An uncommon amount of Raymond Roussel is in print in English: Mark Ford’s retranslation of New Impressions of Africa from Princeton, and Mark Polizzotti’s version of Impressions of Africa should be out soon from Dalkey Archive. Rounding out the trilogy of Roussel’s big books is a reissue of the Cuningham translation of Locus Solus, originally published by John Calder in 1970, brought back into print by OneWorld Classics, which seems to have enough American distribution that I could buy a copy in Brooklyn. I loaned my original copy of the book out years ago, so I can’t compare the original printing right now; the text has been reset, but no changes are noted to Cuningham’s translation. It’s fantastic that the Calder line is coming back into print, and OneWorld’s books have attractive covers (this one, unfortunately, seems to have been made from a JPEG); however, one always wishes that they’d do a little editorial work.
(One wonders, incidentally, who Rupert Copeland Cuningham might have been: as far as I can tell, this book seems to be the only thing his name was ever attached to. His name appears to be somewhat in flux: more often than not, there’s an extra “n” in Cuningham when he appears in bibliographies (where his translation is praised). There’s no discussion of Cuningham or Cunningham in the Ford or Caradec biographies; while I don’t have the special issue of Bizarre on Roussel, I have most of what’s available on Roussel in English, and it’s odd that the translator never reappears, as almost everyone else connected with Roussel seems to. One might imagine that R. C. C. never actually existed and is a pseudonym; the translation of Chapter 1 of Locus Solus by Harry Mathews that appears in the Exact Change How I Wrote Certain of My Books is decidedly different, John Ashbery must know the answer to this question.)
An introduction wouldn’t hurt; the omission of notes (aside from five by Roussel and two by the translator) seems like a fairly substantial mistake with a book like this, not least for the diction, which remains somewhat extraordinary. What exactly a paving beetle, also known, splendidly as a punner, might look like (especially in Cantarel’s modified form) is not going to be clear to the general audience of today, though they certainly might have been a century ago. One wonders (especially with punner) how the French that Roussel used would compare. The word subtunicle (not subtunical, something very different), only manages to get five hits on Google; it doesn’t make it into the OED, although tunicle does; while Roussel explains what he means by this, annotation would help. The same for colombophile: the OED says the word is French for “pigeon-fancier”; did anyone but Roussel use it to mean a specially thin kind of paper used to write messages to be carried by messenger pigeons? A cursory search of the Internet doesn’t turn it up; a good editor would find this out.
The typesetting is, unfortunately, shoddy. Italicization is applied (to, for example, aqua-micans) capriciously; a more severe error is found in the name of Martial Cantarel’s Siamese cat, “Khóng-dek-lèn,” which has a diacritical over the e in dek of Roussel’s own invention, half of an open semicircle, has been changed into ẵ (Unicode 7861), an e with a breve underneath a tilde, which is a character used in Vietnamese. The Calder edition did this correctly; a recent French edition presents it as a breve under a macron, which is better than a breve and a tilde. As both biographies point out, Roussel wanted an unpronounceable character, not one that might be pronounced by someone who could read Vietnamese; he went to the expense of having the character made specially for his book, and it would be nice if his example could have been followed – five minutes in Fontographer would have done the job. Roussel demands more attention than he’s been given here; probably best to stick with the older edition if you’re looking to buy an English Locus Solus.
That said: it’s fantastic to have Locus Solus so easily accessible in English again. Roussel’s writing remains intractably bizarre, down to the very structure of the book: in each of the seven chapters, Martial Canterel shows his visitors something inscrutably strange, described in exhaustive detail; then Canterel explains how entirely logical the tableau actually is, showing followed by telling. His audience remains entirely passive; even when they are allowed to interact with the tableaux in the case of the seahorse race, Cantarel explains that the results are entirely preordained. The sense of stillness in this book is almost oppressive: the scenes will go on being reenacted again and again, regardless of an audience. Perhaps this is so unnerving because we know that this is what happens every time we re-read a book or re-watch a movie. The house in Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating would seem to be deeply influenced by Locus Solus; I don’t know if anyone’s written about the influence of Roussel on Rivette, though IMDB falsely claims that 36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup is a biopic about Roussel. But Céline and Julie is warm – repetition is a game – while Locus Solus almost radiates coldness, to borrow an image from the book. When Harry Mathews rewrote Roussel in The Conversions, the result is funny; but Locus Solus is deadly serious, even if the situations described are as ridiculous as those in Mathews’s book.
A paragraph near the center of the book might be excerpted for its almost metafictional turn. Here, Cantarel’s process for revivifying the dead is being described; the dead, when brought back to life, re-enact the same scene over and over, and an environment must be made to accommodate them:
During this phase of the investigation Cantarel and his assistants closely surrounded the animated corpse, watching his every movement in order to assist him from time to time when necessary. Indeed the exact reproduction of some muscular effort made in life to raise some heavy object – now absent – entailed a loss of balance which would have caused a fall, but for their prompt intervention. Furthermore, whenever the legs, with only flat ground before them, began to ascend or descend some imaginatry staircase, it was essential to prevent the body falling either forwards or backwards, as the case might be. A quick hand had to be held ready to replace some non-existent wall against which the subject might be about to lean his shoulder, and he would have tended to sit down on thin air from time to time if their arms had not received him. (p. 99)
One imagines Roussel laboriously constructing the situations in this book to fit the results of his procedure; did he expect the reader to guess? Or again at the end of the eighth section of Chapter 4, where François-Charles Cortier hides his confession to his crimes using codes; his son, having deciphered the code and found the confession, feels the word “son of a murderer” branded on his forehead. The reader who knows nothing of Roussel must suspect that something’s up; the informed reader sees Roussel’s breadcrumb trail.
Because of the lack of critical apparatus around this book (aside from the hint of “Roussel’s own uniquely eccentric principles of composition” on the back cover copy), it’s possible that readers are finding this book without any idea of how Roussel wrote his books. It’s difficult to imagine what such a reader might make of this book. It comes off almost as science fiction in the style of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s L’Eve future: but it’s essentially static. Nothing is being promised for the future: at best, the future seems to be endless replay of the past. The text of this book feels almost like being in the company of the insane: the hyperdetail about subjects that makes no sense to the outside world; the sense that the story’s being told regardless – maybe in spite of – whoever might be listening. Henry Darger’s scenes of girls and endless battles and over-regard for the weather aren’t that far away, in some sense; reading Locus Solus one can’t help but notice how many casually insane people are involved. But Roussel’s work is so intricately put together: although a scene in first description appears to be entirely random, every element is shown to be there for a reason. The precision is almost machine-like; there’s a coldness to this book that still chills. Even if one didn’t know about Roussel’s procedure, it might be sensed: something still pumps away deep inside this book.