As a young man, around the turn of the 20th century, the French writer Raymond Roussel became utterly convinced he was to be the Dante or Shakespeare of his time. A closeted gay man with a large inheritance and a penchant for Victorian dandyism, Roussel was finishing a piece called “La Doublure” — an epic poem focused on wordplay (doublure means both an understudy and the lining of a coat). According to his translator Mark Ford, “La Doublure” “consists mainly of relentlessly precise descriptions … of the floats and giant papier-máchê figures that featured in the annual carnival at Nice.” That the book was a complete flop surprised only the author himself, who entered a deep depression and began searching for new methods of narrative creation. He never achieved the renown he felt destined for, but he left behind a legacy far stranger than fame.
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.