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- Roussel, the Surrealists, Arun Kolatkar and unseen Africa

About seven years ago, I noticed a longish review in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement. What drew my attention to it was not its subject, an obscure French writer called Raymond Roussel, but the author of the book under review, the English poet, Mark Ford, whom I knew slightly. Relieved it was a positive review, I was, however, bemused by Roussel, a writer of whom not only I, but, it seemed, many others were not aware. Roussel appeared to be another one of Ford’s eccentric, subterranean, un-English preoccupations; for Ford was a devotee of the American poet John Ashbery, whose ironic ludic-plangent style was more of a minority taste in Britain than falafel or the nouveau roman.

And yet Roussel’s reputation had been growing. Born in 1877 into luxury and to a fairly odd mother (who carried a coffin with her on her travels in case she died in transit), more a curiosity who occasionally attracted lavish praise from famous writers than ever the famous writer he himself longed to be, Roussel was taken up, unsurprisingly, as a minor cult by the Surrealists, whose project he, on his part, was not overly taken with. Unsurprising, because there’s an intransigent note of numinous solemnity to the bizarrely playful methods Roussel used in his composition — bizarre especially to contemporary French critics — just as his life seems to be a mixture of comic punctiliousness and mysterious unfulfilment. The tranquil poise of impossible juxtapositions: this might be one of the goals of Roussel’s life and his writing, as well as the subject of many of the photographs he left behind, starting with the picture of the three-year-old Roussel upon a swan, hands innocently encircling its slender neck, or, a little older, in Turkish costume, “pretending to smoke”, as Ford’s caption reads, “a pipe”.

Roussel’s writing depended, as he put it in How I Wrote Certain Of My Books, on a “very special method”. The French word translated here as method is procédé, and it’s a term that, by now, has come to be associated in certain circles with Roussel’s comical-mystical endeavour. “At the heart of the procédé lies the pun,” says Ford. The early stories “begin and end with phrases that are identical except for a single letter, but where each major word is used in a different sense”. The procédé probably came to Roussel with two sentences, “Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard”, and the near-identical “les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard”. Roussel decided, or, as it were, was directed, to begin a story with the first sentence, which means “the letters [of the alphabet] in white chalk on the cushions of the old billiard table, and conclude it with the second, which, with the ‘b’ in the last word transmogrified into a ‘p’, means “the letters sent by the white man about the hordes of the old plunderer”. One can see why the Surrealists would have liked the procédé, emerging straight-faced as it does from the scientism of the 19th century, with its complete investment in order and logic, while also undermining that scientism somewhat disreputably. Exactly the same thing, I suppose, could be said about psychoanalysis, its own procédé or method, and its relationship to the recognized sciences.

One’s also struck by the difference between the Rousselian, even the Surrealist, ‘game’ or ‘method’, and the narrative play of much of post-modern writing, which seldom loses its moorings in the histories of the New World and of colonialism. For the Surrealists, the great tension, as in their experiments with ‘automatic writing’, is between bourgeois artifice and predictability on the one hand, and chance, or even fate, on the other: there’s a notable faith in the unknown that the future will inexorably throw up. For Roussel and the Surrealists, chance is the great begetter, and it’s to chance — fate’s mundane but nevertheless pregnant incarnation — they must attend, and to its disruption of the inevitability that socialization visits upon us: this is, for instance, what Magritte’s painting, The Key of Dreams, is ‘about’.

The one Indian writer in English I can think of who dabbled intriguingly in a sort of procédé in his early work is the bilingual Arun Kolatkar. A sui generis song Kolatkar composed in the early Seventies (before he’d embarked on the poem-sequence Jejuri, and when he still entertained hopes of being a rock musician) begins with a line which he lifted from a typed message being distributed by an educated beggar on a train: ‘I am a poor man from a poor land’. This line clearly suggested to Kolatkar an opening on to a domain whose meaning was quite distinct from the line’s original intention: for his song is at once a parody of a Baul devotional, and a sales pitch for Indian rock music to a transcontinental record producer. Then there are the ‘Marathi’ poems in which Kolatkar began to experiment with Bombay Hindi, often using, as Arvind Krishna Mehrotra pointed out to me, what Marcel Duchamp called “readymades” or “found objects”. The line in the beggar’s message is a “found object”; so is the last line of the poem Kolatkar himself translated as ‘Biograph’, “Can’t you see where you going you m*****f****r'” whose original (‘Dikhta nahin m****ch*d dikhta nahin'’) Kolatkar must have heard many times, as I have, from the mouths of Bombay’s taxi and bus drivers. ‘Biograph’ is about an unfortunate everyman, ‘Mr Nene’; and, at some point, Kolatkar realized that “Dikhta nahin m****ch*d…” is an unforgiving philosophical pun, containing both an invective and a vision of existence, and that it could be used both as a summation of a life and the conclusion of a poem: in other words, as a procédé.

The procédé, then, is superficially akin to, but significantly unlike, the Jamesian doneé , which, for the novelist, was a banal instant or stimulus that suddenly provided him with an opportunity to explore imaginary narrative terrain. The procédé is somewhat different, in that it hints not only at imaginative possibility, but toward a formal one; for Roussel and Kolatkar, the procédé, or self-imposed ‘method’, leads not only to the birth of a new story or poem, but to the necessity of fresh formal construction.

My own interest in Roussel has grown surreptitiously, because, really, I was charmed by the titles of his books, especially Impressions of Africa and New Impressions of Africa. What held me, in particular, was the fact that Roussel had never been to equatorial Africa, the setting of that first ‘novel’; this was instructive, but in what way, I couldn’t pinpoint. It reminded me of my late uncle’s enthusiasm for Chander Pahar; his contradictory satisfaction at the fact that Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay had never seen Africa. Roussel travelled, of course; he even went to Egypt and came to India; but, like the procédé, his travels are about the bathos of the idea of onward movement. The staged photographs of Roussel in exotic locations are like Surrealist forerunners of the tourist’s experience of foreignness, where people make a studio, a microcosm, of wherever they happen to be, turning a scene into a backdrop for their figures. Often, Roussel visited these places in a roulette, a luxurious, caravan-like vehicle, in which he was accompanied and attended to by his staff, and from which he hardly emerged.

Roussel came back to me during my recent trip to the Paris Book Fair; not just because he was from Paris, but because the visit was oddly Rousselian. By the time it ended, it occurred to me that, in Paris after eleven years, I had seen almost nothing of the city. There was the hotel room; then the coach from the hotel to the aerodrome-like building that hosted the Fair; then back to the hotel again: all this punctuated by lunches, readings, gossip, dinner. Soon, I realized that there were other writers who’d habituated themselves to, and probably profited from, this peculiar notion of travel. The historian, Mushirul Hasan, told me he was having a wonderful time in Paris. “What do you do'” I asked. “I stay in my hotel room and dictate my new chapter,” he said. In the coach, the Eiffel Tower often followed us about, augmenting the sense of interiority; reduced and reproduced infinitely, it has become a piece of furniture. “Who is it who said,” observed Ananthamurthy suddenly from the seat in front of me, “that to escape the Eiffel Tower you have to go inside it'” He ruminated for a few moments, as the lighted geometric shape waited patiently. “I think it was Barthes,” he said finally, with his sweet sage-like smile.

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