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Book Review: Locus Solus, by Raymond Roussel

This French novel is the difficult but imaginative grandfather of modern surrealist fantasy.


Locus Solus

1913, 218 pages



Based on uniquely eccentric principles of composition, this book invites the reader to enter a world which, in its innocence and extravagance, is unlike anything in the literature of the twentieth century

Canterel, a scholarly scientist, whose enormous wealth imposes no limits upon his prolific ingenuity, is taking a group of visitors on a tour of "Locus Solus," his secluded estate near Paris. One by one he introduces, demonstrates, and expounds the discoveries and inventions of his fertile, encyclopedic mind. An African mud-sculpture representing a naked child; a road-mender's tool which, when activated by the weather, creates a mosaic of human teeth; a vast aquarium in which humans can breathe and in which a hairless cat is seen stimulating the partially decomposed head of Georges Danton to fresh flights of oratory. By each item in Canterel's exhibition there hangs a tale—a tale only Roussel could tell. As the inventions become more elaborate, the richness and brilliance of the author's stories grow to match them; the flow of his imagination becomes a flood and the reader is swept along in a torrent of wonder and hilarity.


Cross-posted to books1001.




"My fame will outshine that of Victor Hugo or Napoleon."

— Raymond Roussel


What a strange and bizarre book. Another obscure volume that I would never have read if not for the books1001 list. Raymond Roussel was one of those avant-garde French writers whose greatest impact was upon rarefied literary circles known only to other literati: Focault, Breton, the New York School, etc. And yet, in this strange, surrealist fantasy, I discern influences that may have rippled out to a wider audience. Not really a book with a plot, Locus Solus is about a wealthy inventor, Martial Canterel, who takes a group of visitors on a tour of his eponymous estate, Locus Solus ("Solitary Place") and shows them a variety of fantastic and bizarre inventions and tableaux vivants.

It's strange and disturbing, but also reminiscent of Willy Wonka, and the bizarre sights Canterel shows his guests make me wonder if perhaps Rube Goldberg got some of his ideas from Roussel. Or if Theodor Geisel was inspired by Roussel's strange surrealism. The multi-layered stories-within-stories also reminded me of the subsequent trend in post-modernism, which in turn made me think of Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves.

Canterel's inventions start out merely wacky — an automated wind-powered paving beetle that constructs elaborate mosaics out of human teeth, which Canterel extracts painlessly from his subjects by means of a magnet that attracts calcium. An aquarium filled with "aqua-mican," water infused with oxygen that can be breathed by terrestrial creatures, occupied by an intelligent hairless cat, a French singer, and a stable of trained seahorses.

And then it just gets weirder. Presented with tableaux vivants seemingly played out by actors, it turns out that the "actors" are cadavers animated with "resurrectine," another mineral of Canterel's discovery, which causes preserved corpses to act out the most most memorable scenes preserved in their nervous systems. Canterel mathematically reconstructs a deceased man's final actions and uses it to improbably exonerate a wrongfully convicted murderer, reanimates a dead child which the child's mother holds on her lap (supposedly "comforted" by this semblance of having her child brought back to life), as well as constructing dioramas involving bleeding dwarves and the preserved head of French Revolutionary Georges Danton.

Each of these tableaux vivants is accompanied by a story from Canterel, often wrapped around yet another story, each of which is a series of fantastic coincidences and unbelievable twists and contrivances.

The bizarre inventions and tableauxs continue: gold that acts as a magnet for water. Emeralds that absorb sound and are used to create musical tarot cards. A cock trained to write by coughing blood. African tribesmen who secrete gunpowder. A doctor who has a special formula for painlessly removing fingernails, painting them so that they act as mirrors, and then reattaching them.

It is all very weird, and it is not at all an easy read.


The prodigiously developed caudal apparatus, a kind of solid cartilaginous frame, rose vertically first of all, then spread out forwards in its upper regions to create a veritable horizontal canopy over the bird. The inner part was bald, whereas from the outside grew long, tufted feathers, which pointed backwards like some fabulous head of hair. The most anterior part of the frame was very sharp and formed a solid, slightly arched knife parallel to the table. Fixed horizontally to the back of the canopy by several screws piercing its edge, was a golden plate which, by some baffling magnetism, held a heavy mass of water dangling beneath it — perhaps half a litre — which, despite its volume, was behaving like a single drop on the tip of one's finger when it is just about to fall.


I am guessing it's probably not much easier to read in the original French. Roussel's writing was apparently full of extended puns and other word games, suggesting that much is lost in translation:


Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard/The white letters on the cushions of the old billiard table... must somehow reach the phrase, ...les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard/letters [written by] a white man about the hordes of the old plunderer.




Verdict: Does Locus Solus belong on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list? It is certainly memorable and strange. I think it's unique and a work of genius, so any serious reader probably should tackle it at some point. That said, the linguistic density and plotless surrealism were more of an experience than a pleasure, and I can see why Roussel isn't widely read today outside of literature classes. There is one other book by Raymond Roussel on the books1001 list, and I think I would approach it with a bottle of booze and/or aspirin.




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