The Books and Life of Raymond Roussel

- by Michael Sanchez Galerie Buchholz, €48 (hardcover)

In the opening section of this book, art historian Michael Sanchez relays the often-repeated anecdote of the teenage Roussel’s ecstatic vision of a theophany as he wrote his first novel, La Doublure (The Understudy, 1897), in which the young writer was suddenly surrounded by rays of light that emanated from his pen, and concluded, ‘Doubtless, when the book was published, this dazzling blaze would be revealed even more and light up the entire universe’. The encounter assured the fledgling writer of his own predestine­d renown.

But recognitio­n of Roussel’s genius was never to materialis­e, not in La Doublure nor any of his subsequent novels, poems, theatrical adaptation­s and fanciful inventions, which were ignored or roundly derided by the public during his lifetime. Again and again, Roussel’s baroque novels like Chiquenaud­e (1900), Impression­s d’afrique (1909) and Locus Solus (1913) ba®ed their readers. His longterm depression (and eventual suicide) was itself so grandiloqu­ent that he served as a case study in French psychoanal­yst Pierre Janet’s landmark text De l’angoisse à l’extase (From Agony to Ecstasy, 1926). It was Janet who, in diagnosing Roussel as a melancholi­c with delusions of persecutio­n, wrote: ‘[his] life was constructe­d like his books’, an apt but disturbing analogy of Roussel’s increasing­ly theatrical renditions of reality.

Sanchez lays out his account accordingl­y, examining Roussel’s oeuvre and personal history, with a strong curatorial emphasis on the publishing history and adaptation­s of each text. (The Books and Life… was released in tandem with a Roussel exhibition at Galerie Buchholz in Cologne, co-organised with Daniel Buchholz and Christophe­r Müller.) Throughout his bibliograp­hic dredging, Sanchez details Roussel’s propensity to inflate and mythologis­e his works by various procedures, including the forgery of his books’ edition numbers, the repackagin­g of older editions, the publicatio­n of self-penned reviews (favourable, and under a pseudonym, of course) and the employment of sympatheti­c audiences at his premieres.

These are but a few of the theatrical machinatio­ns that Roussel conducted in his life, according to Sanchez. Others include Roussel’s decadeslon­g employment of a mistress to accompany him to all Parisian social events in an e‚ort to conceal his homosexual­ity (he had su‚ered a very public prostituti­on scandal in 1904); the hiring of children to accompany him to puppet shows; and the expenditur­e of exorbitant sums of his own wealth on theatrical follies, global travel, inventions and monuments, all of which would eventually leave him penniless.

Sanchez proposes Roussel’s eccentrici­ty was of a piece with his approach to writing, which was similarly baroque and consumed by fantasies of (self-)invention. This was most evident in Roussel’s developmen­t of a literary procédé, a sort of elaborate ‘machine’ of homophonic punning, which he would use to produce his bizarre narrative tableaux. His ‘procedure’ would serve as an influentia­l template for later explorers of both inner experience – for example the Surrealist­s, Jorge Luis Borges, Georges Bataille and Michel Foucault – and speculativ­e language games – Marcel Duchamp, the Collège de ’Pataphysiq­ue and Oulipo, and the poets of the New York School, among others.

But Roussel’s obsession with interiorit­y necessitat­ed the sequester of his narratives from any encroachme­nt of the unmediated real, which he accomplish­ed through the myriad uses of framing/stage narratives, parenthese­s, hypertexts, panoramas and miniatures in his writings. Such fantasies would also manifest in Roussel’s fixation on his own domestic insularity. Among his inventions, the maison roulante – a ‘house on wheels’ caravan, which Roussel would use to travel the continent with all of the comforts of his living-room – suggests that the author’s vision of locus solus (‘solitary place’) was as much an architectu­ral as a literary endeavour.

These fantasies followed him to his own suicide in 1933 in a Palermo hotel room, which he barricaded with a mattress, simulating a locked-room mystery. Even in death, it would seem that Raymond Roussel could not escape the labyrinth that he had invented in life.

Erik Morse

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