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Locus Solus Paperback – January 1, 1984
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Pre-order today
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Text: English, French (translation) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
Raymond Roussel (1877–1933) was a French poet, novelist, playwright, musician, chess enthusiast, neurasthenic, and drug addict. Through his novels, poems, and plays he exerted profound influence on certain groups within 20th century French literature, including the Surrealists, Oulipo, and the authors of the nouvenu roman. He is the author of Among the Blacks and How I Wrote Certain of My Books.
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I remember the first time I read Impressions of Africa, right after graduating high school. I was a naive young admirer of Duchamp at the time, and I kept seeing these references to Roussel, and the description of Impressions made it sound like a travel book. Had I known him then I might have expected something like a French William Cobbett. Ha! I don't think I realized something definitely strange was going on in those pages until I reached the part with the father and his sons echoing their voices off of each other's chests with their shirts being stuck to their skin "by some sticky substance", -- the word "substance" somehow set me laughing for a solid twenty, thirty minutes, and all the hilarity, the absurdity of the Incomporables' show that had gone on before were finally apparent to me. I have been a lover of Roussel ever since; the only casualty was my perspective of Duchamp's accomplishment, which is as Duchamp himself admitted greatly indebted to Roussel's.
Locus Solus is the book Roussel wrote after Impressions and the two make a pair unlike any other in literature. Locus is presided over by Martial Canteral, a figure right out of Jules Verne, who Roussel once said was a name that should not be spoken aloud "except on bended knee," -- hm, yes -- Canterel is a famous scientist and inventor, and the book is set at his estate where a group of distinguished figures have been invited to a tour of guided by none other than its owner and director. The book follows the tour as one of the eyewitnesses, and the sights along the way are so bizarre, the machinery so complex and beyond any reasonable utility, it quite defies any attempt to describe the effect here. One impression I think that merits a word or two is the apparent lack of emotion in the book. I would say that there is a great amount of sadness and tragedy in the book that adds a kind of under-layer parallel to the encoded sentences of Roussel's method. The vitallium episode, in which Canterel invents a "certain chemical" that makes the bodies of the dead become animate again (but are still dead) has a very particular strain of anguish and loss inherent in its concept. And then there is also the weariness of the visionary experienced by the reader, the author, and the characters being audience to so many impossibilities one after the other piled up so high there is an actual physical exhaustion after the conclusion. And then of course there is also the tragedy of the author himself, who had both novels lavishly adapted for the theater, and created two of the most colossal failures in the history of drama, causing riots and scandal at the showings and humiliation to the author. He ended up a pitiful man, addicted to drugs and having spent all his fortune, he killed himself in his forties with a great dream "of a glory that shall outshine that of Victor Hugo or Napoleon."
This is not a book for everyone, perhaps even for very few. However there is no good reason these two books are out of print. It is long past time they are reprinted and Roussel be given the honor he deserves.
All of that takes place inside the gigantic diamond-like tank of oxygenated fluid. A very lustrous fluid.
By the way, the English translation sometimes calls the sea-horses "hippocampi." Don't be confused: in context, it means sea-horses. It's not talking about parts of a brain. You might be thinking, "well there's no possible room for confusion there!", but au contraire. Because inside the tank is also a floating head/face of Danton, composed exclusively of the preserved nerves and musculuture, without any bones or skin. And re-animated with expertly applied electrical currents, courtesy of Canterel and his cat.
And they're not just any sea-horses. They're sea-horses equipped with "setons" attached to a shining golden sphere that they themselves created by kneading together small globulets of golden wine that Canterel pours into the tank and lets float down to them.
The entire episode I'm talking about took place long after the book had already left my jaw on the floor. In short: read it. You know that "dream-like" quality that hyped books supposedly possess? Say, like "Amnesia Moon"? Well Raymond Roussel accomplishes all that without any narrative tricks, without any deception, without any ill-defined or sensationally blurred "boundaries between dream and reality" or any of that nonsense. Roussel accomplishes his feats the old fashioned way: with elbow grease, and imagination. He accomplishes it by giving everything to you, not hiding things from you.
Who is the Canterel I mentioned above? Canterel-- a name that one should never utter aloud except on bended knee-- has the wealth and quirk of Willy Wonka, combined with the wealth and ingenuity of Bruce Wayne. Which makes for a very rich, very marvelous fellow. His estate and private collection puts both of those men's assets to shame, quite extravagantly.
As you already know, the book is a narrated trip through some of Canterel's exhibits. He aims to please, though. So don't think that the book will lack character, plot, or suspense just because it's a sort of museum-tour. There's stories within stories that explain the exhibits. And they have everything that archetypically good "stories" have, and more: love, betrayal, forgiveness, fantastic magnanimity, loss, disgrace, lust, vindication. I was breathless waiting for the resolutions of certain tales, practically jumping off my bench in the park to cheer for the characters, or otherwise immobilized by the revelations and ups and downs in their fates.
And it's all described soberly, no tricks. By the way, Roussel (though there's a chance it's the translators doing, since I haven't and couldn't read the original French) tells his stories, tells the motivations and actions of characters, with a very skillful use of words, using strong descriptive verbs and nouns. The sentences held together with a unique power. Many times I took great pleasure in re-reading certain sentences, because they were said so absolutely perfectly. Of course, that should be the hallmark of a professional writer, but I don't find it very often...
So anyway you'll feel like you're there. You won't even have any disbelief to suspend. At certain points, like a particular early exhibit that I won't name, I said to myself, "There's no going back, this is too fantastic, there's no POSSIBLE EXPLANATION of this, Roussel has crossed the line, this is uncanny and totally unrecoverable at this point, all credibility has been lost, I feel exploited!," and I kept reading, kept reading-kept reading, "by god, no, by GOD HE'S DONE IT!, he's doing it, by god Canterel, Roussel, you've done it, my good holy god unbeliEVABLE!!! Whew. Wow." I had to close the book for a minute and lean against a fence, nodding my head uncontrollably. When you close this book and put it on your shelf when done, you'll keep suspecting that it's about to burst open and spill out its contents all over your room, neighborhood, and city-- and you'll feel like an angry god for actually having the ability to close the book and contain it.
Book will take your breath away. If not check your pulse. Or, try something else. Bye.
They are ridiculously friendly and willing to send out copies. Assuming, and hoping they still do, buy yourself a copy of this book.
Don't read reviews, or summaries, you cannot summarize or make sense of this by reading someone else's take on it. YOU SIMPLY HAVE TO READ IT yourself.
Contact the publisher and have them send you a copy ASAP :: )