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Raymond Roussel (January 20, 1877 – July 14, 1933) was a French poet, novelist, playwright, musician, and chess enthusiast. Through his novels, poems, and plays he exerted a profound influence on certain groups within 20th century French literature, including the Surrealists, Oulipo, and the authors of the nouveau roman.
Roussel was born in Paris, the third and last child in his family, with a brother Georges and sister Germaine. In 1893, at age 15, he was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire for piano. A year later, he inherited a substantial fortune from his deceased father and began to write poetry to accompany his musical compositions. At age 17, he wrote Mon Âme, a long poem published three years later in Le Gaulois. By 1896, he had commenced editing his long poem La Doublure when he suffered a mental crisis. After the poem was published on June 10, 1897 and was completely unsuccessful, Roussel began to see the psychiatrist Pierre Janet. In subsequent years, his inherited fortune allowed him to publish his own works and mount luxurious productions of his plays. He wrote and published some of his most important work between 1900 and 1914, and then from 1920 to 1921 traveled around the world. He continued to write for the next decade, but when his fortune finally gave out, he made his way to a hotel in Palermo, where he died of a barbiturate overdose in 1933, aged 56. He is buried in Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
Roussel's most famous works are Impressions of Africa and Locus Solus, both written according to formal constraints based on homonymic puns. Roussel kept this compositional method a secret until the publication of his posthumous text, How I Wrote Certain of My Books, where he describes it as follows: "I chose two similar words. For example billard (billiard) and pillard (looter). Then I added to it words similar but taken in two different directions, and I obtained two almost identical sentences thus. The two sentences found, it was a question of writing a tale which can start with the first and finish by the second. Amplifying the process then, I sought new words reporting itself to the word billiards, always to take them in a different direction than that which was presented first of all, and that provided me each time a creation moreover. The process evolved/moved and I was led to take an unspecified sentence, of which I drew from the images by dislocating it, a little as if it had been a question of extracting some from the drawings of rebus." For example, Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard/The white letters on the cushions of the old billiard table… must somehow reach the phrase, …les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard/letters [written by] a white man about the hordes of the old plunderer.
John Ashbery summarizes Locus Solus thus in his introduction to Michel Foucault's Death and the Labyrinth: "A prominent scientist and inventor, Martial Canterel, has invited a group of colleagues to visit the park of his country estate, Locus Solus. As the group tours the estate, Canterel shows them inventions of ever-increasing complexity and strangeness. Again, exposition is invariably followed by explanation, the cold hysteria of the former giving way to the innumerable ramifications of the latter. After an aerial pile driver which is constructing a mosaic of teeth and a huge glass diamond filled with water in which float a dancing girl, a hairless cat, and the preserved head of Danton, we come to the central and longest passage: a description of eight curious tableaux vivants taking place inside an enormous glass cage. We learn that the actors are actually dead people whom Canterel has revived with 'resurrectine,' a fluid of his invention which if injected into a fresh corpse causes it continually to act out the most important incident of its life."
New Impressions of Africa is a 1,274-line poem, consisting of four long cantos in rhymed alexandrines, each a single sentence with parenthetical asides that run up to five levels deep. From time to time, a footnote refers to a further poem containing its own depths of brackets. This impressive nest of brackets carries an assertion — or a recommendation ? — buried by Roussel within a 644 alexandrine poem. In A study on Raymond Roussel, Jean Ferry suggested the notion of a hidden message and transcribed the succession of brackets of Cantos II into the alphabet invented by the painter Samuel Morse : considering each bracket as a dot and the included text as a dash. But due to the missing spaces which separate letters the ensemble of dots and dashes as well as a concealed message remained an hypothesis… until it was deciphered by Jean-Max Albert (another painter), revealing (at least partially) the rousselienne formula, which can’t be fortuitous : « RELIVE YOUR DREAMS AWAKE » ( Revis tes rêves en éveil).
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