Impressions of Africa (French Literature Series), page 1
IMPRESSIONS OF AFRICA
OTHER WORKS BY RAYMOND ROUSSEL IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION
New Impressions of Africa
How I Wrote Certain of My Books
Among the Blacks
IMPRESSIONS OF AFRICA
In a new translation from the French and with an introduction by
Dalkey Archive Press
Champaign - Dublin - London
Originally published as Impressions d’Afrique by Alphonse Lemerre, Paris, in 1910
Republished in 1963 by Jean-Jacques Pauvert, Paris
Translation and introduction copyright © 2011 by Mark Polizzotti
All rights reserved
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Roussel, Raymond, 1877-1933.
[Impressions d’Afrique. English]
Impressions of Africa / Raymond Roussel; translated [from the French] and with an introduction by Mark Polizzotti.
1. Shipwreck victims--Fiction. 2. Captivity--Fiction. 3. Africa--Fiction. 4. Experimental
fiction. I. Polizzotti, Mark. II. Title.
Partially funded by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Cet ouvrage, publié dans le cadre du programme d’aide à la publication, bénéficie du soutien du Ministère des Affaires Etrangères et du Service Culturel de l’Ambassade de France représenté aux Etats-Unis.
This work, published as part of a program of aid for publication, received support from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States.
Cover illustration: Trevor Winkfield, Voyager IV. Acrylic on linen, 45 ½ x 61 inches, 1997. Courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York.
Introduction: A Child’s Garden of Eccentricities
INTRODUCTION: A CHILD’S GARDEN OF ECCENTRICITIES
KNOWN—TO SOME—AS the Houdini of French literature, Raymond Roussel might also be its Peter Pan. The consummate verbal prestidigitator (André Breton dubbed him “the greatest mesmerizer of modern times”) carried in his bag of tricks enough material for at least ten times his actual output, and devised the sort of technological novelties that invite comparison both with his idol Jules Verne and with another of the twentieth century’s underrated oddballs, Nikola Tesla. In terms of compositional mechanics, his celebrated procédé (method), though its full implications remain largely unexplored, has resurfaced in the writings of the Surrealists, the New Novelists, the Oulipo, and the New York School. But in many ways, Roussel was also the boy who never grew up. In page after page, the reader of his novels finds himself seated before a seemingly endless spectacle, staged, it would appear, for Roussel’s benefit alone. And as with many children of privilege—which Roussel was in spades—any discomfort or damage suffered by the performer takes a distant backseat to the demanding tot’s enjoyment.
On the surface, in fact, Impressions of Africa, with its titular whiff of exoticism and H. Rider Haggard derring-do, would seem to appeal largely to an adolescent’s sense of thrill. On the Ides of March, somewhere at the dawn of the twentieth century, European passengers bound for Argentina survive a shipwreck and wash up on the shores of a fictive African nation. There they are taken captive by the vainglorious local potentate and held for several months, until sufficient ransom can arrive from Europe. So far we have the makings of a relatively standard adventure tale set in a far-off latitude where curious things can, and often do, occur. But these are no ordinary passengers, and this is no pastiche of King Solomon’s Mines (though Roussel, a fan of popular fiction, might well have read the book, judging by the similarity of the sovereign names Twala and Talou). In place of the intrepid Allan Quatermain, Roussel introduces a singularly gifted collection of castaways, ranging from circus freaks to inventors to scholars to theatrical prodigies, each, as luck would have it, a nonpareil in his or her specialty.
Indeed, very quickly the ostensible plot of African exile falls away, yielding to the author’s real interest: a series of minutely described performances given by these castaways, as part of a gala they have devised to while away the time until deliverance. Theater—or, more precisely, theatrical effect, the sense of marvel produced by magical and well-disguised artifice—proves the most formidable protagonist of Impressions of Africa, and the novel’s various characters merely its instruments. The human plight of these characters, the suspense surrounding their release from captivity, ultimately takes on far less importance than the question of whether their performance will come off without a hitch—and even that suspense is muted, for the true motor here is not whether the gimmick will work, but rather that it works and how it works. One can easily imagine Roussel, an avid theatergoer in real life, gaping with juvenile glee at the kaleidoscopic succession of wonders he has devised for his own amusement, each one following the last in a seamless and flawless procession, forming a world that is itself (as one critic put it) “a theater in which people go to the theater.”
The matter of performance is no idle conceit. Obsessed with fame, Roussel spent his adult life haunted by the alluring, and ultimately elusive, specter of public adulation. He described for his doctor, the renowned psychiatrist Pierre Janet, the sensation of glorious bliss he had experienced at the age of nineteen while writing his first long poem, La Doublure:
I was the equal of Dante and of Shakespeare, I was feeling what Victor Hugo had felt when he was seventy, what Napoleon had felt in 1811 and what Tannhäuser had felt whilee musing on Venusberg: I experienced la gloire…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.
Needless to say, when La Doublure was finally published—at the author’s expense, as its minute descriptions made it virtually unsalable, even for poetry—it occasioned no such desperate flings, and Roussel sank into a depression from which he never fully recovered. “Its lack of success shattered me,” he wrote years later. “I felt as though I had plummeted to earth from the prodigious summits of glory.”
He nonetheless continued to write, in an unceasing bid for public acclaim. First he composed several more, equally hermetic, epics in verse; then, deciding that fiction was a surer road to bestseller-dom, the two novels that form his literary apex, Impressions of Africa (published—again at his expense, as ul
Roussel saw one last work into print in his lifetime, the book-length poem New Impressions of Africa (1932)—a work so demanding, with its myriad extended similes, lengthy footnotes, and multiple layers of embedded parenthetical clauses, that not even its author can have expected much success for it. After this, as Roussel’s biographer Mark Ford notes, he “started to experiment with other possible means of recovering the euphoria of la gloire,” including alcohol and barbiturates. He also traveled in grand style, despite the vast depletion of his fortune largely due to his hefty self-publication bills.
In June 1933 Roussel and Charlotte Dufrène, his confidante, traveling companion, and “beard,” checked into the Grande Albergo e delle Palme in Palermo, where he spent most of the day either cloistered in his rooms or being chauffeured randomly about the city; evenings were devoted to drug-induced transports. He suffered a first overdose two weeks after arriving, recovered, then was found in his bathroom two weeks after that, having clumsily opened his veins with a straight razor. From this too he recuperated, but soon after he tried unsuccessfully to bribe both Dufrène and the hotel valet into killing him. Finally, on the evening of July 13, he swallowed a handful of barbiturates and went to bed, while the sky outside his hotel window exploded in an ecstasy of fireworks and people flooded the streets—the combined results of a local festival and Mussolinian pomp that, as Mark Ford wrote, might well “have reminded him of the flames, the noise, and the turbulent crowds” of his dreams of glory.
Roussel died that night still seeking the “solace” of “a little posthumous recognition.” In the decades following, his work was embraced by successive generations of French and American avant-gardists, and he attained, if not the household-name status he so envied in the likes of Verne and Victor Hugo, at least a solid reputation as one of the twentieth century’s most original and influential littérateurs—a “writer’s writer,” to use the kiss-of-death phrase. Authors ranging from Edmond Rostand to André Gide, Alain Robbe-Grillet to John Ashbery, Italo Calvino to Georges Perec, Michel Foucault to Michel Leiris have dipped into the source he revealed; Dalí and Gia-cometti took visual cues from his works, while Duchamp acknowledged that Impressions of Africa “was fundamentally responsible” for the Large Glass. Yet, as Robbe-Grillet and others have pointed out, there remains an inexhaustible core of mystery in Roussel’s work, an opaqueness within its own transparency, that holds us at a spectator’s safe distance even as it keeps our gazes riveted, our minds constantly working at a puzzle we can barely conceive.
The Africa of these Impressions is not, to be sure, the Africa of geopolitical fact, but neither is it entirely a product of Roussel’s fancy. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed an acceleration of European colonialist expansion throughout the Dark Continent, and reports in the press and travelers’ tales, alongside the lurid imagery of popular adventure novels, helped foster the widespread Western notion of Africa as that alien place where weird practices, unspeakable horrors, and unheard-of flora and fauna lurked at every bend in the jungle path. The backdrop of Roussel’s Ponukele in fact contains many of the by-then-standard attributes available in most basic accounts from his day, including many cribbed from his beloved Verne; as with the boulevard plays he adored, there is a stagy, conventional quality to the descriptions and sentiments that betrays the author’s literary, rather than first-hand, experiences of the setting—and of life.
For all that, he manages to avoid many of his day’s most prevalent stereotypes about race. And while Impressions does contain such markers of casual bigotry as frequent use of the word “Negro” (which I’ve retained, as true to the time and spirit in which the novel was written), or a certain bemusement at the Africans’ demonstration of such “white” attributes as scientific curiosity, not to mention the requisite cannibals and human sacrifices, by and large both Ponukeleans and Europeans stand as fully fleshed characters, replete with the basic human virtues and failings—including a peculiarly Rousselian gung-ho adventurousness and willingness to oblige even the most extreme demands. As the original manuscripts tell us, this was both intentional and laboriously achieved: over various revisions, Roussel progressively smoothed out what was initially a much coarser and caricatured portrayal into something approaching a kind of verisimilitude. (In Louise Montalescot, moreover, he creates a much more independent, capable, and admirable female character than could be found in most “realist” fiction of the time.)
Roussel famously boasted that, although he had “traveled a great deal” (he listed “India, Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific archipelagos, China, Japan and America…Europe, Egypt and all of North Africa…Constantinople, Asia Minor, and Persia”), he “never took anything for [his] books” from these experiences. Rather than seeking to broaden the mind or discover new horizons, he often chose his destinations for their literary appeal: a trip to Tahiti, for instance, was determined by his admiration for the popular novelist Pierre Loti, who had set one of his best-known books there, while Baghdad was for him “the country of 1001 nights and Ali-Baba, which reminds me of [the operetta composer] Lecocq.” The writer Michel Leiris, whose father was Roussel’s financial adviser, later posited that “the outside world never broke through into the universe [Roussel] carried within him…In all the countries he visited, he saw only what he had put there in advance, elements which corresponded absolutely with that universe that was peculiar to him.” Though he had visited Egypt in 1906, and even kept a diary (“Went to see the Valley of the Kings—Cold lunch—sun—heat”), there is no indication that any of his observations, such as they were, found their way into the book he would soon undertake: like Phileas Fogg, he had little interest in the surrounding countryside or populations. Later in life he took to voyaging in a specially built caravan (roulotte), a kind of proto-RV with only a few curtained windows behind which Roussel wrote in peace while the foreign landscapes paraded by unheeded; photos of the vehicle suggest nothing so much as a huge hearse.
Pierre Janet, in his 1926 study De l’angoisse à l’extase, which contains detailed notes on his sessions with Roussel (alias “Martial”), noted his patient’s “very interesting conception of literary beauty. The work must contain nothing real, no observations on the world or the mind, nothing but completely imaginary combinations.” Reading Impressions of Africa, one sees how far the author has drifted from the trade routes of reality in his descriptions of such “native” phenomena as moles that secrete an irresistible adhesive drool, or underwater sponges that spin like pinwheels under duress, or a giant zither-playing earthworm, or huge plants that (unlike their author) absorb and then project rigorously faithful images of their surroundings. Not to mention sci-fi inventions like a mechanical orchestra that runs on hot and cold fluids, grapes that contain entire miniature tableaux within their flesh, or metals so magnetic they could pull something halfway around the world. (As with any such inventions, what was once far-fetched eventually becomes commonplace: the automated loom to which Roussel lovingly devotes pages of explanation has been industry standard for some time; Louise Montalescot’s “great experiment” sounds remarkably like the modern laser printer; and the battery-operated portable fan that Bex invents for y
But the true originality of Impressions of Africa, as of most of Roussel’s major works, lies not in its attempts to out-Verne Verne, but in an invention that its author kept scrupulously hidden from sight. For in virtually every case, the episodes, conceits, and details from which Roussel fashions his characters and their actions were determined not by authorial whimsy but by a highly regulated process in which language itself is the sole motor and guide. The genesis of Impressions of Africa lies in a short story written some ten years before, “Among the Blacks,” in which the opening and closing sentences are virtually identical. Only one letter has changed in the passage from first to last, but on that small variant hangs the entire tale. As Roussel explained it: