Locus Solus by Raymond Roussel
Translated by Rupert Copeland Cuningham

The Argumentative Old Git had a really interesting post recently about the importance of plot in a work of literature. I’m in agreement with him that, actually, plot is not always relevant, and reading “Locus Solus” by Raymond Roussel kind of reminded me of that post; because the book has rather strangely got either masses of plot, or none, depending on how you look at it!

“LS” is a book that was obviously going to appeal to me; cited as an influence by members of OuLiPo and lauded for its imaginative strangeness, it’s part of the roster of the John Calder list now republished by Alma Books. Roussel (1877 -1933) was a French poet, novelist, playwright, musician, and chess enthusiast (so rather a polymath!) and although I don’t think he’s read so much nowadays, his influence seems to have stretched far and wide, taking in the Surrealists, the aforementioned¬†OuLiPo (he’s rated highly by Queneau), and the ‘nouveau roman’ authors like Alain Robbe-Grillet.

The story’s narrator introduces us to Martial Canterel, a rich scientist and inventor, who’s invited a group of associates to visit his country estate, from which the book takes its title. The grounds of Locus Solus consist of huge grounds filled to the brim with wonders, and Canterel takes his guests on a dazzling tour of the grand inventions it contains. Each chapter opens with the group being met with a strange scenario – for example a pile driver which constructs a mosaic made of human teeth; a giant glass diamond full of water which contains a dancing girl, a hairless cat and the head of Danton; or a set of scenes peopled by some very gruesome beings (about which I will say no more…) Once the group has witnessed whichever event it is, Canterel goes on to explain the story behind the scenario, which in some cases ends up being multiple layers of storytelling as the source of the tale reaches back through historical events and influences.

The stories become more and more bizarre and more outlandish as the book goes on, with tales from myth and legend, ancient times and ancient lands. Each chapter presents a series of increasingly precise, meticulous descriptions of scientific miracles and rather gruesome inventions and it seems that Canterel has conjured up some terrifyingly ingenious and phantasmagorical devices. The dense allusive text becomes almost a compendium of wonders and the imagery is stunning and imaginative.

The rather dapper Roussel – a model for his character Canterel?

“Locus Solus” is a fascinating, dazzling yet sometimes difficult read and I haven’t actually pulled out any quotes because it’s a book that’s very much a sum of its parts. I’ve seen it described as being like the written equivalent of a surrealist painting, and in many ways that’s an accurate interpretation as the strangeness of each scenario is so visually realised by the prose. The dizzying degree of detail can become boggling and because of this “Locus Solus” is perhaps best read in small doses a chapter at a time rather than all in one go as I did. The style of writing and depth of detail does create a certain distance from the narrative and events which makes this a book to admire rather than love. I’m someone who loves wordplay and clever writing, and LS has this in abundance; and it’s worth remembering that the book was published in 1914 when the world was embracing new sciences and also facing major conflict. Canterel is something of a control freak, attempting to tame the world with his inventions and his discoveries, and that need for order may well have been a reaction to the coming chaos of the world at large.

I’ve read that in the original French the book’s wordplay is even more pronounced, with numerous puns and constraints, though I’m not sure if these have transferred over to the English version. Nevertheless, “Locus Solus” is a fascinating, strange, often a bit grim but never less than intriguing read, and the imagery it contains will haunt me for some time.

(Review copy kindly provided by Alma Books for which many thanks!)

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