An extrahuman tourist

On the strange life and curious travels of Raymond Roussel, avant-garde writer and voyager of the imagination. By Thomas Roueché

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Roussel spent nearly the whole of 1920 travelling the world alone. He stopped in Tahiti 30 years after Pierre Loti, one of the writers he admired most, had visited. On the previous page, Roussel stands next to the grave of the man who inspired one of Loti’s characters in his novel Le Mariage de Loti. Right, his Tahitian guide poses provocatively. Roussel noticed with delight that the Fautaua Waterfall in Tahiti, painted by Loti and under which he had himself photographed, lay precisely at the antipodes of the falls in the Bois de Boulogne, near his house in Neuilly. Both photographs courtesy Galerie Buchholz, New York.
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Above, left, a portrait of Roussel as a child in the 1880s, courtesy Galerie Buchholz, New York. Right, portrait of Raymond Roussel by Madeleine Lemaire (ca. 1885), courtesy Galerie Buchholz, New York. Roussel’s mother commissioned this portrait from Lemaire, a society painter known for her illustrations for Marcel Proust. In 1932, Roussel had this childhood portrait published in the press, rather than a current picture of himself as a 55-year-old man. 


Raymond Roussel, author of Impressions d’Afrique, Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique and Locus Solus, was born in Paris in 1877, into wealth and luxury. His stockbroker father died when he was 17, leaving the family with a large inheritance. Roussel was close to his mother, Marguerite, whose way of life was an extreme embodiment of the haut-bourgeois taste of the era: the family’s houses on Boulevard Malesherbes and in Neuilly were filled with her armies of Dresden porcelain, faience pottery and fans. Marguerite encouraged her son to travel, to Nice for carnival and further afield, yet Roussel, who finished his first book aged 20, said at the end of his life, “I have travelled a great deal, but from all these travels I never took anything for my books”.

Roussel’s imagination was rather formed by the middlebrow literary classics of his day, the heroic fantasies of Pierre Loti, Jules Verne and Camille Flammarion, which cultivated in him a taste for the fantastic, and dominated his reading throughout his life. Jean Cocteau writes that upon meeting Roussel in a maison de santé where the two of them were drying out from drug addiction (opium for Jean, barbiturates for Raymond), the neurasthenic writer, whom Cocteau saw as possessing “genius in its pure state”, astonished him by asking why his works weren’t as famous as Loti’s.

“Whatever I wrote was surrounded by rays of light,” he later told his psychiatrist Pierre Janet, who recorded Roussel’s comments in his book, De l’angoisse à l’extase. “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.” Roussel was absolutely convinced of his genius: “I was the equal of Dante and of Shakespeare… no author has been, or ever can be greater than I, although no one is aware of this yet today.”

Yet his books, all of which were self-published and produced in bouts of ecstatic reveries, were and remain almost impenetrably complex and esoteric, even for other authors. In 1897, the young Roussel sent a copy of his first book, La Doublure, to Marcel Proust, and received a withering response: “You carry without faltering the weight of a formidable poetic apparatus… you write, without losing breath, a hundred verses where another writes 10 lines.” The public agreed, almost completely ignoring Impressions d’Afrique, which Roussel published in 1900, Locus Solus (1914) and Nouvelles impressions d’Afrique (1932).

For Roussel the writer, however, Impressions was a turning point; his discovery of a form of homophonic play that constructed sentences made up of words with double meanings convinced him he had “found his path”. His first prose novel, it describes in meticulous detail a series of performances put on by a group of Europeans held hostage by King Talou VII, the ruler of an imaginary African country, Ponukélé. It also manages to surpass even Loti’s Orientalist romances or the invented contraptions of Verne in its complete dislocation from reality. Its sequel, Nouvelles impressions d’Afrique, a long poem, hides meaning and sense in puns and multiplying parentheses. Both books were seen as proof of what many thought: Roussel seemed “to have had no impressions of Africa”.

Yet Roussel had been travelling since an early age – first with his mother, and later with Charlotte Dufrène, a companion she procured for her eccentric, homosexual son. The trips were not quests for local knowledge but rather literary pilgrimages, allowing Roussel to go in search of the tombs of people who had inspired Loti’s heroes and heroines. For example, in Constantinople, the backdrop for Aziyadé, one of Loti’s best-known books, a pseudo-biographical Orientalist romance between the narrator, Loti, and the eponymous harem girl, Roussel wrote to Dufrène of plucking a rose from the tomb of “you know who” – Aziyadé. That some critics have suggested Aziyadé tells covertly the story of a homosexual love affair between Loti and his manservant Samuel is an irony that slots neatly into the parentheses that lie between reality and fiction in Roussel’s journeying. Roussel encased his trophy rose in glass.

Following the death of his mother in 1911, Roussel inherited the family’s Neuilly estate and a staff of 16. He proceeded to burn through every centime of his bequest by creating a life of artifice, cushioned from reality by extreme wealth. His biographer Mark Ford writes of him consuming all his meals in a single sitting: in marathons that lasted from 12.30pm to 5.30pm, breakfast would be followed directly by lunch and supper. His cook noted in his memoirs that most of it returned to the kitchens uneaten.

This desire to closet himself in the obscene luxury of his inherited wealth, and his compulsiveness – his friend Michel Leiris writes of his “phobias in relation to food” – sat oddly with the long journeys he continued to make. This contradictory tendency was perhaps resolved by Roussel’s invention, in 1924, of the roulotte automobile or maison roulante, an invention that stands alongside his literary works in its ingenuity. This early motor home was nearly 10 metres long and fitted with a bed, bathroom and studio, as well as quarters for the driver. Roussel toured Europe, famously barely looking out of the window, so engrossed was he in work in the onboard office. When the roulotte arrived in Rome it was admired by Mussolini and left a papal nuncio “absolutely amazed”. 

His major work of these later years was Locus Solus, a dark and troubling novel that speaks to the enclosure and sterile amorality that increasingly shaped his life after his mother’s death. In the novel, a gentleman, Martial Cantarel, shows guests around his estate, displaying the astonishing mechanical and magical wonders he owns, eventually culminating in a show by zombies resurrected to act out events from the guests’ lives. Janet, Roussel’s psychiatrist, used the character’s name to refer to his patient in one of his books: “Martial has a very interesting conception of literary beauty; a work must contain nothing that is real, no observation of the world or of minds, nothing but completely imaginary combinations: these are already ideas of an extrahuman world.” Perhaps in Locus Solus, the realities of a lonely, closeted bachelor surrounded by staff had begun to shine through the daydreams. In 1933 he made his final journey, with Dufrène, to Palermo, where he staged his suicide by overdosing on barbiturates in the hotel where Parsifal was written.

Locus Solus and Impressions were turned into plays, the former staged with costumes by the fashion designer Paul Poiret; both met with boos and rotten vegetables from audiences. It was then that the Surrealists took him up, the first in a long line of writers and artists (notably the Oulipians and nouveaux romanciers) who admired his work: Cocteau, Robert Desnos, Philippe Soupault, Francis Picabia, Duchamp, Breton, Louis Aragon, Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Foucault, Italo Calvino and John Ashbery.

Journeying with Raymond Roussel through the bizarre and inhuman beauty of his work, we find a compelling world of restraint and release that, like our own, offers up its secrets before frustratingly withdrawing them. It is a world that both disappoints our lust for knowledge and provides us new vistas of meaning. §


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Victorien Sardou, The Garden of Zarathustra (1860), courtesy Galerie Buchholz, New York. At the theatre, Roussel “loved above all the dramas of Victorien Sardou”, noted Michel Leiris. A successful author of the late 19th century, Sardou (1831-1908) helped bring Sarah Bernhardt to stardom through a series of leading roles in his plays, which mixed popular spectacle with sadistic violence. Sardou’s brief but intense involvement with Spiritism in the 1860s (in the same period as Victor Hugo and Flammarion) led him to produce extraordinary drawings dictated by great spirits such as Zarathustra, which depict the spirits’ houses and gardens on the planet Jupiter.

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Left, a postcard of Max Ernst’s 1920 collage, Le Rossignol chinois, courtesy Galerie Buchholz, New York. Roussel bought the collage from the artist’s first major show, in 1926, and later sold it to Tristan Tzara. Bottom right, an astonishing example of Roussel’s fetishism is this star-shaped glass box that he designed to preserve a biscuit he brought back from a lunch with the writer and astronomer Camille Flammarion in 1923. Collection Pierre Leroy, Paris. Shortly after Roussel’s death, Georges Bataille found it by chance at a flea market in Paris. This box went on to inspire the Surrealists and, notably, Joseph Cornell, whose boxes and collages often contain relics of the poets, painters and actresses he adored. Top right, one of Cornell’s works, a collage from the 1960s, Untitled, courtesy Mnuchin Gallery, New York.

Roussel _5The roulotte automobile in which Roussel would make several journeys around Europe between 1924 and 1926. He advertised his camping-car prototype widely, showed it at the Car Salon in Paris, printed photographs of it as postcards and published a two-page ad in La Revue du Touring Club de France, a magazine dedicated to the leisure-car industry. La Revue du Touring Club de France, No. 381, August 1926 (from the collection of John Ashbery, courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery and the Flow Chart Foundation). 

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Raymond Roussel’s mother Marguerite on the beach in Dieppe, Normandy (ca. 1900). In 1989, nine trunks of Roussel’s personal archive were discovered in a storage unit in Paris. Among the voluminous manuscripts, there were notebooks, personal belongings and many photographs: 200 negatives, both film and glass plates. Right, Raymond Roussel’s mother Marguerite and his nephew Robert de Breteuil on the beach in Dieppe, Normandy (ca. 1900), all photographs this page courtesy Galerie Buchholz, New York. Roussel, as a wealthy idler, took most of his pictures during family holidays, at his house in Neuilly, in Nice and on the beaches of Dieppe in Normandy where he would go with his mother, sister Germaine and nephew Robert de Breteuil. 

Roussel _7_2The garden of the Roussel family house in Neuilly (ca. 1900). These images reveal an amateur’s touch, particularly in Roussel’s special attraction to babies and dogs. These small beings, centered in the image, appear to be surrounded by a theatrical, dreamlike world where long dresses and hands loom large in the frame. Right, Raymond Roussel, Marguerite Roussel and unknown woman playing with dogs, Paris (ca. 1900), all photographs this page courtesy Galerie Buchholz, New York.

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Roussel’s grave is not on the official map. A discreet black marble tomb engraved with “Famille Roussel” conceals 32 divisions, although Roussel’s coffin lies alone, the other 31 spaces remaining empty. In his will, he suggested that members of his nephew and heir’s extended family could join him in his final home. Roussel originally had grander ideas, having commissioned the undertaker Lecreux Frères to design a black and white marble mausoleum that featured him standing in front of his library wearing a winter coat, book in hand, modelled on a photograph taken of him when he was 19. Although Père Lachaise is full of these types of monuments, which were not unusual at the end of the 19th century, the grandiose Frères design remained unrealised after Roussel’s suicide by drug overdose in Palermo on July 14, 1933. Lecreux Frères, Sketch of an unrealised tombstone of Raymond Roussel at the Père-Lachaise cemetery (ca. 1932), courtesy Galerie Buchholz, New York. 

Thanks to Alex Zachary, Galerie Buchholz ( and Mark Ford.