February 14, 2001

Poet Mark Ford Presents Portrait of French Writer

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An aura of the bizarre occupied a room full of Cornell students and faculty in the A.D. White House yesterday, as poet and author Mark Ford offered a glimpse into the life of Raymond Roussel, a man known to the literary world as the “President of the Republic of Dreams.”

Ford, currently a lecturer at University College in London, conducted a lecture about the eccentric 19th-century French writer and subject of his new book, “Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams,” which has just been published by Cornell University Press.

Fresh Approach

The book is one of the first full-scale biographies written in English about Roussel.

John Ackerman, director of the C.U. Press, praised Ford as a “distinctly original voice” in contemporary literature, and called Roussel “one of the most intoxicating figures of 20th century letters.”

Ford presented several close readings of Roussel’s imaginatively detailed work, which included stories about a worm playing a wind instrument and a woman with “musical hair.”

Heavily influenced by the ideology known as the “New York School of Poets,” Roussel’s work is characterized by its “departure from the characteristics of modern 19th century literature,” Ford said. “Everything in his work is derived from imagination.”

Ford also presented pictures of Roussel, which aided in his description of the author’s more off-beat tendencies, such as dressing up as a chambermaid and an 18th century marquis.

Although Roussel achieved posthumous fame as a genius of the written word, and was “convinced of his destiny for literary greatness, during his life, most critics considered his work a waste of time,” Ford said.

Many who attended the lecture disagreed with such criticism.

“I had never heard of Raymond Roussel before, but Professor LaCapra recommended this lecture, and it was fascinating,” said Efe Cummings ’02. “Once I can speak French fluently, I’d like to read his original work.”

Professor Nelly Furman, French, acknowledged the importance of Roussel’s influence as a French writer.

“It’s certainly a big moment when an influential writer gets introduced to a new readership,” Furman said. “And Roussel is known for his influence on a number of modern French writers and artists.”

Roussel has clearly influenced Ford, who first became interested in the writer while writing his dissertation on John Ashbery, a poet who was heavily influenced by Roussel.

Ford later published an article in the New Republic about Ashbery and Roussel, and began his work on Roussel’s biography in 1989 after the discovery of the writer’s original manuscripts.

Archived article by Hillary Profita