Australian Marginalia: Encounters with Australia in Raymond Roussel, John Ashbery and Georges Perec

1 November 2019

Roussel stayed with the ship as it sailed to Melbourne, arriving on 24 August. The famous postcard was from a room at the Menzies, the same hotel Anthony Trollope and Mark Twain had ‘put (themselves) up in’ when they visited in 1871 and 1895, respectively (Trollope 56). With the postcard, Roussel sent Dufrène a candle-powered heater, purchased during a layover in Bombay to fulfil her request of a ‘rare’ souvenir from his journey (Vitrac 82). He wrote of his desire to try kangaroo soup, ‘a great Australian speciality,’ joining a long line of sightseers with an appetite for local fauna, dating back at least as far as 1792; Mary Anne Parker – ‘Australia’s first tourist’ – dined on emu meat with Governor Arthur Phillip, reporting a ‘taste somewhat like beef’ (Parker 93-4). For Roussel, Australia’s unique cuisine is tied to antipodean logic of the seasons: he marvels at the cool August weather and fresh oysters – contravening an old French adage against eating shellfish in the summer, or ‘les mois sans r’ (mai, juin, juillet, août – the months without an ‘r’).

These pleasures may seem minor, but Roussel appears to have genuinely enjoyed his time in Australia. He extended his stay beyond an intended departure date of 9 October to visit Tasmania; and from Launceston, he wrote to Dufrène: ‘there are no more Tasmanian Aborigines. Queen Trouguenene (sic) was the last to survive and she died fifteen years ago’ (Caradec 176). For Roussel, the facts of Australian genocide register as little more than melancholy postscripts in his travel guide. He had heard that Truganini’s bones, which were exhumed in 1878 under the pretence of scientific research, were on public display at the Tasmanian Museum, Hobart. One cannot overstate the scale of these practices in Australia: it was only as recently as 2002 that Rodney Dillon, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission’s Tasmanian representative, succeeded in repatriating Truganini’s skin and hair from the Royal College of Surgeons, London. With faint awareness of colonisation, Roussel nonetheless stumbles upon the following reversal. His novel Locus Solus (1914) imagines a tribe of Indigenous Australian who believe that the soul survives death by concealing itself in the second left rib, which serves as inspiration to a grave robber, who desecrates William Shakespeare’s tomb in the hopes of coaxing from the bard a posthumous play.

From Sydney, Roussel joined an ocean liner bound for New Zealand and Tahiti. He returned to New South Wales on 1 December and was briefly detained by police (having misplaced his visa documents somewhere in the Pacific) before travelling up the east coast to Brisbane. Australia would turn out to be one of the more active legs of Roussel’s trip. In late December, when Dufrène wrote to him to ask about the sublime sunsets he must be experiencing as he left Australia behind, Roussel replied that he had seen none. He was writing in his cabin and had not been out for days.

Roussel was in the midst of at least two drafts in 1920: La Poussière de soleils (The Dust of Suns), a play which premiered at Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin in 1925; and Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique (New Impressions of Africa), a long and intricate poem he had been writing on and off since 1915. Both works feature numerous exotic settings – La Poussière, set in Guyana, a country Roussel had never actually visited, includes stage directions for twenty-two set changes – and yet, no Australian scenes are to be found in either. In Canto III of Nouvelles Impressions, Roussel writes at length about the ‘impressions’ of a fraudulent travel writer who publishes books on foreign countries without ever having visited them (200). This ‘faux explorateur’ (false explorer) is an antithetical vestige of Roussel’s strident claim in ‘Comment j’ai écrit’: ‘from all these travels I never took anything for my books.’

‘Comment j’ai écrit’ has acted as a beacon for many readers navigating the thickets of Roussel’s fiction. Ashbery echoes the essay’s central claim – ‘my imagination accounts for everything’ – when he writes: ‘the facts of (Roussel’s) life play such an infinitesimal role that one is (…) forced to read just one’s preconceived notions of what writing is; here it is so unlike daily reality as to seem a separate planet’ (Other 96). The bizarre, disjointed, maddeningly evasive nature of Roussel’s writing is made legible – if not entirely explicable – by self-definitions provided in ‘Comment j’ai écrit.’ Where tools traditional to literary criticism falter, the author steps in to provide a uniquely home-spun theory of the work. Ashbery, who edited, introduced and translated numerous works by Roussel, would come to regret his hand in publishing ‘À la Havane’ (‘In Havana’), a short story supressed from posthumous anthologies at Roussel’s request, not because the American poet arrived at new conclusions about the document’s quality, but because ‘it is impossible to know what Roussel would have understood by terms such as “quality” (…) and I should have realized this.’ In hindsight Ashbery believed he was wrong to have trespassed the author’s commanding self-appraisal.

Of course, not all readers have been so willing to abdicate critical judgement. In a chapter of Prothesis (1995), the translator and theorist David Wills punctures the vacuum ‘Comment j’ai écrit’ creates around the work, writing that: ‘Roussel should be resisted when he concludes that the literary object represents a sort of ideality, confined to language (…) without reference’ (Wills 265-6). Wills draws attention to a little discussed passage from ‘Comment j’ai écrit’: ‘I used anything at hand. For instance, there was a well-known advertisement for some apparatus called “Phonotypia”; this supplied me with “fausse note tibia” (wrong note tibia)’ (255; Roussel How I Wrote 13). He was thus provided the character sketch for a shipwrecked musician, Lelgoualch, who plays a bone-flute fashioned from his own amputated leg (Roussel Impressions 67). Significant here is evidence of Roussel acting as a bowerbird, rather than a cloistered savant, happily gathering ‘anything at hand’ as raw material to feed through the procedure and into the creative work.

The Melbourne postcard provides further key evidence in Wills’ argument. He imagines Roussel in his hotel room: ‘Sitting in the sun and in the radiated warmth of the candle heater (…) Roussel invariably falls into it, into the space of his own words, making this little postcard as much a model for his books as anything else he could say, do or write’ (Wills 266). All moments of writing are equal, Wills tells us, in that each emanates in and from the varied qualities of language, which is the author’s final subject. Wills furnishes Roussel’s hotel dresser with a row of barbiturates and painkillers, pausing on each phonically suggestive name: Sonérl, Veriane, Declonol. Roussel’s debilitating prescription drug habit, to which he succumbed when he was fifty three, provides grounds for Wills’ most radical claim: ‘(it was) an overdose of words that constitutes Roussel’s writing and finally causes his death in Palermo in 1933’ (251, my emphasis). Rich in imagined ambience, it is in the factual details that Wills’ account falls short: he dates the postcard to August 1921, almost ten months after Roussel had left the country.

The poetic licence Wills takes when reading Roussel aligns him with other critics, ‘(f)rom Jean Cocteau to Foucault and beyond,’ observed by Ashbery in Other Traditions, ‘who (in) discuss(ing) Roussel tend almost unconsciously to write about themselves’ (49). Yet, when Ashbery is faced with the same question – ‘What does Roussel mean for me?’ – he struggles to settle upon an answer: ‘I feel enormous empathy (for Roussel), though I can’t say that reading him ever directly inspired me to write’ (5). As he explains, the poets discussed in Other Traditions – John Clare, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, John Wheelwright, Laura Riding and David Shubert – represent productive precursors; they are poets ‘whom one reads habitually in order to get started’ (5). Roussel, by contrast, is a more complicated antecedent: ‘(his) influence came in a curiously backward and indirect way, so that I was only conscious of it much later, and am still discovering traces of it I hadn’t realised were there’ (5). This cryptic inspiration has to do with the dichotomy that we have been tracing in Roussel’s fiction: Ashbery found in Roussel confirmation that life and art exist in separate domains (‘my imagination accounts for everything’) yet he also discovered a writer who shared his enthusiasm for the stuff of the world, appropriating, collaging and transforming any word or image that happened to be ‘close at hand.’

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About Brendan Casey

Brendan Casey is a doctoral candidate in the English and Theatre Studies program, University of Melbourne, researching Australian poetry and fiction through a postnational or ‘unAustralian’ lens. His research focuses on ‘literary visitors’ and their writing about Australia. He has published essays on Australian poetry, art, music and literature in Meanjin, Memo Review, Difficult Fun and elsewhere.

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