(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. )
Towards the end of Canto IV of Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique, Roussel includes in a list of fires that go out, that of ‘le saint feu du génie’, the holy fire of genius, which is extinguished when age renders its possessor gaga. A five-bracketed disruption on the holy fire of genius adds that it often makes the elect possessor of it ‘so vain / That he finds the real stars in the sky pitiful / In comparison with the new star that shines on his forehead…’ From the moment when he was seized by a conviction of his own genius and the glory for which he was destined while at work on his first long poem, La Doublure, when he was only nineteen, Roussel was sure that he would himself be recognized as one of those who carried the blazing evidence of his genius on his brow. This is how he described his sense of his own literary greatness to the psychologist Pierre Janet, who wrote up Roussel’s case in De l’angoisse à l’extase (1926):
I shall reach immense heights, and am destined for blazing glory… This glory will be evident in every one of my works, and will reflect on all the acts of my life; people will research the way I played prisoners’ base. No author has been,or ever can be greater than I, although no one is aware of this yet today. Well, what can you expect – there are some shells which explode with great difficulty, but when they do explode!... Whatever you may think, there are some who are predestined!
Whatever I wrote was surrounded by rays of light; I used to close the curtains, for I was afraid that the shining rays emanating from my pen might escape into the outside world through even the smallest chink; I wanted suddenly to throw back the screen and light up the world. To leave these papers lying about would have sent out rays of light as far as China, and the desperate crowd would have flung themselves upon my house. But it was in vain I took such precautions, for rays of light were streaming from me and through the walls, I was carrying the sun within myself and could do nothing to impede the tremendous light I was radiating. Each line was repeated in thousands of copies, and I wrote with a thousand flaming pen-nibs. Without a doubt, when the volume appeared, this blinding furnace would be revealed and would illuminate the entire universe, but what no one would believe was that I was carrying it all along within myself.
He even told Janet he felt he was the ‘equal of Shakespeare and Dante’. Needless to say, Roussel was not mobbed on the street on the day of the publication of La Doublure, which attracted almost no attention. Instead, he ‘plummeted to earth from the prodigious heights of glory’, and the depression this caused led him – or, more likely, his mother – to seek Janet’s help.
One of the mysteries of Roussel’s career is his steady belief that his books were likely to become as popular as those of his two great heroes, Jules Verne and Pierre Loti. Even Nouvelles Impressions, a poem unlikely to figure in any bestseller lists, was launched with a well-funded publicity campaign. The Surrealists thought it was great – Dalì called it the ‘most ungraspably poetic’ work of the era, but commercial sales were not strong. Robert Desnos, one of Roussel’s most ardent champions, warned him that these poems ‘sont faits pour l’éternité plus que pour la popularité’. Certainly the demands they make on the reader are considerable, but I can confidently assert that they really do offer a challenge and an experience unique in literature. Although only 59 pages long, they seem to compress an entire lifetime’s involvement in the bizarre and banal ways of the world, and a vast selection of the things, natural and artificial, that make it up, and the different media through which they impinge on us, into an all-accommodating, yet rigorously conceived and executed poetic symphony. They are beautiful, weird, and hilarious, at once a vast casse-tête, or brain-teaser, and an epic journey into the heart of a land where logic and illogic are indistinguishable. One feels, on completing them, rather as one does on completing A la recherche du temps perdu: life is simply not quite the same.