Raymond Roussel (1877-1933) - poet, novelist, playwright, musician, chess enthusiast, neurasthenic, homosexual, drug addict, probable suicide - an astonishing individual whose life was almost as intriguing as his unique literary opus.
Following a perfect “Proustian” childhood, Roussel, the son of immensely rich parents, rejected a musical career and began a series of literary projects of such impossible complexity that he soon suffered a serious mental collapse. His poetry, novels and plays, written using intricate hidden formulae and processes, were intended by him to mirror the “glory” of his favourite writers, but they only succeeded in provoking astonishment, outrage or derision among his own circle and the literary establishment of the day. He nevertheless attracted the support of the more avant-garde literary movements, such as the Surrealists, whose work in turn he found totally baffling.
Roussel’s riches allowed him to publish his own works and mount luxurious productions of his plays: these attracted a critical response that was startling in its fury. If his public life seemed a failure, his personal life achieved a mythical fame due to the reported eccentricity of his eating habits (he’d take all his daily meals together one after the other to save time for writing), clothing (he wore most of his expensive clothes only a few times), sexuality (his parents hired him a pretend “mistress” so that his homosexuality would not be suspected), and travel (in a specially constructed motorised caravan). When his profligacy finally resulted in the squandering of his fortune, he took flight to a hotel in Palermo and died of a barbiturate overdose in mysterious circumstances.
Since his death, Roussel’s writings have come to be seen as not only unique, but as a body of work that has aroused enthusiastic appreciation and interpretation from nearly all the major French Iiterary movements that have followed. His works have been championed by the Surrealists, the writers around the Nouveau Roman and the Oulipo, while he is the only author to whom Michel Foucault devoted an entire book.
In France this biography, based upon a huge hoard of Roussel’s personal papers discovered in I989, is acknowledged as the standard work on Roussel’s life.
Both the author of this book, and its translator, are members of the Oulipo.
Raymond Queneau: “An imagination which joins the mathematicians’ delirium to the poets’ logic.”
Michel Foucault: “Things, words, vision and death, the sun and language create a unique form ... Roussel in some way has defined its geometry.”
John Ashbery: “An experience unique in literature.”
Raymond Roussel: “My fame will outshine that of Napoleon or Victor Hugo.”