes sense that curating just puts even more hierarchy between you and those who’d want what you curate. Urgh. Great, two pieces by you about films that I’m extremely interested to see! I’ll go get your take. Everyone, Mr. Erickson has weighed in critically about the much acclaimed Jia Zhang-ke film ASH IS PUREST WHITE here, and he has interviewed Mark Cousins mostly about his new and seemingly must-see documentary THE EYES OF ORSON WELLES here. ** Bill, Greetings to Taipei from you-know-where (um, Paris, in case there’s any question). I don’t think those were Culkin pix, but my guess wouldn’t win a lottery. Have fun! ** Corey Heiferman, Hi. Okay, it’s probably only a surprise to me that I in fact know Caleb Gray’s porn work a tiny bit. I did not however know about his Appalachian metal band, which is an irresistible description, and neither about his poems, which, at a glance, … oh, never mind, let him have his fun. Anyway thank you, kind, tangent-savvy sir! Everyone, If by chance you know, or know of, the twink gay porn star Caleb Gray, perhaps you would be interested in reading his poetry, or listening to some music he made, or checking out a t-shirt he altered. If so, you can thank our buddy Corey for hooking you up. Thanks, bud. ** Okay. and with that the weekend has officially begun around here. Please involve yourselves in this brand new book by literary god Raymond Roussel, and I will see you again on Monday.