Resurrecting Raymond Roussel, the “Proust of Dreams”

In the New York Times, Holland Cotter reviews the debut exhibit at the new Galerie Buchholz in New York which is “giving us something wonderful that we haven’t had before: a retrospective of the French writer Raymond Roussel (1877-1933).”  The brilliant and bizarre Roussel, of course, served as a pivotal influence on the poets of the New York School.

As David Lehman recounts the story in his book The Last Avant-Garde:

In Paris in 1950 Kenneth Koch had gone to a famous Paris bookshop — the librarie José Corti on the rue de Médicis across from the Luxembourg Gardens — and asked the owner to recommend an unusual French writer, the stranger the better.  ‘What’s really exciting and crazy?’ he asked.  ‘I’ve read Surrealism.’  ‘Have you read Roussel?’ The man handed him a faded yellow book containing Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique (1928), a long poem in four cantos, each of which consists of a single sentence expanded to fantastic length by an accordion system of parentheses within parentheses.  Koch brought the book back to America and lent it to Ashbery, who felt an immediate rapport with the eccentric whom Jean Cocteau had dubbed ‘the Proust of dreams.'”

Ashbery was so taken with Roussel that several years later he embarked on researching a possible doctoral dissertation on the writer.  Although he never completed the dissertation, Ashbery did publish several important pieces on Roussel’s work that (as Lehman points out) “contributed mightily to the revitalization of Roussel’s reputation in France (where he was neglected) and in the United States (where he was unknown).”  By the early 1960s, Ashbery and Harry Mathews had even borrowed the name Locus Solus (the title of Roussel’s novel) for the little magazine they founded, which would become the house journal for the New York School of poetry.  Koch, Ashbery, Mathews, and other New York School poets translated Roussel’s work and spread the word about its charms and mysteries.

Cotter fills in some background on Roussel:

Born into the Parisian beau monde, as a child Roussel had Marcel Proust for a neighbor; as an adult, he befriended Jean Cocteau when the two were patients in drug rehab. Rich, gay, habitually solitary, Roussel developed a literary mode in poetry, fiction and drama based on linguistic ingenuity and the use of super-realism to lift off into fantasy. Although his work was met with public scorn at the time — Roussel was crushed and died by suicide — it has been hugely influential to artists and writers since. Marcel Duchamp and Michel Foucault claimed him as a liberating hero. Max Ernst and Joseph Cornell revered him. The poet John Ashbery has written brilliantly about him.

This show — organized by Mr. Buchholz, the art historian Christopher Müller and the Roussel scholar François Piron — an archival exercise in literary and art-world ephemera. It pieces together Roussel’s elusive private life from rare surviving images (photographs of his adored mother; a unisex childhood portrait of the writer) and personal effects (treasured editions of Jules Verne novels; a cookie that he saved from a landmark literary lunch and enshrined like a relic). It traces the path of his writing career through often self-financed publications and calamitous stage presentations. And it concludes with a section demonstrating his continuing influence, on Mr. Ashbery’s poetry and collages, and on artists like Zoe Beloff, Lucy McKenzie and Henrik Olesen.

The selection is scrupulously annotated, and every scrap of information is worth reading. (Although a contemporary art specialist, Mr. Buchholz comes from a background in antiquarian book selling.) If this show were at the Museum of Modern Art, you’d pay to see it and still feel rewarded.

The show will be up until the end of August.  For more on Roussel and his afterlife, including a recent “remix” of Locus Solus by the writer Mark Amerika, see here.

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