Raymond Roussel’s lonely place in literary history

Ryan Ruby in Lapham's Quarterly:

Vuillard_album_1480_0The last time I was in Paris I went to pay a call on a writer I admire. Like Balzac, Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Isadora Duncan, Gertrude Stein, and dozens of other luminaries, Raymond Roussel keeps a permanent address at 8, Boulevard de Ménilmontant, in the Cemitière du Père Lachaise, one of art’s most famous final resting places. But you won’t find flocks of tourists reverently camped out at his grave. No one lights candles for him or leaves him flowers, messages, metro tickets, smooth stones, or any other tokens of gratitude for the strange poems and even stranger novels he left to posterity. Not for Roussel’s tomb, as for Wilde’s, a recently installed glass case to protect the marble from the red lipstick of his fans.

The day I visited him, it was gray and rainy and cold. There were few people in the normally well-frequented cemetery. When I finally managed to locate Division 89, I was delighted to see a gaggle of fellow Rousselians hovering near his grave, umbrellas resting awkwardly on their shoulders as they snapped photos with evident excitement. But as I approached it became clear that they had their backs to his tomb. They were taking pictures of someone else. When the group cleared out, I looked at inscription on the black crypt that had attracted their attention. It read “Famille George Harrison” and had a large cross on top. Puzzled, I took my phone out of my pocket, did a quick Google search, and confirmed what I suspected: George Harrison, the real George Harrison, guitarist of the Beatles, died in Los Angeles and had his ashes scattered over the Ganges. Poor Roussel, I thought. Always being overshadowed by someone more famous.

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