Mar 11, 2008

A Fiction of Roussel

I’ve always held the belief that many treasures remain hidden: rare jewels, currency, works of art, antiquities, unknown manuscripts by famous authors and musicians, or any number of other ephemeral item deemed valuable by either their rarity or uniqueness. Many people have the habit of hiding items and then forgetting them, or where they were placed. Or else they die unexpectedly, leaving no record of their actions. I’m thinking of the box of currency slipped onto the top shelf of a bookcase in a darkened shed, the gold coins deposited, one by one, into a hollow metal fence post in the back yard, a battered leather suitcase filled with notebooks and fool scrap left with a friend for safekeeping, never to be reclaimed, the worthless painting bought at a thrift shop found to be hiding an early work by an old master, the antique chest of drawers with a yellowing envelope taped to the underside of the bottom draw, unnoticed all those years, filled with valuable stock certificates. I feel the world is filled with many more such marvelous items, waiting only for an accidental hand to discover them.

In 2006 I became obsessed with the writings of Raymond Roussel but was disappointed at the lack of information regarding his life. Then, when I read of the unexpected discovery of Roussel manuscripts in 1964 I had reason to hope there were more to be found. I knew Roussel had lived in several towns during his time in France, some of them for relatively brief periods of time. That he wrote profusely, and rewrote and revised endlessly is well known and I doubt he discarded very much of what he had written. But what had happened to the notes and manuscripts he mentions in his 1935 book, posthumously published: Comment j’ai écrit certains de mes livres?

If you change residences frequently much of what you accumulate must necessarily be left behind, at least temporarily. Furniture, books, clothing, art objects, and manuscripts are often placed with a neighbor, business associate, or in the hands of a good friend, to be picked-up at a later date, or forwarded to a new location. I think sadly of the manuscripts left behind by D. H. Lawrence at the Kiowa Ranch in New Mexico, now out of public circulation but hopefully not necessarily lost for all time. In some musty basement or cobwebbed attic, at the bottom of an old tea chest filled with period clothing and bric-a-brac, or a mouse-nested wooden box filled with nibbled paper, unknown manuscripts may yet lie patiently waiting discovery.

I was reading “The Selected Correspondence of Dr. Almeldi” when a particular statement made me take an extra breath. Dr. Almeldi was a psychiatrist practicing in Bois de Boulogne, a suburb of Paris, in the late 1800’s, and a friend of the psychiatrist Perrin Durand. In a letter to Durand, dated June 12, 1917, he writes: “I have recently accepted a patient referred to me by my sister. He’s a gentleman from Nielly, a village near Vierizon, who tells me he suffers from melancholia, insomnia, and extreme anxiety, but I tell you Perrin, after his initial visit I suspect the problem is more complex. When I write you about this case I will refer to him as Mr. Russel for purposes of propriety and confidentiality. Mr. Russel is a compulsive writer and tells me he has boxes and boxes of notebooks and papers that he feels he must constantly revise, and this burden he laments is added to almost daily by additional writing. But let me proceed to what I see as the most interesting aspect of this case Perrin, it’s his imagination. He has created worlds of words within worlds of words of such detailed fantasy that even I am impressed. I sense Mr. Russel will prove very interesting, his artistic obsessions are beyond question. A study of his madness, no, let me say uniqueness, while formidable, should prove interesting. Perrin, I feel I may need your assistance in this case, and should you chose to assist me I would be most grateful.”

Need I elaborate? When I saw the name Russel, and the remarks regarding his imagination and creativity I was convinced Almeldi was referring to Raymond Roussel! Relatively little is known of Roussel’s life so if the casual references proved to be factual, and why wouldn’t they be? then an opportunity to add considerably to what we know of Roussel was presenting itself, and there might be a chance to discover unknown or unpublished manuscripts, perhaps even an early draft of La Vue or La Doublure.

It’s well known the Roussel family estate was in Neuilly, a suburb of Paris, but what if Roussel had also lived in Neilly? The similarity of names was pure Roussel. So after a routine search on the Internet to verify names and a few other incidentals I slipped a French dictionary into my baggage and made a reservation on an early morning flight to Paris, France.

From Charles de Gaulle airport I claimed my suitcase and went immediately to the train station where I purchased a second-class ticket to Bourges. A few hours later I checked into the Ibis Hotel. After breakfast the following morning I took the train a short distance to Vierzon and paid for three nights lodging at the Campanile Vierzon Hotel. My anticipation and excitement of what the next few days might bring was difficult to control. On check-in I asked the young desk clerk if she had ever heard mention of the name Roussel. She shook her head, “No.”

That evening, after a splendid meal in a nearby restaurant, I sat in my second story room looking out toward the Sologne forests and wondered how I was going to track down evidence that might prove Roussel had even lived near the town in the 1920’s. Roussel died in Palermo in 1933 at age 56. If he had lived in or near Neilly he would have been around forty-five, perhaps fifty years old, that would make it 1927, give or take a few years. That would mean anyone who might have knowledge of Roussel would be close to 90. Suddenly I realized that was the answer. In the morning I would make a list of all the retirement homes and nursing facilities in the area. Then I would visit area clinics and try to develop a list of older individuals being cared for at home. I drank a glass or two of local wine to celebrate my arrival, and my plan, and listened to the town put itself to bed, then I too lay down, encouraged, excited, and more than anxious.

A visit to the public library provided access to local telephone directories and newspapers and from them I quickly made a list of seven private ‘retirement’ homes, and one government facility. A list of aging residents living at home, or with relatives, was more difficult to compile, but after a visit to the only local clinic I had the names, and in most cases the addresses, of seventeen individuals or couples. Of course there were likely many more but it was a start. Gathering the information had taken three days so I extended my stay at the Hotel another three days and hoped it would be long enough. That night I sat down with a bottle of Bordeaux and studied the list. I decided to begin with individuals and leave those in institutions till last. First I looked at age and eliminated anyone less than 75 years old. Then I decided to begin with people who were 80 or older. That would have made them around ten years old in 1927, the year I felt Roussel most likely lived in Neilly. There were only six names on my list, and I had an address for all but one of them.

My first stop was a disappointment; the woman I expected to interview had died two weeks before, and her daughter, who was in the process of cleaning the house for sale, said she couldn’t recall her mother ever mentioning anyone named Roussel. The second name on my list sounded encouraging, or at least the address gave me hope. I had been told of an old couple that lived in a small cottage on an unnamed lane between the Rue Andre Ribaud and Chemin de Fougery. I couldn’t help noticing the similarity of Ribaud to Rimbaud, and Fougery to the English word Forgery. But perhaps my imagination was taking the upper hand, and my wish to find a connection to Roussel too optimistic.

It didn’t take long to locate the house once I found Rue Andre Ribaud. A farmer feeding goats knew immediately who I was looking for and gave me specific directions. He told me the house was one of the oldest in the neighborhood and had been built from cobbles collected from local streams. It was, he thought, in excess of two hundred and fifty years old yet had withstood winter storms better than more recent constructions. Seeing the cottage from a slight rise in the roadway I was immediately struck by its presence, or rather lack of presence in the landscape. It did look marvelously old, even from a distance, and seemed to have become a part of the land.

I didn’t see the man or woman at first as I was admiring the luxuriant, well-kept vegetable garden that stretched from the rear of the house down to a thin line of willows bordering a brook. I paused outside an opening in a hedge of roses and was admiring the profusion of flowers and shrubs flowing about the house when their movement surprised me. They were weeding a flowerbed just inside the hedge. The woman stood, smiled, wiped her hands on her apron and came toward me. The man continued to weed.

“What a magnificent garden,” I said, and told her of my own garden, a continent away. While we talked the old man joined us. He carried a basket filled with vegetables: lettuce, radish, carrots, scallions, and Broad beans. Without even knowing my name they invited me inside for tea.

I introduced myself and casually commented on the age and beauty of the cottage. “Thank you, yes it is quite old,” said the lady, ‘please sit down. I’m Mireille.”

“I’m Alain,” the man said, and yes, make yourself at home.” Mireille left to make tea and Alain and I sat down in front of a stone fireplace and exchanged pleasantries. He said he was ninety-one years old and his wife 86. Alain had lived in the Loire valley all his life and had moved into the cottage in 1936 when he was twenty years old. He met Mireille a year or two later and they were married in 1938. Except for a short honeymoon spent in Paris they had lived there ever since. Alain told me a distant cousin on his father’s side had inherited the house but preferred the comforts of a larger town and so the house remained empty for many years. “When I was discharged from the army I needed a place to stay and the cousin was grateful to have someone he could trust live in the cottage and take care of it.

Mireille returned with tea and a plate of bread and cheese which she placed on a three-legged stool between us. She brushed off her apron and sat down on a wooden chair beside her husband. Finally I nervously asked them if the name Roussel meant anything to them. Both shook their head and said they could not recall anyone with that name. My enthusiasm suddenly evaporated and my disappointment must have been visible as Mireille asked me if anything was wrong. I assured her I was fine and thanked her for the tea. I then asked Alain about the time he first moved into the house. His head dropped slightly and his eyes seemed to loose focus, gazing back fifty years or so. “That was a long time ago,” he said, and then paused, “but I remember how excited I was to have a place of my own, and at twenty. That was really something back then.”

“Or now,” I added.

“Yes, I’ve been lucky,” he said, “First the cottage for only a few Francs a year, then Mireille, and two sons.” He stopped and I picked up my teacup, afraid to speak. Then he continued. “Of course there was a lot of work to be done. No one had lived here for years, so there were piles of stuff to get rid of. The furniture was still good, but so much trash, you know, old clothing, piles of seed and nut shells left by squirrels or rats, even a few dead birds. Came down the chimney I suppose, like they do now when they’re looking for nest sites. Couldn’t find their way out and no one here to open the door. It was a mess, but an opportunity.”

“So you spent a few days cleaning and making the place comfortable?” I asked.

“Quite a few. I had to dig a new privy and clean out the well. And I spent several days chinking the walls with new concrete. The roof was in good condition other than a bird nest or two. At the end of a week it was clean as it had ever been, only cold.” He reached over and took Mireille’s hand.

“What kind of stuff besides dirty clothing did you have to get rid of?” I asked.

He thought for a moment. “Oh there were some rusted cooking pots, an old suitcase, a box or two of newspapers, broken glass, that sort of thing.”

“What about the chest?” Mireille said.

“Oh yes, the chest.” He said. “there was an old chest in the bedroom.”

“What was in the chest?? I asked, as casually as possible.

Alain chuckled. “Would you believe nothing but paper. Boxes and boxes of paper and notebooks, and all of it written on. I think there were some pens and dried out bottles of ink and a packet or two of letters. And some sheet music. Just junk.”

My heart began to quicken again and I tried to remain calm. “Really,” I said, did you read any of the papers, or the letters?”

“Well, no, you see I never learned to read very well, just enough to get by.”

“Then you’ve no idea what they were about?”

Mireille refilled our cups and asked me to help myself to the bread and cheese, all made locally she assured me and better than anything I’d find in the city. I buttered a crusty chunk of bread and cut off a slice of cheese. Mireille smiled when she saw my surprise at finding a piece of straw in the center of the cheese. “It’s a Saint Maure, one of our valley’s best”

After what I thought an appropriate time I again asked Alain if he knew what the papers might have been about.

“Oh I have some idea.” Alain said, “I asked my neighbor to look at the papers and he said the notebooks might be a diary of someone’s trip to Africa, and the papers seemed to be about a party at someone’s estate. He said they didn’t make much sense and were just fancy scribbling.

“So what did you do with all of it?”

“Why I used the papers to light the stove. In winter I crumpled up some of the sheets and stuffed them in around the windows to keep out the drafts.”

“So you saved nothing?”

“No, it was of better use to me as kindling.”

We sat in relative silence enjoying our afternoon meal. Then, as I sat on the edge of my chair trying very hard not to show my disappointment, a disappointment they would have no way of sharing, I let my gaze wander about the room. There were pictures of what I suppose were their children and grandchildren on the mantle, a few still-life paintings of flowers, and one of the Eiffel tower, and next to a doorway that led perhaps to their bedroom a small framed line or two of verse. I asked if they minded if I looked at the pictures and photographs and they were delighted in my interest. I expected the framed line of text to be a proverb like ‘A stitch in time saves nine’, or “God Bless Our House,” but was startled to read: ‘The brightness dims within the glass and everything darkens.’ I must have gasped as Mireille jumped to her feet, concerned I was choking. “No, no, I’m all right,” I said, “it’s just I didn’t expect to find anything like this on your wall.” I pointed to the framed line of text. “Do you remember where you got this?”

Alain pushed himself to his feet and joined me. “That,” he said, “I forgot, I guess I did save something from the chest. I had the postman look at some of the papers as well as the neighbor. He picked this out as something I might want on my tombstone and so I saved it. Like I said, we can’t read very well but I think it says: ‘When the brightness dims everything darkens.’”

“Yes,” I said, “it does say something like that.”

Back at the hotel I sat quietly in my room and wondered if it was possible the chest had been filled with manuscripts and notes by Raymond Roussel? or some other author? I’ll never know for sure of course, but what an unfortunate tragedy if they were. I still shudder when I envision the burning of the Library at Alexandria, or the wanton destruction by Spanish priests of almost all the Mayan codex’s, and this, the loss of so many unknown manuscripts, whether by Roussel, or someone else.

A few weeks later, back at my home in Oregon I received an email from a friend in Palermo, Italy. He has written to tell me his neighbor, while removing a large rats nest from a wall of his house, noticed it was lined with shreds of expensive looking paper. As a curiosity he showed it to my friend who is saving the nest because of one word that caught his attention, and one he knew would quicken my blood. He is certain one of the words he can see, without dismantling the nest, is Locus!

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