New Impressions of Africa

Paul Grimstad writes:

‘I have travelled a great deal,’ Raymond Roussel wrote towards the end of his life, ‘but from all these travels I never took anything for my books.’ It’s an odd thing to hear from the author of Impressions d’Afrique (1910) and Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique (1932). But it makes sense when you consider some of the ‘impressions’ he recorded in his journal during his first visit to Egypt in 1906: ‘Crossed the Nile by boat – Hired donkeys – Went to see the Valley of the Kings – Cold lunch – sun – heat.’ When Roussel later toured Europe in the comfort of a custom-built roulotte – a kind of luxury truck, which caught the attention of both Mussolini and the pope – he barely got around to looking out the window for fear of losing writing time in the vehicle’s onboard atelier. His 1920 trip to Tahiti was taken over entirely by his need to visit spots mentioned in a novel by one of his heroes, Pierre Loti. Of course his family’s wealth had something to do with all this, but it mostly had to do with Roussel’s freakish gift for preventing the actual world from touching the world he carried inside him. Most of the knowledge we have of Roussel’s temperament comes from Michel Leiris (his father, Eugène, was the Roussel family accountant), who wrote: ‘In all the countries he visited, he saw only what he had put there in advance.’ More recently Nicholas Jenkins put it neatly: Roussel, he wrote, appears ‘to have had no impressions of Africa’.[*]

(LRB 26 April 2012)

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