(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.)
Raymond Roussel began work on Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique in 1915, that is a year into World War I. He was at the time serving near the front in the Vincennes artillery regiment, and would regularly dispatch copies of work-in-progress back to his business manager, Eugène Leiris (father or Michel), for safekeeping. Did the war play a part in the disruptive poetics of parentheses that he evolved for Nouvelles Impressions? Michel Leiris has described the poem’s use of brackets ‘as a means of making language disintegrate,’ which perhaps encourages us to view it as an experiment comparable to that of, say, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land; that is as reflecting the break up of long-held certainties under the onslaught of the savageries of modernity, and in particular modern warfare. There are even a couple of references to scenes of war – two to a blindfolded army emissary, and one to a machine gun, whose bullets a horse will nobly brave, while a donkey is wounded merely by its packsaddle.
Seventeen years were to elapse, however, between these first drafts of Canto I sent back to Eugène Leiris and the book’s publication in 1932, the year before Roussel died of a drug overdose in a hotel in Palermo at the age of 56. And yet at the end of these seventeen years of steady industry, Nouvelles Impressions ran to only 59 pages, and was therefore less than one eighth the length of its predecessor, in name at least, Impressions d’Afrique, published in 1910 (a new version of which, translated by Mark Polizzotti, is promised from Dalkey Archive later this year).
Roussel, therefore, came up with three ways of fattening up this book, the last he would personally see through the press:
1) He decided to print as a kind of coda a poem he had published in Le Gaulois in 1897, called ‘Mon Ame’ (My Soul). ‘Mon Ame’ is basically about what a great poet Roussel is going to be, and how his work will inspire fanatical devotion from an enormous throng of followers – his Roussellâtres – who will thing of him as like a god. These predictions had, however, proved spectacularly and consistently misguided, for none of Roussel’s books had had anything like the impact or success for which he’d hoped. So he decided to reprint this poem as ‘L’Ame de Victor Hugo’, and claimed in a prefatory note that he’d had a dream in which he saw Victor Hugo writing at his desk, and then read over his shoulder the poem in question. Traces of the original poem, however, remained: he couldn’t bring himself to change a reference to his roussellâtres to hugoâtres, leaving instead a blank followed by lâtres, (‘Sans souci de ces lâtres / Qui me mettent au rang des dieux’); and the poem’s penultimate verse claims:
A cette explosion voisine
De mon génie universel
Je vois le monde qui s’incline
Devant ce nom: Victor Hugo.
At the explosion deriving
From my universal genius
I see the world bow
Before this name: Victor Hugo.
Does Victor Hugo rhyme with universel? No, but it’s not hard to think of a name that does.
2) He decided to leave every verso in the book blank!
3) He commissioned a hack artist called Henri Achille Zo to furnish him with 59 illustrations, one for each page of Nouvelles Impressions. Each of these illustrations relates to a line from the preceding page of poetry, although Zo wasn’t to know this, or even – though he had fulfilled a commission for Roussel before – the name of his employer. Instead he received, via a detective agency called Agence Goron, a set of 59 ‘indications’ or instructions for 59 drawings. These instructions are not to be thought of as captions, for they were not included in the original Lemerre edition, and only came to light after Roussel’s death.
When Zo eventually found out the name of his employer, he at once fired off a letter of remonstrance:
Please allow me to tell you that I bitterly regret the fact you wanted this collaboration to be shrouded in such an impenetrable mystery. These are not the pictures I would have made if I had known I was illustrating Raymond Roussel!
In this letter he also complains that the precision of the instructions he received meant his drawings ‘manquent de liberté, de fantasie’, and he goes on to wish that Roussel had agreed to engage with him in a genuine collaboration: ‘my illustrations... would have been more in harmony with your work if I’d been able to read the text, or had the honour of knowing the personality of the poet.’
Clearly it was the prospect of just this sort of collaboration that Roussel went to such lengths to avoid!