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David Wallace on Raymond Roussel

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, David Wallace looks at The Alley of Fireflies, a century-old novel by the French proto-Modernist Raymond Roussel, now available for the first time in an English translation by Mark Ford:

The Alley of Fireflies, in Rousselian fashion, is a series of nested anecdotes. It begins with a contest, stipulated in a great book-collector’s will, “to demonstrate the outcome of some personal project” — the winner will inherit the collector’s estate. But, as soon as we meet the first contestant, we’re whisked away: the man begins describing a rare book he’s found, by the scientist Antoine Lavoisier, called The Alley of Fireflies, which recounts Lavoisier’s experiences in the garden of Frederick the Great. This leads us to a lost chapter of Voltaire’s Candide (a story of Pangloss’ youth that involves cross-dressing and being thrown into the shaft of an outhouse) and a complicated experiment to create a small statue of frozen wine to keep Voltaire’s drink cold. The story then turns into a description of yet another game, a “scientific” way of making dice-throwing even more random, which involves putting fireflies into the dice and using a book of local Spanish feast days to calculate numbers. There’s something moving about these Enlightenment leaders losing themselves in the arbitrary, and, as always, Roussel points back to the intricacies of his own method, its reliance on chance and play.