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The Zither and the Worm

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Impressions of Africa

By Raymond Roussel
Dalkey Archive Press, 2011

New Impressions of Africa

By Raymond Roussel
Princeton University Press, 2011

The novelist, poet and playwright Raymond Roussel (1877- 1933) was one of the most original and imaginative authors of the twentieth century, yet he unjustly remains an obscure figure in the pantheon of French literature. During his lifetime he had to pay exorbitantly to have his works published and produced on the stage, and the glory and mainstream popularity that he believed he deserved have continued to elude him after death. But his influence on generations of avant-garde writers and artists has been his lasting legacy. The Surrealists championed his work against hostile and uncomprehending critics, and Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dalí both testified to his formative impact. At mid-century, Roussel’s influence crossed the Atlantic when the American poets Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery fell under his spell, while in France he was revered as a totemic forbearer by Alain Robbe-Grillet and his noveau roman movement, and by the Oulipo group of experimental novelists founded by Raymond Queneau.

Despite the best efforts of these disciples, Roussel is still little known. But this year, the publication of excellent new English translations of two key works should stimulate a revival of his singular oeuvre. This month Dalkey Archive Press publishes Mark Polizzotti’s version of Roussel’s first novel, Impressions of Africa (1910), while Mark Ford’s rendering of the epic poem New Impressions of Africa (1932) came out in April. The titles are somewhat deceptive: neither is a conventional traveler’s tale, while the second work bears no outward resemblance to the first and is not a sequel in any normal sense of the word. What they have in common is that they use conventional ideas of Africa as a starting point for audacious literary experiments. But far from being the arid fruit of some Modernist manifesto, they are also generous entertainments, intricate contraptions designed to produce a constant stream of astonishing images and stories.

Roussel, the son of a rich stockbroker, was one of the great eccentrics of an era that set a high-water mark for quirkiness. Ford’s invaluable critical biography, Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams (2000), provides much fascinating detail, including examples of the menus that Roussel’s private chefs prepared for their exacting employer, who was bored by having three meals a day, and instead ordered them combined into one massive midday repast. Although he was something of a recluse, he traveled widely: he first visited Egypt, the ostensible subject of New Impressions of Africa, at the age of 29, and took a trip around the world in 1920. But he insisted that “from all these travels I never took anything for my books…imagination accounts for everything in my work.” He seems to have traveled mainly as a literary tourist, particularly eager to follow in the footsteps of one of his heroes, Pierre Loti, the late Romantic French novelist whose autobiographical tales recounted exotic amours with native women in Turkey (Aziyadé, 1879) and Tahiti (The Marriage of Loti, 1880). Roussel’s other great literary idol was Jules Verne, who was more concerned with inventing technologically advanced forms of travel. These twin influences of the exotic and the inventive are evident throughout Roussel’s works.

It was the inventive side of Roussel that earned him a degree of notoriety. It first came to prominence in Impressions of Africa, which is bursting with bizarre tableaux, such as a statue made of whalebone corset stays, riding on “narrow rails, made from some raw, reddish, gelatinous substance, which was none other than calves’ lungs,” rails that, “by their form if not their color, created the precise illusion of a section of railroad track;” a giant worm playing Hungarian melodies on a zither “like any virtuoso, who, following his spontaneous inspiration, ran through a series of variations, interpreting an ambiguous and delicate passage in new and controversial ways”; and a native emperor dressed in a long blue gown and blond wig, singing an Italian opera aria in falsetto, “a piece requiring the most hazardous feats of vocalization,” with “numerous trills that, after several minutes of effort, ended on a pure and extremely high-pitched final note.” These images prompted violent polemics when Roussel adapted the novel for the stage, the Surrealists enthusiastically defending him against outraged detractors in shouting matches at the theater.

In a posthumously published essay, “How I Wrote Certain of My Books,” Roussel revealed for the first time the secret procédé—the process or method—that he used to generate this kind of strange material. It was basically a system of punning that exploited the double meanings of certain words in order to produce unexpected combinations and images. He says, “I chose a word and then linked it to another by the preposition à [with]; and these two words, each capable of more than one meaning, supplied me with a further creation.” Later on, “As the method developed I was led to take a random phrase from which I drew images by distorting it, a little as though it were a case of deriving them from the drawings of a rebus.” He provides a list of examples, mostly from Impressions of Africa. One explains the formula behind that zither-playing worm: “1st. Guitare (title of a Victor Hugo poem) à vers (verse); 2nd. guitare (guitar, which I replaced with a zither) à ver (worm).”

In Impressions of Africa, the Hungarian zither virtuoso Skariovszki is one among a group of passengers on an ocean liner that shipwrecked in a storm and washed up on the west coast of Africa, in the kingdom of Ponukele. To pass the time while they wait for their relations to ransom them, the many talented performers, artists and inventors among the group form the “Incomparables Club,” and prepare to give a gala performance in honor of their host and captor, Emperor Talou VII. Preparing for his act, Skariovszki practices by himself in a secluded spot outside the capital, Ejur. The giant worm, which lives in a river of peculiarly dense water, is attracted by the music, and the virtuoso somehow conceives the idea of training it to play. He builds a sort of trough out of “four solid, transparent slabs of mica” from the river, with an opening at the bottom that the worm fills, and mounts it on a stand above the zither; then he pours the heavy water over the worm, and teaches it to raise its segments in “polyphonic acrobatics” to let drops fall through and strike the strings. Here is the eureka moment of the training episode, recounted in Roussel’s terse paragraphs of deadpan reportage:

Skariovszki trained the worm to slide into the mica receptacle and stretch out, thereby stopping up a gap in the bottom edge.

Using a large fruit husk, he soon drew from the river several pints of water, which he poured into the transparent trough.

After this, with the end of a twig, he lifted, for a fraction of a second, an infinitesimal fragment of the worm’s recumbent body.

A drop of water slipped through and fell onto a zither string, which vibrated quite clearly.

The experiment, renewed several times in neighboring areas, produced a series of notes that formed a ritornello.

Suddenly the same musical formation was repeated by the worm, which all by itself created paths for the liquid through a series of tremors accomplished flawlessly in all the correct places.

Never would Skariovszki have dared count on such rapid comprehension. At this point his task struck him as simple and sure to succeed.

Measure by measure, he taught the worm several lively or wistful Hungarian melodies.

At the gala, the worm delivers a star turn: “There was nothing mechanical about this performance, which radiated fire and conviction…The acts of agility followed one another seamlessly, spangled with trills and chromatic scales.”

A characteristic aspect of this episode is that Skariovszki is not content when he discovers that the worm is capable of being trained to play a few notes. On the contrary, once he was “certain of being able to exhibit the astonishing creature,” he “thought up various refinements to improve the overall apparatus.” This ambition to elaborate with relentless inventiveness on every idea, however outré it is to begin with, is common to all the “Incomparables,” and also to the Emperor and his children, who contribute their own performances with sufficient talent and ingenuity to prove themselves equal to their white captives.

Roussel says he felt it was his duty to disclose the procédé because “future writers may perhaps be able to exploit it fruitfully.” But it is possible that this posthumous revelation was detrimental to his reputation, giving rise to a reductive idea of his work as merely a sort of crossword puzzle, or worse, mechanically generated nonsense. It may have led to his being relegated to cult status, when his work ought to have the universal appeal of those supremely imaginative authors who seem closest to him, such as E.T.A. Hoffmann and Jorge Luis Borges. For in reading Roussel, one is struck most of all by how skillfully he fleshes out the skeleton key of the ideas generated by his procédé. The initial stimulus comes from the word game, yet the subsequent development of this basic material into a rich tapestry of fantasy is the more impressive feat. The idea of a zither-playing worm is weirdly amusing, certainly, but the way that Roussel spins it into a compact tale, and builds dozens of such tales into a novel, is a true tour de force.

Part of the originality of Impressions of Africa is in its structure. The first half is given over to the gala performances, a series of bizarre spectacles described in great detail yet with no explanation. Only in the second half does the reader learn the stories behind each performance, which do not just clear up the mysterious intentions and origins of these spectacles but add more layers of fantastical complications. A number of the performances are musical; Roussel trained as a pianist, and tried composing before devoting himself to writing. There are several inspired counterparts to the zitherist worm, such as a one-legged man who plays a flute made from his tibia. One less grotesque example is presented within a series of tableaux vivants. (This first group of “living paintings” is of a relatively straightforward sort, with actors posing in a frozen scene; later there is a series of miniature ones ingeniously implanted in a cluster of grapes.) In this tableau, “a blind old man dressed in Louis XV style,” writing on a staircase with a quill pen while clutching a bouquet of holly, is said to be “Handel mechanically composing the theme of his oratorio Vesper.”

In the second half of the novel, the explanation for this tableau is given in the form of a reminiscence supposedly drawn from the memoirs of a certain Count Corfield, Handel as I Knew Him. (Roussel, like Borges, is fertile in the invention of spurious literary sources.) At a dinner hosted by Handel at his London townhouse in 1756, the Count praises the composer’s genius, declaring that “a musical phrase hatched by a brow endowed with such a divine spark could enliven many pages of score with its breath, even when banally developed by a mere technician”; whereas “an ordinary theme, treated by even the most inspired mind,” would still betray “heaviness and awkwardness.” Handel objects to this hypothesis, “claiming that, even on a mechanically devised motif furnished solely by chance [consulting the French original makes the allusion to Roussel’s own technique still clearer: “même sur un motif construit mécaniquement d’après un procédé fourni par le hasard seul…”], he was quite sure he could write an entire oratorio worthy of inclusion among his works.”

To prove his point, Handel takes a bouquet of seven holly branches from the mantelpiece, and has each one tied with a ribbon of a different color to indicate the seven notes of the diatonic scale. He leads his guests to the staircase and proceeds to shuffle the branches, randomly selecting one note on each of the stairs and inscribing them on the banister to produce a twenty-three-note phrase. Handel then molds this unpromising material into a work of art: “In his hands, the theme with its bizarre contours acquired an engaging and beautiful grace, through ingenious combinations of rhythm and harmony.” Like some 20th-century serialist composition, the same phrase, “repeated over and over but each time presented in different form, alone constituted the famous oratorio Vesper.” It is typical of Roussel’s idiosyncratic approach, at once revolutionary and old-fashioned, that he would develop this idea, conceptually so in tune with the avant-garde developments of his own period, by grafting it onto a canonic rootstock to create a hybrid form, a timeless allegory of creative power.

In his posthumous essay, Roussel says these tableaux vivants were suggested by applying the procédé to Victor Hugo’s poem Napoleon II, and the Handel episode was drawn from the line “Un vase tout rempli du vin de l’espérance” (A vessel full of the wine of hope), which he changed through deliberate phonic distortion into this disjointed code: “…sept houx rampe lit…Vesper (…seven hollies balustrade read…Vesper).” But again, the disclosure of this originating process need not result in a reductive reading of Roussel, a merely technical “solution” to
his riddles; far more interesting, and not so easily explained, are his virtuoso variations on such paltry and incoherent material.

Roussel says the procédé is “related to rhyme. In both cases there is unforeseen creation due to phonic combinations. It is essentially a poetic method.” So it is something of a paradox
that he insists he didn’t use the procédé to write New Impressions of Africa, his greatest poetic achievement. Perhaps the decision does make sense, though, considering that this poem renounces narrative altogether, and the procédé is primarily a tool for generating narratives. But what is Roussel’s vision without stories, in its pure state? Essentially, it is a way of seeing the world that teems with strange and surprising comparisons and analogies, sorted into irrepressible digressions and compulsive list-making. The weird inventions of the novels are here replaced by a bewildering onslaught of normality, a multitude of human types, animals and inanimate objects all jostling together, along with scraps of folk wisdom, urban legends, fairy tales and mythology. Michel Foucault, in his 1963 book on Roussel, Death and the Labyrinth, aptly describes New Impressions of Africa as “a gigantic Noah’s Ark (but even more welcoming).”

This might make Roussel sound like a modernist par excellence, engaged in a quasi-Joycean, mock-heroic quest to embrace the mundane world in its entirety, except that the form he chooses for this panorama of perception is decidedly traditional: the rhyming alexandrine couplet. But anyone who thinks the couplet is a dull and deservedly defunct archaism should be disabused of that prejudice by Roussel’s adept use of it. As the old masters such as Alexander Pope taught, the couplet lends itself precisely to the formulation of witty antitheses, which gain force from the rhythmic beat of the meter and the decisive flourish of the rhyme. This rigorously structured verse movement gives momentum and focus to Roussel’s vast digressions and lists, which would otherwise be hard-pressed to maintain cohesion.

Another point about the couplet form is that Roussel was known to write his poetry by first listing the rhyming words and only then composing verses to connect them, a challenging method that accounts for the complicated syntax of couplets like the following one, which is part of a list of people and objects asking themselves odd questions. In this case the wondering subject is a lamppost:

—Si, méthodique, avant de l’arroser, Cerbère
Le flairerait de ses trois nez, le réverbère

—If, before peeing on it, Cerberus would methodically
Sniff it with all three of his three noses, the lamppost

While Roussel’s choice of the couplet form is traditional, the modifications he imposes on the structure of the poem are anything but. Each of the poem’s four cantos begins with a brief meditation on a historic or touristic Egyptian scene, which after a few lines is interrupted by a parenthesis containing a digressing train of thought having nothing to do with Egypt, and which in turn is interrupted by another parenthesis. This continues up to a limit of five parentheses, and the one in the middle is usually the longest digression, so that the framing sentence does not conclude until the end of the canto. There are further digressions in the form of footnotes, which themselves often digress into more parentheses. This formidable apparatus all fits together in the rhyme scheme, footnotes included, so that the whole system resembles one of the bizarre hybrids of organic and mechanical materials in Roussel’s novels.

An example of how this system works is the opening of Canto II, entitled “The Battlefield of the Pyramids,” which begins with a reflection on Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt but rapidly digresses:

Rien que de l’évoquer sur ce champ de bataille,
A l’âge où le surtout—le long surtout à taille—
Et le petit chapeau—desquels nous extrayons
Quel que soit notre bord d’intimidants rayons—
(Extraire à tout propos est naturel à l’homme;
Il extrait: de ce rien, la chute d’une pomme,
Une loi qui le voue à l’immortalité;
D’une fable ou d’un conte une moralité;
Du grêle épouvantail, simple croix qui se dresse
—Sa tenue accusant la plus noire détresse—
((Que d’aspects prend la croix! un groupement astral…

The mere evocation of his presence on this battlefield,
At an age when the great coat—the long fitted greatcoat—
And the little hat—from which we deduce,
Whatever our perspective, an intimidating aura—
(To deduce at every turn is natural to man;
He deduces: from this nothing, the fall of an apple,
A law that consecrates him to immortality;
From a fable or story a moral;
From a thin scarecrow, a simple erect cross—
Its getup indicating the most dire poverty—
((How many aspects the cross assumes! A group of stars…

The thoughts of the traveler veer instantly from the intimidating glory of Napoleon (symbolized, mock-heroically, by his “little hat”—which is a red herring here, since the observation concludes at the end of the canto by noting that at the time of the Egyptian expedition he had not yet adopted his famous costume) to the vagaries of thought itself, and the universal tendency to deduction, which leads to Isaac Newton; and then from a scarecrow (an association prompted, ironically, by Napoleon’s coat and hat) to the cross. There follows an irreverent list of things that also look like the cross, from a constellation to a waiter sharpening a pair of knives before carving a roast. It is a demonstration of virtuosic deduction that recalls Edgar Allan Poe’s French detective, C. Auguste Dupin, whose astonishing skills of reasoning inspired the similar feats of Sherlock Holmes. Like those detectives when they used deduction to amaze their friends or clients, rather than to solve a case, we might say Roussel indulges in pure reason for the pleasure of tracing the arabesques of a chain of thought through all its invisible parentheses and footnotes, eventually circling right back to where it started.

Mark Ford’s introduction to his translation is a most helpful guide to navigating the complexity of the poem’s structure. Explaining his decision to translate in unrhymed verse, he asserts, “There is no way a version of Nouvelles Impressions can both be accurate and recreate the poem’s rhythm, or rhyme scheme, without straying very far indeed from idiomatic English.” He says his translation is primarily designed to help the reader work through the French original, which is included in this bilingual edition on facing pages. But he acknowledges Ian Monk’s translation of the whole poem in rhyming pentameter couplets, published in 2004 by Atlas Books (also with the French on facing pages), and Kenneth Koch’s 1964 version of Canto III in rhyming hexameter couplets. A glance at both of these rivals confirms Ford’s point that a certain amount of accuracy is inevitably sacrificed to the constraints of rhyme. And yet, there are occasional moments where a felicitous couplet captures more of the spirit of the original than is possible without rhyme, which might make these versions preferable for a reader with little or no French. For example, take this couplet, a question that might be posed by an explorer anxious about cannibals:

—L’explorateur, si, loin de ce qu’il a de cher,
Un jour il repaîtra son prochain de sa chair;

Monk translates it, “The explorer, miles from all he holds dear/If his flesh some day won’t provide good cheer,” which is closer to Roussel’s compact rhythm than Ford’s more literal “The explorer, far from all he holds dear, if/One day he will feed a fellow human being with his flesh.”

Overall, though, the consistent clarity of Ford’s translation, sustained throughout this long and complex poem, is a major achievement that sets it apart from its predecessors. One distinct advantage of his version, which contributes to that exemplary clarity, is that he offers copious footnotes of his own, essential to understanding many of the period’s cultural references or literary allusions. These notes appear on every other pair of facing pages, opposite the illustrations that Roussel commissioned anonymously, sending instructions to the artist, Henri-A. Zo, through a detective agency. John Ashbery has appreciatively described these illustrations as “militantly banal.” One of them depicts an empty cobblestone street in which stands that solitary, speculating lamppost.

Roussel spent many years working on New Impressions of Africa, and its failure to win a large readership may have been the final blow to his pride. In 1933, the year after it was published, he died of a drug overdose, an apparent suicide. In the essay he left behind, revealing his conjuror’s secrets, he also expressed a poignant wish for “a little posthumous recognition.” Mark Ford and Mark Polizzotti have admirably done their parts to initiate Anglophone readers into Roussel’s unique body of work—a veritable undiscovered continent of the imagination that awaits a new generation of explorers.

Joshua Lustig is a senior editor at the Facts on File World News Digest in New York.