As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.
Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
Like an experienced still-life painter, the French writer Raymond Roussel (1877–1933) could make use of anything that came to hand. From his shoemaker’s name and address, Helstern, 5, place Vendome, he extracted, by phonetic distortion, “Helice tourne zinc plat se rend (devient) dome” (Propeller turns zinc, flat goes [becomes] dome), which supplied him with all the elements he needed to design one of the fantastic apparatus in his novel Impressions of Africa. Who could not fall in love with such a linguistic contortionist? Well, many people, actually. Despite having given inspiration to some of the most influential artists of the 20th century (Breton, Duchamp, Dalí, Foucault, Leiris, Robbe-Grillet, Perec, Giacometti, Ashbery, and numerous others), Roussel has always remained something of an acquired taste, almost a cult, resurfacing every decade or so to startle and delight a new generation of researchers. And by researchers I mean those readers who want more from literature than Shakespeare and Hemingway, the fortunate ones who realize that something fascinating is lurking behind the canon.
The sneaking suspicion that something was lurking behind the placid surface of Roussel’s prose was only confirmed with the posthumous publication of his bean-spiller How I Wrote Certain of My Books, an expository text which revealed a few (but only a few) of the many ingenious constraining techniques Roussel used to ignite his writings. The techniques had many variations, but the basic method was to begin a story with one phrase: “Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard” (The white letters on the cushions of the old billiard table), and to complete the story with an almost identical phrase having a totally different meaning: “Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard” (The white man’s letters on the hordes of the old plunderer). Roussel’s enviable task was then to reconcile the two separate concepts via a connecting narrative.
Within his stories, novels, poems, and plays, similar linguistic distortions were used to supply individual episodes. Thus, the name of an apparatus called Phonotypia gave him “fausse note tibia” (wrong note tibia), hence the Breton Lelgoualch who played tunes on a flute fashioned from his amputated tibia bone. A bizarre deduction indeed, especially when we realize that we ourselves could have teased out an entirely different set of meanings from Phonotypia.
Though the sparks may have been quotidian, the world that Roussel constructed from them is one that belongs entirely to the imagination. Nothing real intrudes; it all derives from his head. Like a fairy tale, but a believable one.
Writers may be attracted by Roussel’s literary procedures, but he has a totally different appeal to visual artists. Not only do artists and their products play prominent roles in many of his works, but visually his texts are chockablock with detailed descriptions of objects, tableaux, and machinery. Salvador Dalí, reviewing Roussel’s penultimate poem New Impressions of Africa (over which Roussel labored for five years) in 1933, claimed, “This, of all the books of our time, really is the most ‘ungraspably poetic,’ and consequently the one which contains most for the future.” A seemingly exhaustive listing of objects almost overwhelms the poem’s four cantos, including a comparison of things similar in appearance but differing in size: “for that which the sole / Of a hobnailed boot has imprinted in droppings, / A solitaire board without pegs. ”
A smutty comparison that must have greatly appealed to Dalí’s perverse humor and slanted ideas of geometry. And appealed to many other artists, too. I can vouch for that.
Having myself laboriously slaved over a translation of Roussel’s How I Wrote Certain of My Books (and, in the process, having found unexpected methods of painting and arranging narratives on canvas), I can only marvel at the way Ford and Polizzotti foolhardily tackled, and succeeded in following, Roussel’s African footsteps, at the same time revealing his complex writing techniques in action.
Mark Polizzotti Translating a text as peculiar as Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique is not to be undertaken lightly—all those brackets, the rhyming footnotes, the way the poem keeps digressing and digressing, and then the reader has to wait until the last lines of each canto to make sense of its opening clause … What was it that made you want to throw your hat into the ring with versions already offered by Ian Monk and Kenneth Koch?
Mark Ford Well, Kenneth Koch only translated Canto III, which, at 172 lines, is by some distance the shortest of the poem’s four cantos (the other three are 228, 642, and 232 lines long, respectively). Nevertheless, I understand it took him several years, and that was because he chose to cast it in rhyming hexameter couplets. It’s an extraordinary feat, and it reveals Koch’s dexterity with faux-naïf rhyme at its best. I would say that, in tone, it’s a little more exuberant than the Roussel—it delights in its own brio and virtuosity in a manner that isn’t exactly Rousselian. There’s a kind of impassivity or reticence at the heart of the Rousselian that is a crucial part of what makes his work so fascinating and unfathomable. This sense of the withheld is very effectively captured, I think, in John Ashbery’s comparison of Roussel’s writings to a set of complicated tools left behind by a vanished cult, tools that are fascinating but whose uses one can’t guess. Roussel did, of course, explain how he wrote his books in the mini-autobiography How I Wrote Certain of My Books that he arranged to have published posthumously and circulated to the Surrealists, but he never explained why he developed and used such singular methods of composition. Anyway, I was always bothered by a couple of mistakes that Koch makes—at line 27 he mistranslates rayons as sun’s “beams” rather than “rows of crops,” and it’s Tobit rather than Tobias whose sight is cured by a fish’s innards in a story from the Apocrypha alluded to in the last footnote in the canto. Also, “blow of iron” doesn’t quite make sense in line 101 as a means of getting the ends of a moustache to point up rather than down. But those are tiny cavils and I render all homage to him. Monk, meanwhile, opted for pentameter couplets, and to do the whole book. He, again, is a translator I revere, and his versions of Georges Perec in particular are spectacular. However, New Impressions is very much like a crossword puzzle in many ways, in that there’s a right answer to each of the vignettes with which he illustrates whatever larger point he is trying to expound, and, while again the ingenuity and resourcefulness Monk brings to the task are considerable, his translation is not always helpful for someone trying to make sense of Roussel’s very compressed French. The Roussel of Monk’s version is often more like a ditzy, Lautréamont-inspired Surrealist than the inventor of a fiendishly baffling but completely logical casse-tête, or brainteaser, to use Michel Leiris’s term. I’ll give just one example: in Canto II, as part of the enormously long list of things that look alike but are different sizes, Roussel offers this illustration of a big thing that might be mistaken for a smaller thing it visually resembles:
—pour le goinfre à refrainQu’à force d’applaudir on prend, le cousin braque
Qui fonce en plein plafond;
Monk renders this:
—for the chorus-singing gluttonAt last clapped to death, crazed daddy long-legs
That to the ceiling rush;
That’s not, it seems to me, much help to the reader, who needs to know that the “goinfre à refrain,” the one who keeps guzzling, is a mosquito, not a fat singer being applauded on a stage, and he is taken, or really, killed, by a clap of the hands, “à force d’applaudir”; this mosquito looks like, but is smaller than, “le cousin braque,” the crazy daddy longlegs who speeds about up by the ceiling.
So, pretty reluctantly, it must be said, since I was under no illusion about the work involved, I came to feel there was a need for a translation that was really a kind of crib, or at least one that made crystal clear the point and meaning of each of Roussel’s mini-puzzles. This meant attempting not to emulate the original’s rhyming alexandrines but to translate in as lucid a manner as possible. This inevitably meant expanding, since Roussel’s French really is as tight-packed as a bouillon cube—I think it was John Ashbery, or perhaps his friend Pierre Martory, who first made that comparison. In the above case what I came up with was:
—for the persistently guzzling mosquitoWhom one kills with a clap of the hands, the crazy daddy longlegs
Who speeds about up by the ceiling;
A bit long-winded, I know, but, to me, making the meaning clear was what mattered. However farfetched the example, and some in this big-for-small list are very farfetched indeed—the pate of a balding priest with jaundice for a fried egg, a row of white houses with green shutters for a slab of Roquefort cheese—they all work, all make sense, all illustrate whatever they’re supposed to be illustrating. What was it that made you feel Rayner Heppenstall and Lindy Foord’s 1966 version of Impressions of Africa needed replacing?
MP To be honest, it wasn’t my idea so much as that of the publisher, Dalkey Archive, who approached me with it about two years ago. I hadn’t read the Heppenstall/Foord translation, and I still haven’t (except to spot-check a few passages after beginning my version, to get a sense of the earlier version’s tone and approach). The general attitude seemed to be, however, that the existing translation didn’t really capture the pleasure of reading Roussel, the humor embedded in the narrative, or the liveliness and rigorous concision of his prose—qualities that I worked very consciously to preserve (whether I succeeded is another matter).
The one thing I would say, from my cursory skim through the earlier translation, is that it strikes me as a bit stiffer and fussier than Roussel himself seems to warrant. There’s no question that Roussel’s prose and poetry contain a certain formality, which might be variously attributable to the rigorous linguistic formulas by which he composed many of his works, the somewhat codified upper-middle-class milieu in which he lived and grew up, or his rather buttoned-down personality—an indication that even the “black sheep” of wealthy families are conscious of the attendant proprieties. But lurking under the surface is a wild invention and rather footloose sense of humor just dying to burst out—the text’s delight in its own outrageousness—and if one doesn’t at least suggest that in translation, one has lost half the point of Impressions of Africa. Without wishing to appear churlish, this is what I didn’t find in my glances into Heppenstall.
Which leads me to another question, which you also touched upon in your remarks on Monk and Koch. As you know, Heppenstall was not only Roussel’s translator but also the author of one of the first studies of Roussel in English. I wonder if his exegesis of Impressions made it difficult for him to take some liberties in cases where the spirit of the original might have been better served, or rendered, than by a strict correspondence. I’m particularly intrigued in this regard by your example of Monk’s “glutton” that’s actually a mosquito, and your characterization of your own translation as a crib. Are you and I disagreeing here about the role that adaptation can or should play in a successful translation? That is to say, are you advocating a primarily informational role for translation, versus the more—for lack of a better word—intuitive approach I tend to favor, as both a producer and a consumer of translations? Or rather, is the example you cite really more of a mistranslation, misinterpretation, or both on Monk’s part, which you have now rectified? More generally, particularly with an author as precise as Roussel, can one afford to take liberties in translation in the interest of conveying the effect, or is one better off hewing as close as possible to the original, even at the expense of textual pleasure?
MF Very hard to say. I suppose it depends, in part at least, on whether it’s being published in a parallel text, like mine, or whether, like yours, it’s to stand alone. I think Roussel’s is probably a slightly special case, in that he aspired to a style that was, in some ways, no style at all. In your introduction to Impressions of Africa you call it “a peculiar mix of fluidity and flatness, invention and banality,” and quote his famous remark to Leiris about writing each story “with as few words as possible.” In other words, he was aiming at absolute concision, but also absolute transparency, which was what so appealed about his work to nouveaux romancierslike Alain Robbe-Grillet and Michel Butor. Roussel doesn’t seem to have “anything to say,” as Robbe-Grillet memorably pointed out, and “no transcendency, no humanist ‘going beyond’ can be imputed to the series of objects, exploits and events which, at first sight, make up his universe.” In other words, there is no personal comment or sense of authorial perspective on what is being described, so, the first time, the reader’s attention is focused entirely on what is being presented. Of course, later one finds out from How I Wrote Certain of My Books, a little bit of the process that lay behind his farfetched narratives—that Yaour goes into battle dressed as Marguerite from Faust because of the phrase underlying this particular episode, “revers à marguerite” (lapel with a daisy), from which Roussel harvested “military defeat” (another meaning of revers) and the name Marguerite. For anyone who hasn’t read How I Wrote, I should explain that Roussel would bring together two words that could feasibly be joined by the preposition à, as in the example above, “revers à marguerite,” and then think of other meanings for each of the words, in this case defeat and Marguerite (aka Gretchen) from Faust—and his task was then to write a story that made use of these randomly thrown-together words. I got the sense, however, while reading through his drafts and manuscripts for my biography, that there was an aesthetic, and even psychological, imperative driving both his evolution of such a weird process of composition and his quest for a style of such clarity. He talks in How I Wrote of rolling on the floor in agonies of frustration, “raging against my failure to attain those sensations of art for which I had strived”; and so, yes, a translation must attempt to communicate those “sensations of art,” but, of course, one of the dominant sensations activated by all his fictions and plays, and by some of his poetry, is wonder at the sheer outlandishness of what is being described. And what is being described, in the case of, say, Bex’s thermal orchestra, is so complicated that the prose needs to be as uncomplicated, or neutral, as possible so we can figure out how this bizarre contraption works.
I’m afraid we’ll sorely weary our readers if we go into precise details about this particular invention—suffice it to say changes in temperature drastically affect a certain metal, Bexium, discovered by Bex, and he uses this metal and its responsiveness to hot and cold to create a kind of one-man orchestra. And this is all part of a gala staged by a set of Europeans—the self-styled “Incomparables”—who have been shipwrecked on the coast of Africa and are whiling away the time until ransom money arrives to pay off their captors. What a great film one could make of Impressions of Africa, don’t you think, with digital technology! The stage version of it, alas, for all the money he lavished on it, could hardly have offered a visual analogue to the marvels it presents. The photos of this production suggest that it really wasn’t that amazing, and, of course, it was hooted at and derided by nearly all who saw it—all except for the Surrealists, and it was the show which kickstarted Duchamp’s lifelong love of Roussel. Roussel himself appeared on stage as a sailor, and there is a great picture of him, arms folded, looking rather pleased with himself, despite all the brouhaha.
I suppose, to make an obvious point, his style doesn’t leave all that much scope for “interpretation.” Probably prose tends to leave less room for this, in general, than poetry, or perhaps those translating poetry feel they have a right to be more cavalier with a poem’s literal meaning in their attempt to convey its “essence”; or translators of “difficult” poetry end up conveying one particular strand of the poem in question at the expense of other, different levels of the poem’s meaning. Roussel’s poetry isn’t quite like that—indeed, up until New Impressions it is flat and unemphatic and not that hard to translate. It’s never ambiguous or difficult. New Impressions is difficult, but its difficulties derive from compression rather than from ambiguity or multiple levels of meaning. Its strange format, the brackets and footnotes and so on, make it look difficult, but, in fact, the problems it presents derive from compression, or its opposite, extravagant periphrasis, rather than from the weirdness of its conceit or the problems of sliding between the various brackets.
I was unsure, while at work on translating New Impressions, how much I should match the inversions and contortions to which Roussel was driven by his need to rhyme and scan. I kept very close to the original at first, but upon revising I allowed myself to take a few more liberties for the sake of euphony, or what you’ve called textual pleasure. But on the subject of pleasure, I wanted to ask you what aspects of translating Impressions of Africa, its prose predecessor, you most enjoyed.
MP I suppose part of the pleasure has to do with finding that fairly precise point—the “sweet spot,” as they say in tennis—between adherence to the matter-of-fact descriptions he gives of sheerly outlandish creations (whether it is Bex’s orchestra, which you alluded to before; the fluid mechanics of a giant earthworm “playing” the zither by selectively releasing droplets of heavy water; or a cluster of grapes that contain within their flesh phenomenally complex dioramas) and allowing for a verbal flexibility that conveys the textual pleasure of Roussel’s prose. And by textual pleasure, I do mean euphony, but also a kind of bravura stylistic performance that offers up linguistic beauties—through concision, precision, musicality—even within the formal constraints the author imposes on himself. Roussel is enjoyable to read not only because the text creates worlds within worlds of wonder, like a kaleidoscope, but also because it is rigorously crafted without being precious—formal, perhaps, but not precious. Often it’s a matter of vocabulary and rhythm. You can see what I mean by comparing this sentence from chapter one. Heppenstall renders it:
Although the sun was low in the sky, the heat was still overpowering in that part of Africa, near the equator, and the thundery atmosphere, untempered by the slightest breeze, weighed oppressively on every one of us.
It’s fine but a bit wooden, even though it hews fairly closely to Roussel’s arrangement of phrases. John Ashbery’s 1962 translation of the same chapter offers a slightly more redolent take:
Although the sun had passed the zenith, the heat remained oppressive in that region of equatorial Africa, and each of us remained acutely conscious of the sultry, threatening weather, untempered by the slightest breeze.
And, just for comparison’s sake, here’s mine:
Though the sun had passed its zenith, the heat remained stifling in that region of equatorial Africa, and we all sweltered in the sultry atmosphere that no breeze came to relieve.
I learned a great deal from Ashbery, not the least of which being that a well-placed exoticism goes a long way toward preserving the sense of textual excitement Roussel created in French. In this example, for instance, just the use of words like zenith and sultry help give the sentence added life and make you want to keep reading. While working through the first few pages of the book, as I was trying to gauge the correct voice, I found it helpful to glance at what my predecessors had done. I borrowed zenith from Ashbery (we’d both come upon sultryindependently). In place of words like oppressive and weighed, I went for sweltered, in the sense of “suffered from oppressive heat,” which conveyed the same idea more economically and, I hope, a little more unusually. Also, although originally I’d used it as well, I ultimately chose to avoid untempered, which sounded the tiniest bit awkward to my ear, and to get around the repetition of remained in Ashbery’s version.
For me personally, one of the joys of translating Roussel is that it shares some of the challenges I encountered in the very first book I translated, Maurice Roche’s novel CodeX. In both cases, one is forced to recreate a text that both retains a particular foreign-based imagery or textual structure and sounds good in English. I ran across a similar challenge recently when I translated Linda Lê’s The Three Fates, which uses common expressions figuratively and literally at the same time, forcing the translator to find an equivalent that both preserves the image and conveys the idiomatic sense without sounding forced. Roussel does something very similar with his procédé, though in his case it’s more concealed, like scaffolding—but present nonetheless. As you say, it’s a puzzle, a brainteaser, and it can be enormously satisfying when the right word or phrase finally clicks into place after you’ve been worrying it for weeks.
I did want to go back to one remark of yours, about certain of Roussel’s inventions being “so complicated that the prose needs to be as uncomplicated, or neutral, as possible.” On the one hand, I couldn’t agree more and, in any case, I am a great believer in clear prose. But on the other hand I can’t help thinking that even neutrality leaves plenty of room for interpretation—which to some extent is the business of any translator—and that real transparency in translation is ultimately as elusive as true objectivity in journalism. There’s always something of the translator’s hand and voice in the work, as well there should be. My version of Impressions, for better or worse, differs from Heppenstall’s and from Ashbery’s precisely because it was produced by an individual, me, with a specific background, sense of humor, set of linguistic associations, and so on. As I go groping along the same linguistic tether that Roussel grappled with, inevitably that tether will bear some of my fingerprints. Your version of New Impressions differs from those of Koch and Monk. You can defend it on the basis of needing to hew particularly closely to a deliberate meaning, but there’s also a measure of your own personality even in that choice, just as there are traces of the personalities of Koch and Monk in theirs. It’s what makes translations worth reading, and also what makes it desirable to retranslate periodically.
I’d love to get your thoughts on that, and also, switching gears entirely, to delve a bit further into the concept of filming Impressions. I find the idea enormously appealing, but, with so much of the book taken up by descriptions, by the text’s love of its own descriptive prowess, part of me wonders how well it could be conveyed even with all the resources of CGI.
MF Yes, a film version probably is a farfetched notion, but Roussel has been, and continues to be, so influential for so many visual artists—from Duchamp and Dalí and Max Ernst to Trevor Winkfield and then for all kinds of experimental types of today—that it seems to me there is some kind of special relationship between his writing and those working in visual media. Roussel was a crucial influence on Duchamp’s Large Glass, and the reason, or so Duchamp said in an interview, was Roussel’s complete originality: “[He] produced something I had never seen. That is the thing that brings admiration from my innermost being—something completely independent—nothing to do with great names or influences. Apollinaire first showed Roussel’s work to me. It was poetry … ” Certainly, it would take a very special director to do justice to Roussel. Oddly, it seems he never himself went to see a film, or there’s no record of him doing so; he preferred more vaudevillian kinds of spectacle, particularly kids’ shows that he used to attend with Charlotte Dufrène, his “beard” (like many rich homosexuals of the era, he had a pretend mistress); she would borrow a friend’s child as a sort of cover, and if there were a quiz element Roussel would whisper the answers to the borrowed child and then was always delighted if they won a prize! Undoubtedly, his writing taps into a very primary or childlike aspect of the reader’s imagination, a pure curiosity or wonder, and many of the sequences in the novels and plays are imbued with a fairy-tale outlandishness—although there are, of course, also a number of gruesome torture episodes in Impressions of Africa that are closer to Kafka or Octave Mirbeau than Walt Disney. I’m thinking particularly of the electrocution of Djizmé by lightning and the beheading of Rao by an ax made of a wood that absorbs his blood. It also once occurred to me that Johnny Depp might be quite good as Roussel if anyone were to make a biopic—the Johnny Depp who was so convincing as Ed Wood, another naïf visionary.
To pick up on personality and translations, yes, bien entendu, one can’t be, like Shakespeare’s dyer’s hand, entirely subdued to the element one works in. And hasn’t there been a lot of retranslation recently? Proust, Kafka, Freud, Rimbaud’s Illuminations, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. And if you’re reading, say, Lydia Davis’s version of Swann’s Way or Madame Bovary, and you know her novel and short stories, it’s probably harder to forget her literary persona than it would be if the translator were not also a well-known writer of fiction. I’m not sure I’ll attempt translating again. In a blog I wrote earlier this year for Best American Poetry I compared it to being chained to a corpse, which is a little melodramatic, but I did find it, psychologically, quite challenging, spending day after day pondering this text and trying to solve its puzzles, which I found were either keeping me awake at night, or, when I did sleep, invading my dreams. This may be a Roussel issue: Cocteau, in Opium, talked of the need to develop defenses when reading him, to look at him “from the outside”—but that sort of goes without saying, for no writer has ever revealed less of his inside.
I guess, while translating New Impressions, I felt rather like one of the servants in the Roussel ménage in his mansion at Neuilly, toiling away to fulfill the master’s bizarre but inflexible instructions. One of Roussel’s cooks, André Guillot, left an account of working at 25 boulevard Richard-Wallace in which he remembers how none of the vegetables served could reveal the slightest trace of serration—if they did, they were sent back to the kitchen … and he records that his hands, 47 years later, were still scarred by burns from making voiles en sucre filé (a hot sugar concoction) that had to be served warm to M. Roussel, who couldn’t be kept waiting. There are lots of wonderful things about the Belle Epoque, but it also could be pretty brutal … well, on the other side of the equation, I’ve just reread Canto I of New Impressionsand found myself frequently laughing out loud. Like Cocteau, Roussel was very much in thrall to late-19th- and early-20th-century notions of genius, and, while writing La Doublure, was convinced he would be seen as great as Shakespeare or Dante. I don’t think even the most ardent Rousselians would elevate him quite that high, but he is, without doubt, the most original writer I’ve ever come across, and I suppose that’s what Cocteau means when he talks of him “relying only on his own authority.”
One last question. At the end of the gala in Impressions of Africa the performers are awarded prizes based on the amount of applause each act has garnered from the audience. First prize, the grand cordon, goes to Marius Boucharessas for his bunch of cats who played a stirring game of prisoner’s base, a game a bit like tag. Did you develop a favorite episode or character to whom would you have awarded the grand cordon?
MP That’s an interesting question, especially since I always felt that Marius was among the least deserving of the performers—let’s say he was not among my top ten. I couldn’t help wondering if Roussel had awarded the prize to the character he’d have cherished most in life or, perhaps, whom he most identified with: I’m thinking of Marius’s childish delight in his prize, reminiscent of Roussel’s own unassuaged thirst for la gloire of universal recognition, or the adult Roussel’s boast to Pierre Janet that future generations would “look up the facts of my childhood and admire the way I played prisoner’s base.” Or, to take it from another angle, was he interpreting the Ponukeleans’ choice (since it’s the “native” audience that gets to vote—the Europeans are enjoined to keep strictly quiet) as tending to favor the more “natural,” less technological, more “understandable” wonder of trained cats playing tag? Whereas the more machine-age marvels, like Louise Montalescot’s painting machine, the automatic loom, or the thermal orchestra, were assumed to be “above their heads”? All I can say is, the first time I read it, I couldn’t help thinking, You’re giving it to him?
So to whom would I have awarded it? That’s a toughie, because there are so many performances that are wonderfully improbable, unsettlingly comic, eyebrow-raisingly prescient—or a combination of the above. My own favorites, for no good reason other than that I had great pleasure translating them, include Fuxier—the grapes enfolding miniature scenes, first and foremost, but also his lozenges that create detailed tableaux by melting in water and arranging the ripples into pictures; Balbet (you don’t argue with a man who can peel a soft-boiled egg with an antique rifle “at a great distance”); Louise Montalescot, for having invented the inkjet printer nearly a century before it became a reality (and while we’re at it, hats off to Bex for his battery-operated portable fan); Ludovic, because the image of his various mouth parts warbling independently had me in stitches, or Philippo, for the same reason; or perhaps Fogar with his near-death trances and undersea sponges that behave like strange mechanical animals, if only because that entire section seems to me as moody and hallucinatory as anything in Maldoror. But I do confess that the passages describing Bex’s orchestra and magnetine pencils, or Bedu’s loom, struck me as somewhat interminable—apologies to Roussel (and to my publisher)!
Ultimately, of course, the real answer is that the grand cordon goes to Roussel himself, who not only invented these inventors and appears also behind them en filigrane, but managed to realize the ultimate performance, as do all great artists, of creating a stage that extends far beyond the makeshift floorboards of the Incomparables’ gala and into the stream (not the mainstream, but the stream) of French literature for a century in his wake, and counting. And not only French literature, of course, but, particularly through such devotees as John Ashbery, Ron Padgett, and Harry Mathews, a whole, vibrant current of Anglo-American writing as well. So I suppose the real hero of the novel is its diffident, elusive narrator, the seldom-seen, nameless “I” who leaves only the slightest impression in Impressions of Africa, but whose job it is to collect and record all the events that occur—and who, in so doing, inspired a host of subsequent writers to help change the course of literary culture. La gloire, indeed!
Mark Ford’s critical biography Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams was published in 2000. He has also published three collections of poetry, Landlocked (1992), Soft Sift (2001), and Six Children (2011).
Mark Polizzotti is the author of eight books, including Lautréamont Nomad (1994; revised ed. 2005), Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton (1995; revised ed. 2009), a monograph on Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (2006), and Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (2006). He has translated more than thirty books from the French, among them works by Gustave Flaubert, André Breton, Marguerite Duras, Jean Echenoz, and Raymond Roussel. He lives in New York, where he directs the publications program at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.