Jim Elkins's Reviews > New Impressions of Africa

New Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel
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it was amazing
bookshelves: french

What does it mean, exactly, to read this book?

First, I think it must mean that you have already read 'How I Wrote Certain of My Books,' 'Locus Solus,' and 'Impressions of Africa': that is, you are thoroughly immersed, hypnotized, pithed by Roussel's absolutely unimpeachable, unapproachable weirdness. Then, I think it should mean you have read something about Roussel: Foucault's very literary book, or possibly Mark Ford's very sober appreciation.

But then what can it possibly mean to read a book that keeps opening parentheses (like this ((and then parentheses within those, like this (((or this))) apparently endlessly (((and not at all always rationally ((((or so it seems)))) )))) )) ), playing arcane word games, making unconsciously ridiculous similes, proposing utterly opaque allusions, proposing the reader stop to cut the intentionally uncut octavo pages, and posing book-length puzzles that can never be solved because they aren't even (proper) puzzles. Even that sentence is easiest to read by plowing straight through. If I try to read it according to the order of the parentheses, I need to parse it carefully, and that is at once tedious and unrewarding.

Here are the two most obvious ways that 'New Impressions of Africa' proposes that it be read:

1. Read straight through, including footnotes whenever they appear.

2. Read the way the surrealist's machine for turning the pages of the book supposedly worked: i.e., read to the opening of the first parentheses, find the place where that parenthesis closes, read from there to the end of the canto, return to the opening of the parenthesis, read (skipping interpolated parentheses), etc. -- until you have read the very last quintuple-nested parenthesis.

The first kind of reading cannot yield the sense of any canto, because the logic, the argument -- whatever it should be called -- will be impossible to follow. The second raises two further possibilities:

2a. Read mechanically, assiduously, skipping nothing, but reading in the moment, taking in each new stanza or couplet or page as it presents itself.

2b. Read as you would read a piece of argumentative non-fiction, or a detective story: that is, try to keep the argument, or logic, or story, or grammar in mind as you go.

I propose this last is the real challenge of the book, and I see almost no evidence that critics have tried it: and yet I think the logic and structure of the book itself makes such a reading just barely possible, and therefore necessary.

I claim to have read Canto 2, 'The Battlefield of the Pyramids,' in this way, keeping the logic of the entire canto in mind as I read. It opens with three nested arguments in the space of half a page: a description of a coat (then a parenthesis opens, and inside it begins a description of a scarecrow, as an allegory of faith ((then a double parenthesis opens, and inside it a meditation on the cross apparently begins)) ); the first two arguments end where the parentheses close, on the last page of the canto. It was possible for me, one afternoon, to keep the entire top-heavy, preposterously artificial, tottering, twisted, perverse, inhuman argument in mind at once. At that moment -- which is now long gone -- I felt I had expended the effort Roussel demanded, and found my way to a new kind of rigor. A useless rigor, of course, but that is entirely the point.

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Reading Progress

October 9, 2012 – Shelved
October 12, 2012 – Shelved as: french
Started Reading
July 16, 2013 – Finished Reading

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