Confessions of a Roussellâtre

Mark Kerstetter, Star on the Forehead

Mark Kerstetter, Star on the Forehead

or, simply this: I am not fluent in French and therefore have no real right to call myself a Roussellâtre, considering some of his principle works have never been translated into English. Learning enough French (and German) to read some of my favorite writers in the original has long been on my bucket list. Until then the effort of going through his poem Mon Âme word by word with a French/English dictionary on hand might be worth the effort. However, doing so with the longer works would be an impractical job of Rousselian proportions. The English speaking world knows enough about Raymond Roussel to know what we’re missing, which is a constant source of frustration for which I am dutifully ashamed. True, we have English versions of some of the major works, and New Impressions of Africa might be the biggest. Still, translator Mark Ford could not do the impossible: his English version does not rhyme.

In his book Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams, Mark Ford suggests that, “Roussel’s oeuvre is so rigorously constructed it reduces all comment to mere paraphrase”. [page 223] This sums up a significant portion of the frustration felt by the English speaking would-be Roussellâtre. We have description after description amounting to scores of pages in English devoted to describing works by Roussel that have still not been translated. I am indeed thankful for these descriptions, but if I might venture one criticism of Ford’s book it would be that an English translation of Mon Âme in an appendix would have been of far more importance to the reader of English than a sample menu of one of Roussel’s marathon meals. The disproportionate amount of paraphrase to English translation may contribute to a cult of personality that I am quite certain Ford and others would like to avoid—although let me hasten to add that I couldn’t be more thankful for his English version of Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique.

Which compels me to my second confession: despite the fact that I had read both Impressions of Africa and Locus Solus, it was a book of Rousselian paraphrases that really got me interested in Roussel. I don’t particularly enjoy the literature of description. Perhaps because I am a visual artist verbal descriptions don’t interest me nearly as much as pictures do. I prefer literature that can do more and other things than suggest pictures in my mind, especially that which can do what visual art is incapable of doing. Now, as anyone who has read these two novels by Roussel knows, they are comprised almost entirely of descriptions. Although, admittedly, Roussel’s descriptions are dazzlingly intricate and elegantly articulated, it was Foucault’s book on Roussel that really lit a fascination inside me which has grown over the years into a steady flame. The bud of Foucault’s paraphrastic flower is located in Roussel’s Mon Âme and his essay How I Wrote Certain of My Books. It is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to assess Roussel’s work by the standards one applies to other writers. And there is no doubt that a reading of How I Wrote Certain of My Books enriches a reading of the novels and, for someone like me, even makes enjoyment of the novels possible. For only by knowing how Roussel wrote certain of his books do I know how uniquely language-based they are.

Here’s where it gets interesting, indeed where a fascination with no apparent end actually begins. For it is not as though Roussel’s procedure is more interesting than his books, but that the two fit together like a key and its lock. From this original puzzle emerges all—a seemingly endless stream—of the Rousselian puzzles within puzzles. So the paraphrases—the secondary literature—on Roussel serve an important function, including the parody of Harry Matthews and Georges Perec (which I only know from Ford’s description). Foucault himself said that he would not have been able to recognize the value of La Vue (his first encounter, by chance in a bookstore, with Roussel) if he hadn’t already been familiar with the works of Robbe-Grillet.

Let’s step back and take a breath. I must presume the reader has at least a passing familiarity with Roussel and what Ashbery termed the Roussel industry. For those who want an introduction to his work, go right to the anthology, How I Wrote Certain of My Books, edited by Trevor Winkfield (who is, interestingly enough, a visual artist). The impatient might want to read this. Those fluent in French can go here. I would like now to simply list some of the key points of my fascination with Roussel, based no doubt on the idiosyncrasies of my confessions. It could serve as an introduction for those two or three of you for whom my opinions carry weight.

I mentioned before the danger of a cult of personality. A quick survey of the basic facts of Roussel’s life is enough to see the eccentricities of this unusual man. He seems to have experienced a psychosis at the age of nineteen that imprinted the idea that the world would one day accord him status as one of the greats, on a par with Dante or Shakespeare and that in addition he would be loved the way Jules Verne was loved in his own day. This conviction never left him, and when each of his self-published works met either indifference or ridicule, Roussel suffered deeply. We will never know the possible ways in which this apparent psychosis may have affected Roussel’s work as well as his emotional and intellectual relationship to his work (not to mention his general outlook on life and his state of health). On the one hand I don’t think Roussel’s eccentricities (the five hour gourmet meals, the suits he wore exactly fifteen times and no more, etc.) are significant in themselves, or any more interesting than anyone else’s eccentricities. On the other hand his conviction of Greatness is one of the sources of my fascination for him. It’s impossible not to think about it when one confronts the exceptional strangeness of his work. There’s a twisted logic to it. Surely the pleasures of his language-based formal adventures offer a sort of companion, a sort of yang to the yin of Verne’s narrative adventures. But it takes a certain kind of mind to recognize this, and it’s astonishing that Roussel never realized this type of mind was in the minority, and would perhaps never be a common, much less popular, mode of thinking. His admirers were avant-garde artists, and Roussel had no taste—and apparently no understanding—of avant-garde art. His tastes were extremely conservative. He seems to have regarded his essay How I Wrote Certain of My Books as a little instruction manual that writers would someday simply follow. But the writers who love Roussel love him because he accomplished the rarest of feats in the arts—he did what had never been done before. He appeals to the most experimental of writers. And probably always will. But those who can’t (or won’t) do will content themselves with eccentricities and build a cult of personality while ignoring the fact that thousands of hours of hard work went into making those Rousselian machines.

That everyone has blind spots, that each of us is incapable of seeing ourselves the way others see us, that unbiased self-reflection is impossible—these are truisms. But in the case of Roussel, the disjunction between reality and his expectation of being loved and lauded for his work is but the outer layer of many other layers of contradiction. Some of these apparent disparities account for the fascination his work generates. Think of how the utter simplicity and complete impersonality of Henri-A. Zo’s illustrations for New Impressions of Africa (the impersonality of which was assured by Roussel’s act of anonymously commissioning the illustrations through a detective agency) contrasts with the byzantine structure of the poem, as well as its bizarre sets of comparisons. Moving to the plays, Ford writes that their tension is based on, “the clash between the interminable processes of language and the confinements of the stage” [176] and points out that John Ashbery’s writings on Roussel, “repeatedly make clear that his fascination with Roussel’s work derives from its disquieting fusion of the astringently correct and the wholly unfathomable.” [231] There are no moral or emotional distinctions in Roussel’s work, no psychology at all, just those “interminable processes” upon which Roussel conferred a

Midas touch: everything is metamorphosed into aesthetic pattern, death as well as life…. like patterns in a kaleidoscope, leaving only a baffled awareness of endless possible combinations of words and narrative connections. [113 and 176]

So-called “naïve” artists come to mind, Henry Darger, for instance, devoting hundreds of pages of his novel to describing a tornado seeming to correspond with Roussel’s devoting scores of pages to describing the masks at the carnival of Nice—or a visual artist like Adolf Wölfli whose patterns, like Roussel’s, also suggest perpetuity. But whereas Darger’s skills were rudimentary, there are no stylistic or grammatical crudities in Roussel’s work. By all accounts his French was immaculate. And while Wölfli seems to have created the same kind of pattern over and over—a form of layering based on lines, circles or ovoids—each of Roussel’s literary structures is unique. Yet when confronting the enigmatic onion that binds Roussel’s life and work it’s hard to escape a sense of naivety. Ford’s comparison of this naivety to its polar opposite—the sophistication of Marcel Duchamp—is instructive as a basis of comparison between Roussel and the successive avant-gardes who have admired him. When Ashbery writes that Roussel’s work

is like the perfectly preserved temple of a cult which has disappeared without a trace, or a complicated set of tools whose use cannot be discovered [Ford, p xxii]

it sounds like a description of some of his own poems. The poems of Breezeway, for example, seem like scattered pieces taken from different puzzles of the same stylistic stamp manufactured by a long defunct company. The difference is that Duchamp and Ashbery were not only fully aware of what they were doing (as Roussel was aware of what he was doing), but they had a keen sense of the place of their work in both a historical and contemporary context, while Roussel seems to have been clueless about his place as an artist in history and contemporary society—tragically so, like a rudderless ship.

We would-be Roussellâtres are only slightly less clueless about anything regarding Roussel and his work, apart from its endless fascination. Rather, clues are everywhere, there are nothing but clues, but we don’t know what they mean. The Roussel onion encourages us to think in terms of mysteries and their possible solution. There’s the method, of course, involving a hidden code of words and phrases. There was Roussel’s own fascination for masks, doubles and puns. There was the fact that he was best loved in his own time for his skill at doing impersonations yet his own work is completely impersonal. There’s the double life he led toward the end of his life to consider, the homosexuality he kept hidden from the public. The notion of a mystery to be solved is so compelling that some, like Andre Breton, were convinced there exists an overarching code to be deciphered in Roussel’s work. But this is another instance in which Breton was just plain wrong. It’s the kind of misreading that Matthews and Perec were parodying (and, though it hardly needs to be said, the works of Raymond Roussel aren’t Surrealism any more than Maldoror was). Just as Roussel’s works suggest the possibility of going on forever, the apparent mysteries they represent remain open. Nor can these works be categorized. Raymond Roussel stands resolutely alone. It is both his glory and his tragedy.

Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams by Mark Ford, Cornell University Press, 2000

Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams by Mark Ford, Cornell University Press, 2000

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3 Responses to Confessions of a Roussellâtre

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    I was going through my bookshelves today, culling books. It was dispiriting, reminding me of so many “projects” I’ve meant to get to, and one of them was to follow through and learn something more about all the poets Ashbery discussed in his Norton lectures, one of which was, as I know you know, Roussel. Is there anything of his online in English, to get a sense? (I couldn’t find anything, and I suspect not, or you would have linked it. Wish my French were up to it, as the French site you linked is a gold mine.)

    • Everything’s available online in French. In English the best way to begin is with a paperback of ‘Locus Solus’ or ‘How I Wrote Certain of My Books’. Of Course I love Foucault’s book on Roussel. In English it’s called, ‘Death and the Labyrinth’.

  2. hedgewitch says:

    I read a little French, though my vocabulary is not large enough for Mon Ame, but I did get a sense of great power from it, and the juxtaposition(with subtle minor alterations in punctuation) with Victor Hugo, (certainly a VERY highly esteemed writer in France) seems to play into that off-kilter personal conceit of greatness you mention–thanks, Mark, for the always interesting material you provide us on innovators, mad bombers, geniuses and those who stray far off the beaten paths of art’s garden.

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