Raymond Roussel  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Raymond Roussel (Paris, January 20, 1877 - Palermo, July 14, 1933) was a French poet, novelist, playwright, musician, chess enthusiast, neurasthenic, and drug addict. Although unpopular during his lifetime, his work has exerted a profound influence on avant-garde groups of 20th century French literature. His most direct influence in the English speaking world was on the New York School of poets. His best-known works are Impressions of Africa and Locus Solus.



Roussel was the third and last child in his family, with a brother Georges and sister Germaine. In 1893, at age 15, he was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire for piano. A year later, he inherited a substantial fortune from his deceased father and began to write poetry to accompany his musical compositions. At age 17, he wrote Mon Âme, a long poem published three years later in Le Gaulois. By 1896, he had commenced editing his long poem La Doublure when he suffered a mental crisis. After the poem was published on June 10 1897 and was completely unsuccessful, Roussel began to see the psychiatrist Pierre Janet. In subsequent years, his inherited fortune allowed him to publish his own works and mount luxurious productions of his plays. He wrote and published some of his most important work between 1900 and 1914, and then from 1920 to 1921 traveled around the world. He continued to write for the next decade, but when his fortune finally gave out, he made his way to a hotel in Palermo, where he died of a barbiturate overdose in 1933. He is buried in Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.


Roussel's most famous works are Impressions of Africa and Locus Solus, both written according to formal constraints based on homonymic puns. Roussel kept this compositional method a secret until the publication of his posthumous text, How I Wrote Certain of My Books.


Raymond Roussel was unpopular during his lifetime and critical reception of his works was almost unanimously negative. Nevertheless, he was admired by the Surrealist group and other avant-garde writers, particularly Michel Leiris and Marcel Duchamp. He began to be rediscovered in the late 1950s, by the Oulipo and Alain Robbe-Grillet. His most direct influence in the English speaking world was on the New York School of poets; John Ashbery, Harry Mathews, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch briefly edited a magazine called Locus Solus after his novel. French theorist Michel Foucault's only book-length work of literary criticism is on Roussel.

Selected works

  • 1897 Mon âme, a poem (revised 1894)
  • 1897 La Doublure, a novel in verse
  • 1900 La Seine, a novel in verse
  • 1904 La vue, Le concert and La source, poems
  • 1910 Impressions d’Afrique (Impressions of Africa), a novel, later turned into a play
  • 1914 Locus Solus, a novel
  • 1925 L'étoile au front, a play
  • 1926 La Poussière de soleil, a play
  • 1932 Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique (New Impressions of Africa), a poem of four cantos with 59 drawings
  • 1935 Comment j'ai écrit certain de mes livres (How I Wrote Certain of my Books, 1995, ISBN 1-878972-14-6), translated by Trevor Winkfield, contains a cross-section of his major writings, including Roussel's essay on how he composed his books, the first chapter of each of Impressions d’Afrique and Locus Solus, the fifth act of a play, the third canto of New Impressions of Africa and all 59 of its drawings, and the outline for a novel Roussel apparently never wrote.
  • 1935 Parmi les noirs (Among the Blacks), a story first published in Comment j'ai écrit certain de mes livres, has been republished (Among the Blacks: Two Works (1988, ISBN 0-939691-02-7) with an essay by Ron Padgett.

See also

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