What is remarkable about Roussel’s torturous commitment to his literary career is that he ever entertained the notion that his intricate, tautly rendered feats of almost impenetrable brilliance would appeal to a mass readership. Never has a writer so misgauged the nature of his work or the scope of its appeal. It is thanks largely to the avant-garde he spurned that Roussel’s fragile literary standing was secured. With the exception of Michel Leiris, whose father was Roussel’s accountant, those who most appreciated his proleptic ingenuity discovered him in the decades after his death. Alain Robbe-Grillet found in Roussel’s obsessive attention to the mundane thinginess of the world a predecessor to the nouveau roman: His first novel, Le Voyeur, was originally titled La Vue in homage to Roussel’s long 1904 poem of the same name, a work that minutely describes a variety of miniature scenes, including a fifty-page digression dedicated to the spa pictured on the label of a bottle of mineral water on the narrator’s table. Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec admired his remarkable ability to spin thickly structured narratives from a hidden network of obscure puns, buried double entendres, felicitous homonyms, and devilish mondegreens, the “special method” of linguistic gamesmanship he revealed in the short volume published after his death, How I Wrote Certain of My Books. Michel Foucault wrote a critical study, Death and the Labyrinth, after the chance discovery of one of Roussel’s volumes in an antiquarian shop across from the Luxembourg Gardens. And in several critical essays, John Ashbery enthusiastically imported Roussel, extending his influence to the New York School of poets.
more from Eric Banks at Bookforum here.