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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography / literary criticism

Raymond Roussel
and the Republic of Dreams

Mark Ford

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To purchase Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams

Title: Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams
Author: Mark Ford
Genre: Biography
Written: 2000
Length: 239 pages
Availability: Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams - US
Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams - UK
Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams - Canada
  • Foreword by John Ashbery
  • With 18 photographs, and 13 illustrations to Nouvelles Impressions d'Afrique
  • With three Appendices

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Our Assessment:

A- : fine introduction to a fascinating figure and his unusual work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph A 11/12/2000 David Bellos
The Guardian . 9/12/2000 Stephen Romer
London Rev. of Books . 6/9/2001 Nicholas Jenkins
The New Republic A+ 30/4/2001 Richard Howard
The Observer . 10/12/2000 Will Hobson
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction A Summer/2001 James Sallis
The Sunday Times . 14/1/2001 Paul Bailey
TLS . 1/12/2000 Ian Pindar

  Review Consensus:

  Impressed by Ford's achievement, though most focus on describing Roussel and his work, rather than the book.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mark Ford is quite clear that Roussel was unbalanced by any social standard you might care to impose, but he is also unworried by the nuttiness of his subject. He seeks to explore the poetry of Roussel, and somehow to make accessible to an English-language readership the striking, wild and bedazzling effects that Roussel's "procedure" dragged out of language itself. (...) Less a biography than a reader's guide, Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams could be described as an academic book were it not so stylishly written and quirkily constructed. (I must add that the scholarly bibliography and the excellent index are not quirky at all.)" - David Bellos, Daily Telegraph

  • "Quite apart from these singular achievements, we have his works. No words can describe them adequately, though Mark Ford, in his delicate, patient and tactful way, sets forth their procedures with admirable clarity. His book should swell the numbers of those now dedicated to furthering la gloire of Raymond Roussel." - Stephen Romer, The Guardian

  • "With great vivacity he has written a declaration of literary fealty disguised, or rather displayed, as a biography (.....) As a biography, Ford's book is superb, the aptest initiation into Roussel's life and work in any language (including Roussel's)." - Richard Howard, The New Republic

  • "As he has reached near-canonical status in France, people have tended to dwell on the life more than the work. But in this wonderful, first full-length account in English, the poet Ford has struck an impeccable balance. Roussel emerges as a luminous, unique figure, 'outrageous in his innocence and logic'. Reading this book, one understands why Breton said that he, along with Lautréamont, is 'the greatest hypnotist of modern times.'" - Will Hobson, The Observer

  • "Now Cornell University Press and Mark Ford offer this marvelous compendium: part homage, part biography, part bones and spine upon which the corpus will be reconstructed." - James Sallis, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "Ford, himself a poet, is illuminating on the subject of Roussel's working methods. (...) Although this is principally a literary biography, Ford never loses sight of the strange man behind the strange work." - Paul Bailey, The Sunday Times

  • "Ford's book is where anyone looking to initiate themselves into the mysteries of the Rousselian should begin. He provides detailed summaries of the novels, plays and poems, drawing our attention to repeated themes (such as transvestitism and androgyny), and shows how Roussel's writing "can almost invariably be resolved into neatly balanced antitheses": black/white; male/female; imitation/uniqueness. His reassessment of all the major debates surrounding Roussel's life, death and art is a massive labour of accumulation and consolidation." - Ian Pindar, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The French author Raymond Roussel (1877-1933) was one of the more remarkable literary figures of his day. He produced vast amounts of material, which he paid to have published and produced on the stage. He had some unusual ideas about writing, and concocted complex approaches to it. And while he never achieved much success, or the public attention he so hoped for, he has been tremendously influential.
       From Michel Leiris, an early and important supporter, through the surrealists and to modern authors such as Georges Perec, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Harry Mathews he made a significant impression. Among the writers who have written biographical and critical works about him are such notables as Michel Foucault and Annie Le Brun. John Ashbery, who also wrote the foreword to this volume, has long been a champion of Roussel and planned to write his doctoral thesis on him; he never completed that project, but did publish several essays on the man and his work.
       Mark Ford's biography is, however, still "only the second book ever written on Roussel in English" (so Ford), the first being Rayner Heppenstall's brief overview. Though much of Roussel's work has been translated, Ford's work is a welcome introduction to both the man and the work. Ford offers both biography and a critical study of Roussel's unusual literary undertakings. Roussel's life and work were equally bizarre. They make for fascinating material, and Ford makes the most of them.
       Roussel came from a wealthy family, and he was the pampered third child of a doting and overbearing mother. Mom was a dominant figure in Roussel's life, which probably wasn't for the best. Ford notes that after the death of his brother "Madame Roussel insisted that her surviving son should undergo a medical examination every day." On their last foreign holiday together (they were rarely apart), in 1910, they went to India and Ceylon. Madame Roussel brought along a coffin, so as not inconvenience the other travellers in case she passed away during the voyage -- thoughtfulness of a kind one does not often encounter.
       Roussel himself also had a number of odd habits. He lived a life of absurd luxury. He had peculiar dining habits (with Ford offering two perhaps typical menus in one of the appendices). He had a thirty-foot automobile roulotte constructed for him, with a bedroom, study, bathroom, and dormitory for three domestics; when he drove it to Rome Mussolini visited it and was suitably impressed -- and the Pope also expressed interest in it. Roussel travelled extensively and yet seems to have been the least likely tourist imaginable. Ford quotes Michel Leiris, who noted:

It seems likely that the outside world never broke through into the universe he carried within him, and that, in all the countries he visited, he saw only that which he had put there in advance (...)
       Roussel had few close friendships, and remained at a distance even from those who sought him out and tried to help him. He preferred to pay exorbitant sums to see his work published by a publisher he admired than to be published by a house that actually valued his work. He had few close personal attachments, and he was homosexual (and apparently often blackmailed by those with whom he had affairs).
       Roussel was an innovative littérateur, but he was unable to embrace surrealism or the other popular new trends of his days, wanting to become a popular success of the most traditional sort. It was not meant to be. His writing, though fascinating, is also daunting. Besides his innovative methods he was extremely verbose and the result is not always readily approachable.
       Ford does well to begin his book with a chapter on How He Wrote Certain of His Books, explaining the "very special method" -- the procédé -- that is central to much of Roussel's writing. It is an idea of Oulipoean ingenuity, taking the double-meanings of words and homonyms as the basis for literary works. On this Roussel built amazing structures of varying complexity and length. He was especially strong on length, as he went on tirelessly and seemingly effortlessly in a style uniquely of his own.
       Ford does an excellent job in describing Roussel's literary efforts, giving summaries and examples from them which give a good impression of what it was that Roussel was trying to do. They are remarkable works, and it is understandable that so many authors have been fascinated and influenced by them. Ford is also particularly good at tracing Roussel's mark and the varied reactions to his work.
       Ford also has some fun with Roussel's efforts for the stage (put on at his own expense), spectacles that enjoyed some vogue mainly because of the strong and vociferous reactions by the audience ("There followed a scrum, as in rugby," Robert Desnos' wife Youki reports about the audience at one of the performances).
       As an introduction to this odd character and his unusual works Ford's book is very good indeed. And Roussel is definitely worth knowing. Filled with wild tales from wild times, truth here is stranger than most fiction -- except for Roussel's own. Recommended.

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Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams: Reviews: Raymond Roussel: Books by Raymond Roussel under review: Other books about Raymond Roussel under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Mark Ford is a poet, and a lecturer in English literature at University College, London

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© 2001-2010 the complete review

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