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Roussel, Dreamer of Infinite Space

By David Varno

New Impressions of Africa, by Raymond Roussel, translated by Mark Ford (Princeton, 2011)
Impressions of Africa, by Raymond Roussel, translated by Mark Polizzotti (Dalkey Archive, 2011)

Of Raymond Roussel’s two books with the word Africa in the title (both of which appeared this year in excellent new translations), the novel, Impressions of Africa, may be a bit more accessible, but the epic poem, New Impressions of Africa, is just as fun, and ultimately a lot more moving. John Ashbery called it Roussel’s masterpiece. Alain Robbe-Grillet, one of Roussel’s greatest fans, once wrote that “Roussel has nothing to say, and he says it badly,” but of course this isn’t exactly true. The seemingly oblique digressions and inventive wordplay offer a special challenge to the easily distracted, but reward with uncanny surprises. Ford, unafraid to depart from Roussel’s rhyme schemes or line ordering, yet conservative enough to let the original speak for itself, wows us with the best kind of poetry in translation. A moment near the end of the poem, where Roussel meditates on the way words change their meaning according to context, reveals Ashbery’s likeliest sympathies. When Roussel points out that éclair means “fire in the sky accompanied by loud noise” (lightning), one thinks of Ashbery’s tendency to develop new contexts and unexpected turns of phrase.

Each canto of New Impressions and the accompanying footnotes, as Mark Ford points out in his translator’s introduction, are made in the structure of an onion. The reader begins at the beginning, with the skin, and moves through a series of interruptive parentheses and parentheses within parentheses toward the center, then back out again. It can be very difficult to keep track of an originating idea or preposition, especially in the long second canto, but as you get going, a certain kind of weightlessness prevails and it no longer matters, not until you reach the end, and then you can turn back to complete the sentence by rereading the beginning. Of course, you could skip everything and read back and forth, as Nabokov suggested facetiously via Charles Kinbote, but it’s better to let go, to be lifted up and moved around, allowing memory to forget and then remember, when lost subjects are recovered in the process of reading. Mark Polizzotti, in his own introduction, addresses the issue of alternative reading strategies for Impressions of Africa, a book with its own strange structure (see Stefanie Sobelle’s review from September). Evidently, a previous edition of the novel recommended that the reader start in the middle and then read the beginning later, once he knows what he’s dealing with, a tactic that Polizzotti enthusiastically supplants.

Fortunately, the magic of Roussel has sustained his influence through various movements and over the ages, from Salvador Dalí’s ekphraksis (above, "Impressions of Africa," 91.5 x 117.5 cm, Museum Boymans van Beuningen Rotterdam, Netherlands) to the recent theatrical production, not to mention his effect on writers such as Calvino, Perec, and many others. Jim Jarmusch, who first studied as a poet, has mentioned Impressions of Africa among his favorite books, and recently commented on Roussel for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, calling him a “lone-wolf kind of guy.” This seems right; beyond the extravagant roulette he traveled in, and his general trepidation about reality (see Michel Leiris’s writing on Roussel), it seems that he kept to himself though he could have had more friends and collaborators. He was embraced by the Surrealists, who would show up at Roussel’s disastrous theatrical productions to defend him from naysayers, but he remained aloof from them. When he decided to have New Impressions of Africa illustrated, he contacted the artist Henri Achille Zo through a private detective agency. Zo, an admirer of Roussel’s poetry, was upset to discover that Roussel had arranged the collaboration anonymously, and felt he could have done the work better justice had he known who he was drawing for. But the quotidian images with hard-boiled captions (“A fountain in the dark, no people,” etc.), are perfect in the way they mirror what we expect to see, rather than attempt to sublimate Roussel’s descriptions. Dali wrote in 1933 that “the choice of illustrations confirms once again the genius of Raymond Roussel.” 

The last illustration in the book is of a block of black sky, perforated with stars in various degrees of perspective. The caption reads: “A section of starry sky without an earthly landscape as if seen from some vantage point in space and giving the impression of infinity.” This line, the image, and these later lines of the poem:

The astronomer ((((…))))
Gets used to the depths of the vast heavenly void
Where light runs without ever exceeding its limits

call to mind Mallarme’s “Throw of the Dice,” a landmark text for Roussel that he echoes throughout the book with his own dreams of great work haunted by crushing futility, only to culminate with this drawing that must be a depiction of Mallarme’s final “constellation,” “shining and meditating before stopping at some last point that crowns it.” If the jaded astronomer is Mallarme’s “master”; if he’s at home in space like the captain lost at sea, at least we can get his reports. 

Published Oct 12, 2011   Copyright 2011 David Varno

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