It’s almost eight decades since Raymond Roussel dissolved in a solution of barbiturates and despondency, but only now has the French writer received the acknowledgment of a major exhibition: Locus Solus. Impresiones de Raymond Roussel, which runs until 27 February in Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofia. It covers the writer’s formative influences, the erratic course of his privileged, eccentric existence and his comparably yet separately bizarre works, including La Doublure, Impressions d’Afrique, Locus Solus and L’étoile au front. It also embraces the output of writers, filmmakers and visual artists who have plunged their buckets into the deep, pungent well of Roussel’s imagination. But his bequest still remains largely unknown to the wider world, such that the sight of Raymond Roussel’s name draped over a big-time, grown-up institution like the Reina Sofia feels thrillingly subversive; improbable, at the very least.
And once inside, there is an electric charge in confronting the iconography of Roussel’s cult, such as the original prints of photos otherwise known only from grainy reproductions. They include the classic image of the writer at 18 – rich, handsome and confident – an image he insisted should accompany all his published works. There are first editions inscribed to famous friends as well as original manuscripts, effusively reworked. Roussel’s flamboyant RV is sadly nowhere to be seen but there are other souvenirs from his extensive travels. Though the writer himself never recorded the details, it appears Roussel, gay and wealthy as he was, was frequently in flight from blackmailers.
It is unlikely that the museum will be erecting crowd-control barriers at any point in the show’s run, but if renown were measured by the aggregated prestige rather than numerical total of one’s followers, Raymond Roussel would be a near-household name. André Breton named Roussel, along with Lautréamont, “the greatest magnetizer of modern times”, Marcel Duchamp called him “he who points the way”; for Dalí he was simply a “genius”. Other members of Roussel’s exalted claque of admirers included Robert de Montesquiou, André Gide and Jean Cocteau, who met Roussel in rehab. All of them recognized Roussel as a singular creative force without precedent or equal in French literature; “el loco solo” as one Spanish reviewer describes him.
The very first piece in the exhibition, Jacques Carelman’s large-scale 1975 installation Le Diamant, serves as a warning of the wonders to come. It is a rock-mounted prism enclosing a freakish assortment of figures and objects, moving by mechanical means. However it is not a product of the artist’s imagination, but of Roussel’s; Carelman is merely transcribing, rendering a descriptive passage in Roussel’s Locus Solus as literally as possible.
Roussel’s writings initially appeared as vanity publications which sold in miserably small quantities. The Surrealists were the first of several 20th century avant-garde movements that passed Roussel’s vividly obtuse books to each other like samizdat. While grateful for their interest, Roussel felt little kinship with Breton and his cohorts and kept his distance.
Locus Solus illustrates how surprisingly conventional Roussel’s tastes were. His holy trinity of literary heroes – Pierre Loti, Jules Verne, Victor Hugo – were names that wouldn’t have been out of place on any bourgeois bookshelf of the era. When Roussel wanted his works illustrated, he ignored the Surrealist artists who craved his patronage and turned instead to stolid academician Henri-Achille Zo (although in Roussel’s typically eccentric fashion he used a detective agency as an intermediary). Zo’s vigorously hatched Boy’s Own-style illustrations appear highly subversive when applied to Roussel’s delirious scenarios (a dissonance later exploited by Glen Baxter), but Roussel had no such sedition in mind.
Playbills and cast photos allude to one of the strangest byways of Roussel’s career. His unrequited yearning for the boulevard’s approval and wilful refusal to acknowledge his writings’ rarefied, niche appeal led him to stage his written works. A glance at the original novel of Impressions d’Afrique, as anti-theatrical as the Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Boudoir, should have been sufficient to scare anyone off. It contains no dialogue and endless descriptive lunacy like the following passage: “Claude retained his human body but his head turned into a wild boar’s. Three objects of different weights, an egg, a glove and a wisp of straw, began jumping from his hands, which uncontrollably and continually tossed them in the air and caught them again. Like a juggler who, instead of commanding his knickknacks, was at their mercy, the wretched fellow ran in a straight line, prey to a kind of dizzying magnetic pull.”
With great wealth and no need to court the mainstream, Roussel nonetheless attempted to do just that. Audiences at the 1911 run of Impressions d’Afrique, expecting a tale of adventure and exoticism, were utterly bemused by what actually transpired – often loudly and demonstratively so. A later adaptation of Locus Solus was even heckled by Roussel’s own co-writer, and just as vociferously supported by Breton, Aragon, Michel Leiris and other partisans. But in contrast to the likes of Antonin Artaud or Alfred Jarry, provocation was not the aim of Roussel’s theatrical works.
So what was the aim of the demented busywork which constituted Roussel’s storylines? Were one to assess Roussel’s oeuvre, clipboard in hand, none of the conventional narrative motives would apply. The tick boxes against psychological investigation, philosophical enquiry, humorous diversion, momentary escapism, spiritual uplift, moral instruction, sentimental reflection – all of them would remain stubbornly unchecked. The Surrealists might have detected an unmediated transcription from an unfathomable and unfathomably disordered mind, but as those manuscripts show, Roussel was in fact a fastidious self-editor. His work is unquestionably bizarre, but it was not driven by the Surrealists’ desire to disrupt reason and foment revolution, nor was it a despairing Kafkaesque amplification of everyday absurdity.
And so you are left with nothing but a succession of mind-curlingly complicated, nonsensical, self-referential events, a closed world adhering to its own internal logic where tortures, ecstasies, trifles and miracles are all served up in the same crisp, affectless prose. In the words of Cocteau, one of Roussel’s most insightful supporters: “He peoples emptiness”.
That there had been method in Roussel’s madness all along was revealed by the posthumously published essay, How I Wrote Certain of My Books. It detailed the writer’s use of wordplay, a kind of Chinese Whispers which relied on double meanings not to punningly elicit a moment’s wry amusement, but to open up new narrative potential. But often that process merely defined the starting point and the destination; the route from one to the other was still governed by the GPS of Roussel’s formidable imagination.
Locus Solus calls on a rich store of visual artists who drew directly or indirectly from Roussel. Each of them illuminates a different aspect of the writer’s carnival of exotic arcana: Joseph Cornell’s self-contained galaxies of private wonder, Max Ernst’s nightmarish conjunctions of banalities, Francis Picabia’s anti-logical machines, Giorgio de Chirico’s guilelessly-rendered dreamscapes.
Unsurprisingly, given the Reina Sofia’s important Dalí collection and the Spanish artist’s devotion to Roussel, he is well represented here. Dalí’s use of visual double meanings mirrors Roussel’s wordplay, his “paranoiac-critical” method a reflection of Roussel’s self-imposed process. As well as canvases and sculptures, Locus Solus offers a projection of the film Impressions de la Haute Mongolie (subtitled Hommage à Raymond Roussel), in which Dalí works through his unrestrained hero worship.
If anything, Roussel’s influence on Marcel Duchamp was even greater. Duchamp acknowledged the writer as a key trigger for the most famous of his non-readymade pieces, The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (here represented by the Stockholm replica). Even Duchamp’s premature abandonment of art for chess was apparently inspired by witnessing Roussel playing the game in a Paris café.
Roussel continued to move through the underground after World War II, but his influence mutated. No longer was he regarded as a gatekeeper of dreams. Instead it was his emphasis on process and surface which spoke to conceptual artists, Structuralists and the nouveau romanciers. American poet John Ashbery and associates established a literary journal named Locus Solus in 1962 while Michel Foucault’s book-length study of Roussel the following year was pivotal in animating scholarly discussion of a writer still regarded by many as a mere wealthy eccentric. Allen Ruppersberg’s 1979 set of drawings Raymond Roussel Falls to the Floor echoes Roussel’s fetishistic, almost autistic focus on objects.
In the tomb-like vaults of the Reina Sofia, the exhibition feels somehow elegiac, fixing Roussel in the 20th century rather than pulling him through to the 21st. There is a handful of post-millennial works, such as Cristina Iglesias’s Impressions d’Afrique II, a room-size thicket of forbidding verbiage in cast metal. But they appear as isolated phenomena, included to press a point and not truly indicative of Roussel’s enduring significance for contemporary artists. And so with his influence largely played out, all that’s left is Roussel’s body of work itself, isolated, magnificent, self-enclosed, unique.
The catalogue for Locus Solus is the best single-volume introduction to the life, work and influence of Raymond Roussel. Along with crisp reproductions of photos, letters and manuscripts, it features contemporary critical analysis as well as commentary by supporters such as Duchamp, Breton, Cocteau, Dalí and Foucault. It also offers several extracts from Roussel’s own writings.