So it’s been, what, like five whole days since our last suicidal poet? Sorry to leave you hanging like that. Here, not a moment too soon, is Raymond Roussel, who was born in Paris on this day in 1877.
Roussel’s poetry and novels, of which the most famous is Impressions d’Afrique, are works of incandescent originality which prompted Louis Aragon to name him “President of the Republic of Dreams”. The nuances of Roussel’s dazzling word play are notoriously resistant to translation and even in his native France he was largely ignored in his lifetime and he remains above all a writer’s writer, admired particularly by the Surrealists.
Roussel inherited a major fortune which, apart from leaving him free to write, encouraged the full flowering of his distinctly odd personality, as strange and marvellous as his work (though he was insistent that one did not influence the other). Whether it was his lifelong correspondence with members of the Tahitian royal family, his habit of fasting for days on end or his phobia of tunnels, Roussel boasted a generous portfolio of quirks. For now, just because I can, I’m going to concentrate on just one: his extraordinary RV.
Roussel was an incessant traveller, sometimes following in the footsteps of his idol Pierre Loti, but he wearied of the constant bother of it all. Yes, like Pam Ann he didn’t have bags, he had people, but even servants need to be accommodated and watching them carry your luggage just looks tiring (and Roussel didn’t pack light; he was germ-phobic and rarely wore the same garment twice).
Roussel’s response to this dilemma, displaying the profligate eccentricity which marked much of his life, was to commission the building of what he called an automobile roulotte (or more fancifully “land-yacht”). A remarkable vehicle, it resembled a hearse which had swallowed a large delivery van. In fact it was almost 10 metres long, with room for a salon, bedroom, study and bathroom as well as quarters for three staff.
In 1926 he took it to Rome where he showed it to Mussolini, who was duly impressed (“very simple and very kind” was Roussel’s assessment of the fascist dictator). Roussel also had an audience with Pope Pius XI who showed a keen interest in photos of the vehicle (which Roussel, sadly, wasn’t allowed to drive into the Vatican).
Building and maintaining that kind of rolling stock doesn’t come cheap, to say nothing of a mansion in Neuilly with 16-strong household. Even Roussel’s impressive means couldn’t keep up and in reduced circumstances he repaired to Palermo, where he committed suicide in 1933.