(Ed. note: We're lucky to have Mark Ford with us this week writing about the exprience of translating Raymond Roussel's Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique. You can read yesterday's post here. Find Ford's new translation here.)
Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique is largely made up of lists. Most of Canto II, for instance, is taken up by a list of 207 examples of things of things that might be mistaken for smaller things with which they have a visual similarity. The first of these is a lightning conductor, which is (much) bigger than, but looks like, a grey thread being passed through the eye of a needle; the last is a spider in a fisherman’s net, which looks like, but is (a bit) bigger than a louse in a hairnet. Some of Roussel’s examples in this list amply demonstrate why his writing was so popular with the Surrealists – though the compliment wasn’t returned; he said he found their work ‘un pur obscur’.
— for a single fried egg, on its own,
With a vigorously salted yolk, the skull, bent in prayer,
Of an old priest with jaundice;
— For that which someone with a cough shows to a throat doctor, [ie. an
An arched cavern, reddened by the setting sun,
With a solitary stalactite;
All of these lists are introduced by a sort of ‘hook’. The ‘hook’ introducing this particular one is an eavesdropper overhearing a conversation about himself; our vanity is such, Roussel goes on to note, that even when we hear our large faults enumerated, it’s as if we fall under a spell that that makes us likely to mistake big things for little things: a porthole for a monocle; a guillotine for a cigar-cutter; an alligator by a sun-umbrella for a lizard by a mushroom. And so on. And so on.
There is no real reason why any of these lists should ever end. In Canto I the dominant list is introduced by someone having his photo taken, who wonders if, even if he keeps as still as he can, he will end up coming out blurred. At this Roussel breaks in: ‘((((Tels se demandent: - / ((((Such also wonder: -’, and we get 54 instances of people – and things – in comparable states of wondering; a lamppost if the three-headed dog Cerberus would sniff it with all three of its noses before urinating on it; a wall being battered by a loose shutter during a storm, what it is being punished for; an animal-tamer being eaten by a wild beast if his mourning widow will still be strictly in black (sans gris ni mauve) a year on; hot milk that has been left in the pot, if it will be poured with or without its skin.
It occurred to me that that Roussel’s lists, though undoubtedly the product of a very singular imagination, could actually also be the basis for quite useful and interesting writing school exercises. Just as Joe Brainard’s ‘I Remember’ format is widely employed to stimulate autobiographical prose pieces, wouldn’t the ‘Such Also Wonder’, say, work as an inspiring format? Such also wonder:
the bic pen-cap, how often it will be used
to clean the writer’s ear; the child’s tooth
under the pillow, if fairies really exist…
Like ‘le très special procédé (the very special method) that he used to write his novels and plays and posthumously explained in the essay ‘Comment j’ai écrit certains de mes livres’ (see the note on p. 233 of this edition of Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique), the special methods Roussel developed in this, his final poem, might also, or so it seems to me, prove useful for later writers.