One of the great eccentrics of modern literature, Raymond Roussel is as known for his outlandish private life as for his outlandish writings. Which is not to say he is well known. Since his suicide in 1933 at the age of 56, Roussel has been a strong influence upon a host of avant garde writers and artists, including André Breton, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Cocteau, and Marcel Duchamp. Salvador Dali is said to have died with a copy of Roussel's Impressions d'Afrique at his side. Echoes of Roussel's approach to literature can be found in the New York School of poetry, the Language poets, and the Oulipo. But Roussel has never enjoyed popular acclaim. His eccentric, even hermetic, writings have gone largely unread. Indeed, for several decades he was virtually forgotten except as a strange footnote in early 20th-century French literature. Mark Ford's biography, the first to be published in English, seeks to correct that situation by making Roussel "appear as a writer who is worth reading, rather than as an engaging exotic or an intriguing case history." A difficult goal, that, and one Ford is not quite able to pull off in this entertaining and elegantly written biography.
Born into a wealthy family, Roussel was indulged from an early age and developed many peculiarities. A dandy, he never wore the same clothes more than twice. On two round-the-world trips, he never left his hotel room. He habitually took all the day's meals in succession, a process lasting some five hours. To cover his homosexuality--Roussel was determinedly in the closet and often blackmailed by sex partners--he hired a woman to pose as his mistress; each day she was obliged to wear a fresh pair of a particular style of white gloves he favored. When his beloved mother passed away (his father, a stockbroker and financial speculator, died when he was a child), Roussel had a window installed in her coffin so that he could see her face until the very last moment.
At the age of 19, Roussel had a strange vision in which he believed his body to be giving off blinding light as he wrote a poem. Over the next few weeks, as he sweated over the book-length work of several thousand verses, he shut the room's blinds so the intense light he thought himself to be generating would not escape. The failure of that poem, which Roussel fervently believed would make him a household name, led to a "nervous illness" that lasted the rest of his life. Ford makes clear that Roussel was more than usually odd. If not for his family's immense fortune, one wonders if he would have been allowed to roam free in society.
Roussel's writings were as eccentric as his life. He eventually created a writing technique he called his "procédé," a method of generating texts based on the multiple meanings of words. From an initial sentence, Roussel would develop his text via epigrams, puns, double entendres, and word games. As he once explained: "I was led to take a random phrase from which I would derive images by distorting it, a little as one might develop images while devising a rebus." The value of such a process, and its ability to carry over into English from Roussel's native French, is at best doubtful. Its effect can often be the aesthetic equivalent of reading a completed crossword puzzle, minus the clues from which the answers sprang. And yet Roussel believed that his method would lead to widespread acclaim, similar to that enjoyed by Voltaire or Jules Verne. He followed his procédé religiously, writing a prolific amount of poems, novels, and plays, all of them self-published and all of them commercial failures. To be fair, in his major works--the novels Impressions d'Afrique (1910) and Locus Solus (1914)--he was able to create visionary imagery foreshadowing that of the Surrealists by decades. (When the Surrealists arrived on the scene and hailed Roussel, seeing him as a spiritual forerunner, he found that he did not understand their art.)
"Roussel has not yet found his niche in the puzzle of literary history," Ford ultimately admits. But Ford does make clear that Roussel was a pioneer of approaches to language which later artists have put to better use. And Ford's detailed explanation of Roussel's working method brings an understanding of the author's writing technique, if not an appreciation of its results. "And so I seek comfort, for want of anything better," Roussel once wrote, "in the hope that perhaps I will enjoy a little posthumous fame on account of my books." For most readers, unfortunately, Roussel will be judged a charming eccentric whose personal quirks are of more interest than his creative work.