French poet, novelist, playwright, musician, chess-player, neurasthenic and drug addict. In addition, he was immensely wealthy, although most of his wealth was dissipated in trying to bring attention to his writing.
Little known today, yet Roussel's novels, poems and plays profoundly influenced certain groups within C20th French literature, including the Surrealists and Oulipo. In the 1950s his work excited the interest of young American poets such as John Ashbery (who had lived in Paris for over five years where he was known as ‘that crazy American who’s interested in Roussel') and Kenneth Koch. His influence is apparent in some of the poems of Ashbery and Koch written in the mid-1950s. In the 1970s I was using one of Koch's books, Rose, Where did You get that Rose, while teaching English to 'less able' adolescents. It was a gift to a teacher and a winner with the kids every time. Now I understand better how Koch came to write in the way that he did.
Ashbery has written the Introduction to Mark Ford’s book, outlining the processes by which Roussel’s work became more widely known in the 1960s. Michel Foucault’s first book, published in 1963, was a study of Roussel. Alain Robbe Grillet and Michel Butor, creators of the nouvel roman, acknowledged their debt to him.
The following quotes on the subject of Raymond Roussel will give some indication of his standing and influence among his contemporaries and some who came later:
"A formidable poetic apparatus" -Marcel Proust
"Raymond Roussel belongs to the most important French literature of the beginning of the century" -Alain Robbe-Grillet
"Genius in its pure state" - Jean Cocteau
"Creator of authentic myths - Michel Leiris
"A great poet" - Marcel Duchamp
"The President of the Republic of Dreams" - Louis Aragon
"The greatest mesmerist of modern times" - André Breton
"The plays are among the strangest and most enchanting in modern literature"- John Ashbery
"My fame will outshine that of Victor Hugo or Napoleon"- Raymond Roussel
The only words written by Roussel that I have read are those quoted in Mark Ford's book but I was so intrigued by him that I'm inspired to track some of his books down to read. There's plenty of information about Roussel on Websites, for example: