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How I Wrote Certain of My Books.

You need to know the work of Raymond Roussel (1877-1933) to make sense not only of many contemporary French writers - for this reason, Leon Roudiez's survey French Fiction Revisited begins with a chapter on Roussel before jumping ahead to Duras, Robbe-Grillet, et Cie - but also contemporary American novelists like Harry Mathews and Gilbert Sorrentino and poets like John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch. This new anthology from Exact Change - not to be confused with the book of the same name published by SUN in 1977 - is an ideal Roussel reader. It opens with an introduction by Ashbery (a longtime Roussel scholar), which is followed by Roussel's eye-opening title essay, and then selections from his major works: the novels Impressions of Africa and Locus Solus, the play The Dust of Suns, the long poem New Impressions of Africa, and all the surviving fragments of his unfinished novel, Documents to Serve as an Outline. Also included are the fifty-nine drawings Roussel commissioned to pad out New Impressions of Africa - one look at them and you'll understand how Sorrentino's Under the Shadow works - and an annotated bibliography by the editor that doesn't mince words. (Rayner Heppenstal's critical study of Roussel is described as a "Simpering apologia, not worth the paper it's printed on.")

Roussel's writings themselves are exotic and quirky. In his lifetime they attracted Dadaists and Surrealists - though Roussel was unaware of their aesthetics - and there's a superficial resemblance between some of them and the novels of Ronald Firbank written at the same time, but they more closely resemble the works of his followers, like Mathews's early novels, Kenneth Koch's novel The Red Robins and his narrative poems, and Sorrentino's recent novels. In France, the nouveaux romanciers adapted his tendency to give long, detailed descriptions of inanimate objects and to allow the imaginative manipulation of language to generate form and content, a practice later followed by the OuLiPo school. For his influence alone Roussel deserves to be read, and this nicely designed anthology is the perfect introduction to his work.
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Author:Moore, Steven
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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