Review of Exercises in Style, by Raymond QueneauBy J.P. Smith
February 27, 2013
Mathematician, co-founder of OULIPO, author of the lyrics of “Si tu t’imagines” (a lovely song made famous back in the day by Juliet Greco: voilà:), formerly associated with André Breton and the Surrealists, reader, general secretary and eventual director of l’Encyclopédie de la Pléiade at the prestigious house of Gallimard, and all-around genius Raymond Queneau, published the first ninety-nine Exercices de Style in 1947, later augmented by twenty-five further exercises by Queneau himself. For this edition, les exercices have been expanded yet again with additions by Jesse Ball, Blake Butler, Amelia Gray, Shane Jones, Jonathan Lethem, Ben Marcus, Harry Mathews, Lynne Tillman, Frederic Tuten, and Enrique Vila-Matas.
The latest edition to appear in English from New Directions contains the original Barbara Wright translation. If you haven’t read Queneau, this is a terrific place to start. The story is very simple. I will tell it in my own way…
A long-necked man gets on a bus in Paris wearing a hat with, instead of a ribbon (which would have been more common and, I daresay, more acceptable, though who am I to pass judgment?) a length of cord, and this man, who’s around twenty-six or thereabouts, gets into an argument over something with another man and then, when a seat comes available, instantly throws himself into it. Two hours later he’s seen in the Cour de Rome, standing before the Gare St.-Lazare, talking to what one must suppose is a friend, who’s telling the long-necked guy that he should have an extra button put onto his overcoat.
This banal little anecdote is what this book—this machine, in a way —is built upon, and had it been more complicated, had it gone into motive and thought, it wouldn’t have worked as well as it does. We don’t know these characters, we have no idea where they’ve been or where they’re ultimately going. But these few tiny events, retold, in some cases reconfigured and revoiced, attest to the power of both language and storytelling, and make this trivial little tale into something that approaches a kind of myth, as myths—think of Orpheus and Eurydice—can be told in myriad ways, from the first version in Greek to Jean Cocteau’s film, allusively set in the shadowy years of the German Occupation of France, always holding its power to move us. In every possible way, wherever you turn in this volume, Exercises in Style attests to the power of storytelling.
Open this edition of Exercises in Style and you’ll read some 260 variations on that scenario, told in different voices, from different points of view, in different grammatical and mathematical permutations, indeed in different languages and accents (according to region and sometimes class). The core story seems something found, something probably observed by Queneau himself, and chosen simply because of its essential inconsequentiality. It’s an anecdote that has subtle backstory promise (this guy with the hat, the neck, the attitude, and what is his problem, anyway?), but is given in support not much more than the facts. It’s as if Joe Friday said, as he always did on the splendidly neurotic TV show, Dragnet, “Just the facts, ma’am,” and Ma’am gave it to him in a hundred or so different ways, driving Joe into early retirement and a hasty retreat to the bourbon bottle.
What the Exercises is really about is language and form, of which Queneau was one of the great 20th century masters. When the rules are narrow the creativity often blossoms. His first published novel, Le Chiendent, translated into English as, variously, The Bark Tree or Witch Grass, is a vibrant, funny and often haunting (it’s one of the two novels I’ve read that gave me nightmares) retelling of Descartes’s Discourse on the Method). Don’t let that put you off, because this is a terrific and compelling work. It was clear from Le Chiendent that form, taking on a given method and staying within strictures, was Queneau’s ideal way of working. It was likewise with fellow Oulipian Georges Perec, whose La Vie mode d’emploi (Life A User’s Manual) is restricted by a number of different rules. I have a volume of facsimiles of Perec’s notebooks for that great novel (or collection of novels, as the French subtitle, romans, suggests), and everything, every chapter, every rule, is laid out according to paradigms set in advance. Exactly what Queneau is tackling here.
Queneau was interested in language, especially the spoken language of the average French man or woman on the street. The Louis Malle film of one of his popular novels, Zazie dans le métro, is all about language: its first word is Doukipudonktan, which is a transcription of the French sentence: D’ou qu’ils puent donc tant? Or “Who stinks like this?” The movie subtitled it in English as “Holifart watastink.” Say it aloud and you understand it at once.
Queneau published some eighteen novels, ten volumes of poetry (of which one, Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes (A Hundred Million Million Poems) is a kind of do-it-yourself book of, yes, that many potential poems, its lines printed on separate leaves, each of which could be used with any permutation of any of the others. It’s said it would take you 200 million years to read them all. He also wrote a number of travel works, as well as an important collection of essays, Bâtons, chiffres et lettres, which is an essential guide to his thinking as a pioneer in potential literature.
What makes Exercises in Style so interesting is that, though one can read it from cover to cover, it’s a book that survives and indeed triumphs simply from its sheer ambition. Barbara Wright’s translation dates from as far back as 1958, and its age shows, though she knows the time and the milieu of Queneau’s world. Some of it is terribly out-of-date (and at times very English), but then again so is Anna Karenina, but we read both partly because they are of their times, they talk to us of another world. There really isn’t any need to update this version. It’s one of the great works of the 20th century and one should be grateful to New Directions to bring it back into print.
A great, great book.
And, I think, should also be considered as a must-read for teenagers who enjoy creative writing.