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Roussel, Raymond

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1877-1933) French author whose works take their experimental origins from (and contribute to) French Modernism before World War One and have been (against his own sense of his position) associated with 1920s Surrealism; he may more interestingly be thought of as a bridge between fin de siècle experimentalism and post-World War Two phenomena like Oulipo and the nouveau roman (see Alan Robbe-Grillet). Impressions d'Afrique (1910; trans Rayner Heppenstall and Lindy Foord as Impressions of Africa 1967; new trans Mark Polizzotti 2011) is an early example of the kind of ludic fiction (see Johan Huizinga) increasingly instrumental in the Fantastika of the twenty-first century. The novel combines several genres – including the Fantastic Voyage of Jules Verne, who was an early influence, as was Villiers de L'Isle-Adam; the Lost Race tale; the boy's adventure; and tales of Invention – and is structured according to ludic narrative rules, mostly based on untranslatable language games; the central narrative concerns a group of shipwreck survivors trapped in Ejur, capital city of the empire of Ponukélé, and focuses mainly on the elaborate theatrical performances they mount in order to retain the beneficence of the Emperor [for Licenza see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Trompe l'oeil effects turn out to be real (or the other way round); Robot-like simulacra dance and sing; a slave sculpted in whale-bone glides across the stage on grotesquely extended calf lungs. Roussel's deadpan gaze on the exotic is an early model for J G Ballard's preternaturally unruffled use of exotic locations; Ballard cites Impressions of Africa directly in The Atrocity Exhibition (coll 1970), and the influence of that text is clear in Angela Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972; vt The War of Dreams 1974). Nouvelles Impressions d'Afrique (1932; trans Ian Monk as New Impressions of Africa 2004; new trans Mark Ford 2011), a book-length poem, cannot be deemed a sequel as such, though much of the same patterns of image and event are recast into elaborate cantos, though abstractly: Africa itself is not mentioned. New Impressions of Africa is referred to extensively in a discussion of Linguistics in Ian Watson's The Embedding (1973).

Locus Solus (1914; trans Rupert Copeland Cuningham 1970), which reverses the dynamic of Impressions, is more obviously an example of sf recast into game, a angle of view that extended to the text itself, which was composed according to compositional rules that much later proved models for the creation of Oulipo. A group of friends visit the eponymous country estate, whose owner demonstrates his own ornately perverse mechanical Inventions to them, including a tableau vivant peopled by corpses he has revived through injections of "resurrectine" in order for them to re-enact significant moments of their lives (see Zombies). But always, as in the previous texts, what seems supernatural is explainable in terms of ingenuity; for Roussel's dream – which he shares with Futurists like Filippo Marinetti (1876-1944) – is a dream of science. [JC]

Raymond Roussel

born Paris: 20 January 1877

died Palermo, Italy: 14 July 1933


  • Impressions d'Afrique (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1910) [binding unknown/]
    • Impressions of Africa (London: Calder and Boyars, 1967) [trans by Rayner Heppenstall and Lindy Foord of the above: hb/]
    • Impressions of Africa (Normal, Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 2011) [new trans of the above by Mark Polizzotti: pb/]
  • Locus Solus (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1914) [binding unknown/nonpictorial]
    • Locus Solus (London: Calder and Boyars, 1970) [trans by Rupert Copeland Cuningham of the above: hb/John Sewell]
  • Nouvelles Impressions d'Afrique (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1932) [binding unknown/]
    • New Impressions of Africa (London: Atlas Press, 2004) [poem: trans by Ian Monk of the above: with other matter: pb/]
    • New Impressions of Africa (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2011) [poem: new trans of the above by Mark Ford: hb/]

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