Roussel’s Method

Before his death (most likely a suicide; in 1933) Raymond Roussel arranged for the posthumous publication of a work entitled Comment j’ai ecrit certains de mes livres (How I Wrote Certain of My Books). In it he claims to divulge the method by which many of his works were written. What he gives is a partial explanation, but one that still offers much food for thought and perhaps a mystery that, unlike those in the plots of his works, is not solved by the end of the text.

“Roussel’s Method” is based on polysemy (multiple meanings) and homophony (similar sounds).

For one of his short stories he started with a sentence filled with words which offered the potentiality for multiple meanings. By changing one letter he created a second sentence with an almost completely different meaning. These two sentences formed the beginning and ending of his story. From there the puzzle was getting from one to the other.

For instance (most famously):

“Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard.”
[The white (chalk) letters on the cushions of the old billiard table.]


“Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard.”
[The white man’s letters about the hordes of the old plunderer.]

formed the beginning and ending concepts for his story “Parmi les noirs” (Among the Blacks) and later that of his novel Impressions d’Afrique.

Similarly, as a spur for the many odd events and objects that saturate his works he used polysemic words put into groups of two linked by the preposition “à” — which in French can have many meanings/uses (with, at, in, to, from, etc.) — thus creating two identical groupings with different meanings (or rather one grouping with two meanings).

For example (in relation to the sentences above and used in the same works):

“bandes à reprises”
[darns on the billiard cushion or musical reprises of the hordes]


“blanc à colle”
[glue on the chalk or white man in detention]

You’ll notice that these terms bear semantic relation to the sentences elaborated above. In this way the method created a proliferation of possibilities.

In other cases he took found phrases and created homophonic sentences from them, such as:

“Mais ce n’est pas pour ton fichu nez.” (a line from a song)
“Mets son et bafone, don riche humé.”

Which sound very similar when spoken and were used in Impressions d’Afrique.

In these ways Roussel claims the writing of his novels (Impressions d’Afrique (Impressions of Africa), Locus Solus), his plays (L’Etoile au front (The Star on the Forehead), La Poussiere de soleils (The Dust of Suns)), numerous short stories, and an unfinished work called “Documents to Serve as an Outline”.

In his essay he adds some comments relevant to any use of constraint:

“Still, one needs to know how to use it [the method]. For just as one can use rhymes to compose good or bad verses, so one can use this method to produce good or bad works.” (p.16 of the Exact Change trans.)


Roussel, Raymond. “How I Wrote Certain of My Books.” Trans. Trevor Winkfield in How I Wrote Certain of My Books. Ed. Trevor Winkfield. Boston: Exact Change, 1995.