Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
Roussel, today, is recognized as an unsung hero to several major avant-garde movements of the 20th century – Surrealism, Dada, and, particularly, French formalist literary camps like Oulipo and noveau roman, which rejected the confines of social realism in favor of more imaginative wanderings. He was hailed as a pioneer and genius by André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, and Jean Cocteau, and had a formative influence on American poet John Ashbery, who edited a small-press journal called Locus Solus — the name of Roussel’s second novel — in the early 1960s. That book, along with his more notable Impressions of Africa, were both published before World War I (in small editions, at Roussel’s expense), predating most conceptions of literary surrealism. Roussel’s prose stands brashly ahead of its time in its use of pastiche and mathematics, and its prioritization of form over content. But it is Roussel’s raw imaginative power that makes him timeless.
The remarkable breadth of inventiveness in Roussel’s stories came about through a number of complex word games the author thought up for himself, which were the invisible foundations of his best known work. Now, thanks to a recently rediscovered cache of personal papers and drafts, these foundations are more visible to readers with the publication of several early and unfinished works in a new compendium, The Alley of Fireflies, diligently translated by Ford.
The thin tome contains Roussel’s earliest attempts at a logic-based formula after the failure of “La Doublure,” beginning with “Chiquenade,” a short story that exemplifies the author’s creative structuring. Roussel explained in a letter to his editor — which was published posthumously as How I Wrote Certain of my Books — that his most rudimentary compositions began with the creation of two homophonic sentences as the first and last lines of a story; his task was then to get from A to B. And indeed, Ford has included this process on the page, with the original French lines bookending the English translation, so as to note the punning transformation, in “Chiquenade,” from “Les vers de la doublure dans la pièce du Forban Talon Rouge” (The verses of the understudy in the play The Red-Heeled Buccaneer had been composed by me), into the final line “Les vers de la doublure dans la pièce du fort pantalon rouge!” (The worms in the lining of the piece of strong red trouser!). The final words having been provided at the outset, the story itself is, in effect, a matter of solving for x.
It is here that we are able to glimpse Roussel’s true mastery in his confidence over these self-imposed constraints, his ability to take the most ridiculous boundaries and create a story that still succeeds on its own terms of believability. The mind becomes remarkably nimble when given a few confines to work with, and Roussel, ever mathematical in his writing, dissembles into parentheticals as his problems grow in size. The collection is arranged by length, from “Chiquenade” to unpolished outtakes of Locus Solus, to the eponymous, unfinished long text. As a result, readers gets a gradual education in his ability to gather ingredients for his final phrases.
“The Alley of Fireflies,” as a story, is structured uncannily like a game of Tetris, its incompletion leaving lots of unresolved pieces strewn throughout. Roussel’s writings are populated with patrician characters who, like the author himself, invent complex games to pass the time. His sense of baroque boredom reaches a pinnacle in this final story, the title referring to a clearing in King Frederick II’s summer villa where the monarch invites guests such as Voltaire to chat and drink wine. The events of these evenings are recorded in writing by Enlightenment-era chemist Antoine Lavoisier, whose narrative is itself retold, by a rare bookseller possessing his manuscript. Moments such as when Voltaire then narrates an apocryphal scene out of Candide create the effect of nesting doll narrators, setting the story into an abyss of ambient references. The pleasure of Roussel’s concoctions is not so much in the climbing out of these spectacular vortices (the stories have little to offer by way of theme or subject) but in climbing further in, losing oneself within Roussel’s hypnotic storytelling. Even within a slim 100 pages, the book can completely subsume a reader in his reverie. That he can do so simply through his drafts earns him the title bestowed by Louis Aragon: President of the Republic of Dreams.
In a world delighted and entertained by displays of material excess, Diane Simpson shows that there is another possibility.
The animal carcass sculptures are gruesome yet their materials — the artist’s own discarded clothing — lend them some gentleness.
View work by over 40 experimental artists and collectives from throughout the Americas who contributed to New York’s art scene during the 1960s and ’70s.
Mr. Bernatowicz, in your introductory text you talk about the need for honesty, the disease of hypocrisy, overreaching governments. You do not fulfill a single one of your own ideals.
The biggest problem with turning Dune into a film is that the book appears increasingly derivative of generic sci-fi tropes.
This exhibition explores how images of the human body were used to provoke profound physical and emotional responses in viewers from the 15th through 18th centuries.
Ed Roberson’s motorcycle ride from Pittsburgh to the Pacific is a quest-romance, an exploration of American culture and American mythology.
The collaborative handmade paper- and printmaking center at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts publishes new works by Liz Collins and Sarah McEneaney.
The legendary performer Ricky Jay amassed a collection of about 10,000 rare books, posters, and artwork about all things esoteric.
The proceeds will benefit the BDC’s community-centered initiatives and exhibitions.