Bookforum Loves On New Translations of Raymond Roussel

By Harriet Staff


Hooray, Bookforum has got former editor Eric Banks in imaginative territory avec none other than Raymond Roussel (France, 1877-1933). Roussel's writing can be mapped from being "un peu obscur" to achieving cult status, and now--with two new English translations in print--quite accessible, if you can grant such a word to "the enigmatic snare of his snaking language and its cul-de-sacs of text." Banks discusses both the prose work Impressions of Africa, translated by Mark Polizzotti (and is that a Trevor Winkfield cover we spy?), "[which] more closely hews to the techniques Roussel elaborated in How I Wrote Certain of My Books, unfurling an extravagant fabric of bizarre scenes engendered by the author’s complex method of linguistic free association," and "New Impressions of Africa (translated by Ford, Roussel’s biographer and a poet), a four-canto poem written in rhyming alexandrines that nominally spins off from a number of Egyptian settings, obeys its own beguiling rabbit-hole logic in a way that anticipates the Oulipian games decades in the future." The poem took 17 years to complete, and was written while Roussel was serving in the French Army during the First World War. And now:

What is remarkable about Roussel’s torturous commitment to his literary career is that he ever entertained the notion that his intricate, tautly rendered feats of almost impenetrable brilliance would appeal to a mass readership. Never has a writer so misgauged the nature of his work or the scope of its appeal. It is thanks largely to the avant-garde he spurned that Roussel’s fragile literary standing was secured. With the exception of Michel Leiris, whose father was Roussel’s accountant, those who most appreciated his proleptic ingenuity discovered him in the decades after his death. Alain Robbe-Grillet found in Roussel’s obsessive attention to the mundane thinginess of the world a predecessor to the nouveau roman: His first novel, Le Voyeur, was originally titled La Vue in homage to Roussel’s long 1904 poem of the same name, a work that minutely describes a variety of miniature scenes, including a fifty-page digression dedicated to the spa pictured on the label of a bottle of mineral water on the narrator’s table. Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec admired his remarkable ability to spin thickly structured narratives from a hidden network of obscure puns, buried double entendres, felicitous homonyms, and devilish mondegreens, the “special method” of linguistic gamesmanship he revealed in the short volume published after his death, How I Wrote Certain of My Books. Michel Foucault wrote a critical study, Death and the Labyrinth, after the chance discovery of one of Roussel’s volumes in an antiquarian shop across from the Luxembourg Gardens. And in several critical essays, John Ashbery enthusiastically imported Roussel, extending his influence to the New York School of poets.

Read the entire piece, which also includes great detail on Roussel's approach to language, imagination, and story, here.

Originally Published: June 29th, 2011