New Impressions of Africa

New Impressions of Africa

New Impressions of Africa

New Impressions of Africa


Poet, novelist, playwright, and chess enthusiast, Raymond Roussel (1877-1933) was one of the French belle époque's most compelling literary figures. During his lifetime, Roussel's work was vociferously championed by the surrealists, but never achieved the widespread acclaim for which he yearned. New Impressions of Africa is undoubtedly Roussel's most extraordinary work. Since its publication in 1932, this weird and wonderful poem has slowly gained cult status, and its admirers have included Salvador Dali--who dubbed it the most "ungraspably poetic" work of the era--André Breton, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Duchamp, Michel Foucault, Kenneth Koch, and John Ashbery.

Roussel began writing New Impressions of Africa in 1915 while serving in the French Army during the First World War and it took him seventeen years to complete. "It is hard to believe the immense amount of time composition of this kind of verse requires," he later commented. Mysterious, unnerving, hilarious, haunting, both rigorously logical and dizzyingly sublime, it is truly one of the hidden masterpieces of twentieth-century modernism.

This bilingual edition of New Impressions of Africa presents the original French text and the English poet Mark Ford's lucid, idiomatic translation on facing pages. It also includes an introduction outlining the poem's peculiar structure and evolution, notes explaining its literary and historical references, and the fifty-nine illustrations anonymously commissioned by Roussel, via a detective agency, from Henri-A. Zo.


Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique is the last work that the French poet, playwright, and novelist Raymond Roussel published during his lifetime. He began drafting it in 1915, but the poem was not to appear until the autumn of 1932, less than a year before its author was found dead in his room at the Grande Albergo e delle Palme in Palermo, Sicily at the age of 56. “On ne saurait croire,” he observed in his posthumously published essay, “Comment j’ai écrit certains de mes livres,” “quel temps immense exige la composition de vers de ce genre” (“It is hard to believe the immense amount of time composition of this kind of verse requires”).

The poem consists of four cantos of 228, 642, 172, and 232 lines respectively. Each is prefaced by a heading referring to a location in Egypt, and each begins with a few lines evoking the location in question. “Rasant le Nil,” opens Canto iv, which presents, initially at least, the Gardens of Rosetta as seen from a dahabieh (an Egyptian houseboat): “je vois fuir deux rives couvertes / De fleurs, d’ailes, d’éclairs, de riches plantes vertes” (“Skimming the Nile, I see flitting by two banks covered / With flowers, with wings, with flashes of brightness, with rich green plants”). the notion, however, that the poem will offer the reader a prettily versified travelogue is fast disrupted by the appearance of a bracket introducing a parenthetical thought, and soon after that, this parenthetical thought is itself interrupted by another bracket launching a second divagation, which is then itself interrupted by a third bracket and a new stream of related observations that are in turn interrupted by a fourth bracket, with its new line of discourse… Roussel also makes use of footnotes that may themselves contain as many as three sets of . . .

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