Gazing Into a Penholder

Why is it de rigueur for members of the avant-garde to try to stump us? Think of the Surrealists and the Dadaists, with their deadpan refusal to make sense; the authors of the French nouveau roman, with their poker-faced descriptions of trivial things; and the inexplicable mathematical games of Raymond Queneau. The present-day heirs of this tendency are conceptual artists, with their penchant for inscrutable brainteasers. When did ”experimental” become synonymous with ”mystifying”? Mark Ford’s smart new biography, ”Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams” (Cornell University, $35), hints at a novel answer: with Roussel (1877-1933), a strange and possibly mad French poet and fantasist whose following has included many of the most influential avant-gardists of the 20th century. Roussel’s power is that for them he functioned as a kind of proto-Andy Warhol. They could never be sure if he was pulling their leg.

The New York Times Book Review

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