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the Complete Review
the complete review - literature

How I Wrote
Certain of My Books

Raymond Roussel

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To purchase How I Wrote Certain of My Books

Title: How I Wrote Certain of My Books
Author: Raymond Roussel
Genre: various
Written: (1932)
Length: 278 pages
Original in: French
Availability: How I Wrote Certain of My Books - US
How I Wrote Certain of My Books - UK
How I Wrote Certain of My Books - Canada
Comment j'ai écrit certains de mes livres - Canada
Comment j'ai écrit certains de mes livres - France
  • Edited by Trevor Winkfield
  • With an Introduction by John Ashbery
  • Translated by John Ashbery, Harry Mathews, Kenneth Koch, and Trevor Winkfield.
  • Includes the 59 drawings by Henri-A. Zo for Nouvelles Impressions d'Afrique
  • Includes a Bibliography

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Our Assessment:

A- : excellent introduction to the odd man and his odd works

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Rev. of Books . 31/1/1985 Luc Sante

Luc Sante's review refers to a different, earlier edition of this text -- though still Trevor Winkfield's translation.

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The complete review's Review:

       How I Wrote Certain of My Books collects a variety of Roussel's work, including the (in)famous explanatory text that gives the collection its title.
       First comes an introduction by John Ashbery -- indeed, the introduction by John Ashbery, the piece that he wrote in 1961 and first published in Portfolio and ARTnews Annual in 1962 and has been flogging ever since. Is it the most recycled and oft-used contemporary essay currently floating around ? Perhaps not, but sometimes it sure seems that way. (Reading Michel Foucault's study of Roussel, Death and the Labyrinth (see our review), we find there ... the same piece serving as an introduction.)
       The title piece in the collection is a document that was published only after Roussel's death, a literary testament revealing some of what Roussel did in many of his works. His "very special method" mainly involves taking words that sound similar, or that have two different meanings, and building up a literary work based on this. Ashbery discusses it, as does Mark Ford in his excellent Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams (see our review) and as do Michel Foucault and many other Roussel-commentators. Still, Roussel's own explanation is quite detailed and clearly put and gives readers a good idea of what was involved -- and provides many examples.
       As with practically everything about Roussel's writing, something is lost in translation. Specifically, the double-meanings can only be explained with reference to the French original, which are fortunately all included. The non-French speaking reader might not find all this quite so exciting, but Roussel's method and results are perversely fascinating even as presented here, translated and all.
       How I Wrote Certain of My Books is the seminal Rousselian text -- but since it has been so discussed and dissected in the secondary literature (see Ford and Foucault and the rest) isn't all that new. It's still worthwhile, and a nice thing to have access to -- but there's as much value in this collection in the other pieces found here. They're largely merely excerpts, regrettably, -- tiny pieces of Roussel's often massive works -- but since the few complete translations (Rayner Heppenstall's attempt at Impressions of Africa and R.C.Cunningham's rendering of Locus Solus) are almost unobtainable (we've never even seen copies of either) this is as good a dose of Roussel's own writing as you can (relatively) easily find in English.
       There's John Ashbery's translation of the first chapter of Impressions of Africa -- barely ten pages that give only a taste of Roussel's odd prose work. The twenty pages from Locus Solus translated by Harry Mathews already offer more temptation: the Jules Verne-influenced world introduced here seems to hold considerable promise.
       Then comes -- again translated by Mathews -- the fifth act of one of Roussel's dramatic extravaganzas, The Dust of Suns, café scenes with typical Rousselian dialogue -- banal, mysterious, somehow grand.
       Then follows a small slice of perhaps the most impressive Roussel-text, New Impressions of Africa, with Kenneth Koch's translation of Canto III. Ashbery warned of the "hiccoughing parenthetical passages" to be found there, and even this excerpt offers examples of the technique -- shell upon shell, like a set of Russian wood-dolls (except that Roussel of course offers considerably more surprise under each layer -- and less connexion between them). In daunting verse, it's all very different from the earlier prose-Impressions of Africa. But the brief excerpt gives only an ... impression of the work as a whole.
       A fine touch is the inclusion of the 59 drawings Roussel had commissioned to accompany the text -- by "hack painter" Henri-A. Zo. They're all here, and an oddly satisfying -- and illuminating -- bunch it is, bad and yet somehow redeeming art.
       The longest section is that of Documents to Serve as an Outline, translated by Ashbery. A variety of pieces ... one hesitates to call them stories, though they are, they give a good idea of Roussel's imagination (if one can call it that) and narrative tone and approach. It remains fascinating. Laughable, often, yet fascinating.
       In addition, Trevor Winkfield offers a useful annotated bibliography -- warning readers, for example, that Rayner Heppenstall's critical study is nothing more than a "simpering apologia, not worth the paper it's printed on".

       How I Wrote Certain of My Books is an excellent introduction to the works of Roussel. There's too little, of course -- it only offers barely more than a taste -- but from Ashbery's introduction through various notes and annotations there is a rich supporting apparatus that allows even the Roussel neophyte to ... appreciate what the master (or fool, if you prefer) was doing. Fascinating stuff.

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How I Wrote Certain of My Books: Reviews: Raymond Roussel: Books about Raymond Roussel under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Raymond Roussel (1877-1933) wrote several plays, fictions, and volumes of poetry.

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