Roussel, Raymond. How I Wrote Certain of My Books. 1995.
Review originally written for and broadcast on GLT Radio (Normal, IL) by William Gillespie.
Raymond Roussel was an eccentric French writer who was born in 1877 and apparently committed suicide in 1933. His best known works of those translated into English are his novels Locus Solus and Impressions of Africa. Roussel wrote novels, tried to adapt them to the stage, and then tried to write a play for the stage. The audience responded to the play by throwing things and yelling at each other. Roussel, who never experienced anything like widespread acclaim, has nonetheless influenced French literature. Eventually, he was to gain the support of the surrealists. Decades after his death, he is remembered fondly by the OuLiPo - a group of Paris-based writers devoted to exploring new experimental literary forms. Two American poets - John Ashbery and Harry Mathews (also a member of the OuLiPo) - hold him in high esteem and here the two of them offer new translations of some of Roussel's works.
How I Wrote Certain of my Books is the title of this collection and also the title of an essay by Roussel to explain how he wrote the two novels I mentioned. The rest of the collection includes an excellent introduction and biography of Roussel by John Ashbery, the first chapter of each of the two novels, the fifth act of one of Roussel's plays, the third canto of his poem “New Impressions of Africa,” and the notes to serve as an outline for another novel Roussel apparently never wrote.
Roussel's novels are among what I consider the great untranslatable works of the twentieth century. Much of the imagery and plot detail are bizarre flowerings of imaginative detail rooted in French puns. When this is translated, one gets only the strange details, but none of the phonetic basis underlying them. Like a joke that isn't funny, or a sonnet which has been paraphrased so that it no longer rhymes.
The canto of the poem “New Impressions of Africa” was my favorite part of the collection. I've never read a poem with nested parentheses and lengthy footnotes before. The translation preserves aspects of the rhyme and meter, even throughout the footnotes.
Although this volume doesn't contain the entire poem, it does contain all of the 59 drawings that originally accompanied it. But these drawings are not only not by Roussel, they aren't even interesting. In an introduction, which explains how Roussel had sent 59 captions to a hack artist to make mundane sketches to compliment his bizarre poem, Salvador Dali is quoted as saying that, seen in the context of the poem, the drawings “shed their banality and become metaphysical.” Fine, but here the drawings are not only not shown in the context of the poem, the entire poem isn't even presented. I can save you some time by telling you right now that the drawings numbered 40-48 accompany the poem on pages 97-103.
Read How I Wrote Certain of my Books as an introduction to one of France's literary madmen, and for an exceedingly clear description of how Raymond Roussel wrote certain of his books. To anyone who is curious for a taste, but not a full course, of Roussel's writing, this volume will serve well. Should you be utterly taken by the writing, however, you may be dismayed that few of the works are represented in their entirety. You will never get to find out how the novels end or how the play begins. At its best, How I Wrote Certain of My Books will send to your library looking for more.