(Raymond Roussel, 1910)

Guest submission by Andrew Hugill


[Louise Montalescot] was very beautiful in her officer’s costume, with her long fair curls escaping freely from a close-fitting forage cap, tilted over one ear.

Her blue dolman, which clung tightly to her splendid figure, was decorated on the right side with a shining gold shoulder-knot; it was from the aglets of this that proceeded the discreet chord […] which was actually produced by the young woman’s breathing, by means of a surgical connection, linking the base of the lung and the arrangement of coiled braids, which served to camouflage a number of separate sounding-tubes.


Bex halted in the middle of the square, giving everybody time to examine the apparatus.

The glass cage enclosed a huge musical instrument, consisting of brass horns, strings. Circular bows, mechanical keyboards of every sort, and a splendid paraphernalia devoted to the percussion section.

The fragile tube of an excessively tall thermometer rose out of the top […]

A lump of bexium, submitted to various temperatures, changed its volume, proportionately, according to a scale which could be measured from one to ten. […]

Turning the red handle first, he propelled a great current of heat into the cage, then quickly stopped the stream of air when he saw the violet liquid reach the desired level, after rising rapidly. […]

To begin with, there arose a slow cantilena, tender and plaintive, with an accompaniment of calm, regular arpeggios.

A solid wheel, as in a hurdy-gurdy, passed like an endless bow across a long cord, stretched over a sound board; on this string, with its pure note, automatic hammers fell like the fingers of a virtuosos, and then were raised gently, producing all the notes of the scale without a gap. […]

The pseudo-violin then joined the piano and cello to bled in an adagio from some classical trio.

Presently, as the liquid moved one division further in the same direction, the slow solemn pace changed into a scherzo, almost staccato, while retaining the same combination of instruments. […]

In obedience to his movements, a brilliant fanfare struck up […] the whole family of brass was represented.[…]

Suddenly, opening the cold tap as far as it would go, Bex swiftly produced a terrible frost … All eyes were on a gramophone with a large horn, from which emerged a rich and powerful baritone voice […]

To conclude, Bex set the thermometer at a series of subdivisions, marked in red on the tube. Thereupon, almost all the sections of the instrument played simultaneously, performing a great, majestic symphony, in which was blended a choir, clearly heard, from the gramophone.


The Hungarian Skariofsky appeared, in his tight-fitting, red tzigane jacket, and wearing on his head a forage cap of the same colour.

His right sleeve, rolled up to the elbow, revealed a thick coral bracelet, wound six times around his arm.

The first negro carried in his arms a zither and a folding stand.

Skariofsky opened the stand, whose four legs rested securely on the ground. Then, on the narrow, hinged frame which opened horizontally, he set the zither, which twanged with the slight jolt. […]

The second negro was carrying, without difficulty, a long transparent container, which Skariofsky placed like a bridge above the zither […]

Shaped like a trough, it was made of four sheets of mica. The largest sheets, two rectangles of equal dimensions, comprised a sloping base, their two planes obliquely joined. […] A gap the breadth of a pea ran the length of the underside of this transparent trough.

The third negro had just set down on the earth a large earthenware pot, filled to the brim with clear water, whose weight Skariofsky requested one of us to feel.

La Billaudière-Maisonnial, pouring a tiny drop into the hollow of his hand, suddenly showed the liveliest surprise, exclaiming that the strange liquid appeared to be as heavy as mercury.

[…]Then we saw the coral bracelet, which was actually a huge worm, unwind its first two coils and slowly stretch itself out to the Hungarian. […]

(The worm enters the container, which is positioned above the zither and filled with the heavy water)

The worm, left to its own devices, suddenly raised a section of its body, only to let it fall back immediately after.

A drop of water, having had time to slip through the gap, landed heavily on one of the strings, which, vibrating with the shock, produced a low C, loud and clear. […]

After tuning up, the worm began a slow Hungarian melody, full of tender and languid sweetness.

Every drop of water, released by a deliberate contortion of its body, correctly struck the chosen string […]

Several tunes, both plaintive and gay, followed the first cantilena without interruption.

Then, going beyond the bounds of the usual repertory allotted to the instrument, the reptile threw itself into the polyphonic execution of a particularly lively waltz.

(There follows an entire concert of Hungarian czardas, selections from operetta, and improvised passages of “incredible virtuosity displayed in various successions of demi-semiquavers”).


Suddenly the stage was revealed, completely transformed.

Half-way up, an old blind man, in mid-eighteenth-century costume, appeared facing us, at a turn in the staircase, in the process of descending. In his left hand he held a dark bunch of greenery, consisting of a number of sprigs of holly. By examining the bottom of the spray closely, it was possible after a while, to distinguish all the colours of the rainbow, in the form of seven silk bows, tied individually, to each of the stems in the bunch.

With a goose quill which he held in his free hand, the blind man was writing on the balustrade to his right, which, by reason of its flat rail and pale colour, offered a convenient smooth surface. […]

Pointing at the stage with his finger, Carmichael addressed these words to the audience:

‘Handel composing the theme of his oratorio Vesper, by a mechanical process.’

These are just a handful of the more spectacular imaginary instruments described in Raymond Roussel’s most extraordinary novel, Impressions d’Afrique (Impressions of Africa, 1910). Roussel himself was trained as a musician, having been admitted to the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 15 to study piano. His books Impressions d’Afrique and Locus Solus (1914) consist almost completely of descriptions of strange machines, contraptions and performances, including many examples of imaginary musical instruments. The ‘plots’ of these books show the influence of Jules Verne, Camille Flammarion (the astronomer and creator of ‘imaginary worlds’) and certain ‘exotic’ travel writers of the time, such as Pierre Loti. Roussel himself travelled widely in a roulotte, one of the earliest mobile homes which he, as a wealthy man, had constructed. But his real voyages, as he makes clear in the revelatory text How I Wrote Certain of My Books (published posthumously in 1935), are in what he terms the realm of “Conception,” rather than “Reality.”
Impressions of Africa is an example of pure Conception. The story begins half way through the book, and is very simple: a group of Europeans are shipwrecked on the coast of an entirely imaginary Africa. Having been captured by the local chieftain, they, and their captors, pass the time while waiting for their ransoms to arrive by staging a series of entertainments. The second half of the story (which is the first half of the book) describes these entertainments. The first half of the story, read second, describes how they came about. These two layers do nothing to clarify their mystery, however: the events are utterly bizarre. When one reads How I Wrote Certain of my Books, it emerges that all the inventions are underpinned by Roussel’s hidden ‘poetic method’, made largely of slight deviations in meaning between similar sounding words, and collections of isomorphic puns. Thus, for example, the thermo-mechanical orchestrion of the chemist Bex translates variations in temperature into musical timbres, but does so as the result of the punning phrase “sabot à dégrès”, where ‘sabot’ means either a clog or a dud violin, and ‘dégrès’ refers both to the steps of a musical scale and the degrees on a thermometer.
Text: Impressions of Afirca, translated by Lindy Foord and Rayner Heppenstall (London: John Calder, 1983).
Image: Bomb Magazine