Raymond Roussel’s “Impressions of Africa”

Reviewed by Stefanie Sobelle

Image of Raymond Roussel’s “Impressions of Africa”

Imagine an extravagant pageant during which a marksman shoots off the top of a soft-boiled egg, cats compete in a game of Prisoner’s Base, and a uniquely talented worm plays the zither—all presented as commonplace occurrences by an unnamed narrator. In 1910, French writer Raymond Roussel self-published Impressions of Africa (Impressions d’Afrique), a carnivalesque travelogue that features the passengers of the Lynceus, a vessel shipwrecked by a hurricane in the fictional land of Ponukele on a journey from Marseilles to Buenos Aires. To entertain themselves while waiting for a release ransom to be paid to the local drag-clad Emperor Talou, the crew of serendipitously skilled performers (including a historian, a ballerina, a fencing champion, a pyrotechnic, and an ichthyologist, among others), known collectively as the “Incomparables,” stage a gala. Readers should be prepared for an Africa unlike any they would likely visit in reality. Although Roussel travelled extensively (he cited India, Australia, Asia, America, and Tahiti), he claimed that “from all these travels I never took anything for my books. It seems to me that this is worth mentioning, since it clearly shows just how much imagination accounts for everything in my works.” A devotee of both Jules Verne and Victor Hugo, Roussel rather used the idea of Africa—a place to him as fanciful and unimaginable as possible—as a setting and an organizing device for his most imaginative of tales.

Born in Paris in 1877, Roussel was a neighbor and contemporary of Proust (with whom he corresponded). A spirited eccentric, his antics included traveling around Europe in a whimsical roulotte, or mobile home, and never wearing the same collar twice. He was a wealthy, unrestrained, and avidly self-promoting dandy with visions of grandeur for his perpetually failing literary career. He never quite recovered from the flop of his first novel, La Doublure (1897), eventually growing addicted to barbiturates and later committing suicide in Palermo in 1933.

In a posthumously published document in 1935, Roussel explains the complex process through which he generated Impressions in hopes of rescuing his writing from obscurity. Translated into English (by Trevor Winkfield in 1975) as “How I Wrote Certain of My Books,” the essay explains a Rousselian technique of “invention based on the pairing of two words taken in different senses.” Its genesis was Roussel’s story, “Among the Blacks.” He infamously substituted “pillard” for “billard” in the following phrase, “Les letters du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard,” changing its meaning from “The white cushions of the old billiard table” to “The white man’s letters on the hordes of the old plunderer.” Roussel was fascinated by the metagram—how switching one letter could so fundamentally change the meaning of the line and the kinds of unanticipated stories that might emerge when the two lines become the basis for a narrative. The resulting series of stories painstakingly detailed within stories—Roussel infamously agonized over each word—would later influence writers such as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Georges Perec, but they won few readers over during Roussel’s lifetime. Roussel’s permutations affect structure, as well; Impressions opens with a sequence of delightfully madcap performances, but only about halfway through the novel does the reader discover the circumstances that have produced them.

Translating such writing is an especially arduous enterprise, but Mark Polizzotti—publisher and editor in chief at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and translator-extraordinaire of more than thirty books, including those by Marguerite Duras, Jean Echenoz, Gustave Flaubert, Maurice Roche, and Didier von Cauwelaert—is an ideal candidate for conducting the experiments of the writer he calls “the consummate verbal prestidigitator”; Polizzotti’s own novel S: Semaines de Suzanne, published in English in 1999,was a collaboration with several others including Harry Mathews, whose own formal experiments have been influenced by those of Roussel. Although John Ashbery translated a selection of Roussel’s novel in 1962, the only full, published English translation until now has been that by Lindy Foord and Rayner Heppenstall (1966), also a notable accomplishment.  Yet it is Roussel’s consuming attention to detail that Polizzotti claims is the focus of his version. Polizzotti’s offering is shorter, simpler, more restrained, more efficient than those that have come before, capturing even more effectively the novel’s eerie, curious ability to treat the impossible as banal.

However fantastical, no European novel about Africa is truly apolitical, and Impressions of Africa contains its own racist particulars: Talou’s face of “savage energy,” his daughter’s “crossed eyes . . . veiled by opaque leukoma,” a twelve-year-old violently stabbing a rodent with a stylus, etc. Polizzotti claims in his introduction that “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.” As Polizzotti goes on to remind us, “European  . . . expansion throughout the Dark Continent … 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.” That Africa is Roussel’s choice location for such an exotic tale is certainly a side effect of colonialism, but it also serves as a commentary on European attitudes. Talou, after all, “boasted of having European blood in his veins,” raising the question of whether or not his subversive intimidation is strictly African or a result of European contact. The surreality of the worlds Roussel invents just might be strange enough to surprise readers into real critical perspectives on global relations.

Until recently, Roussel has had a limited but cultish English-language audience, but Polizzotti’s offering coincides with a new translation of Roussel’s long poem, New Impressions of Africa, by Mark Ford, who also authored the only lengthy biography of Roussel in English, Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams (2000). (Before that the most significant attempt at the same was Heppenstall’s 1966 study.) Polizzotti’s remarkable achievement is a welcome addition to this small but growing body of work on Roussel and serves as a reminder of an author and a novel too often neglected, and far too brilliant to be missed.