By Braulio Tavares
Raymond Queneau's mind could have been described as a room with a fireplace, where a group of Club Stories characters gathered together and talked endlessly among themselves -- a mathematician, a humorist, a scholar, a linguist, a poet, a detective. For the Scriptorium's purposes I assume that you, dear reader, are not familiar with his work, and this text will try to give you an idea (albeit incomplete) about his ideas, his personality and his writings.
Queneau was born in Le Havre in 1903 and went to Paris when he was 17. For some time he joined André Breton's Surrealist group, but after only a brief stint he dissociated himself. Now, seeing Queneau's work in retrospect, it seems inevitable. The Surrealists tried to achieve a sort of pure expression from the unconscious, without mediation of the author's self-aware "persona." Queneau's texts, on the contrary, are quite deliberate products of the author's conscious mind, of his memory, his intentionality.
Although Queneau's novels give an impression of enormous spontaneity, they were in fact painstakingly conceived in every small detail. He even once remarked that he simply could not leave to hazard the task of determining the number of chapters of a book. Talking about his first novel, Le Chiendent (usually translated as The Bark Tree), he pointed out that it had 91 sections, because 91 was the sum of the first 13 numbers, and also the product of two numbers he was particularly fond of: 7 and 13.
For some time during the 1930s, Queneau researched what he called "les fous littéraires," or "literary madmen" -- writers who produce eccentric theories about various aspects of Reality, and are usually labeled as "cranks" or "kooks" for their efforts. (If you are interested in the theme, here is a link to the Kooks Museum). He read extensively along a ring of libraries, finally producing a 700-plus page volume which was rejected by the usual editors. Queneau had eliminated from his research all writers who belonged to some "ideological" group -- all mystics, all satanists, all Socialists, all occultists. He was interested mainly in those ../authors.html who claimed for themselves the discovery of some fundamental truth, like the squaring of the circle. The ../authors.html he searched for were not madmen in the strict sense, but "normal" people -- men not much different from, say, Charles Fort (The Book of the Damned) or Edward Symmes (of the Hollow Earth hypothesis). He called them "Ever-wandering souls along the strangest ways" ("Des esprits égarés sur des chemins étranges").
Although Queneau was unable to publish his huge manuscript, part of it entered his novel Les enfants du limon (1938). This work features one Monsieur Chambernac, the author of an Encyclopedia of Inexact Sciences, a huge book about "les fous littéraires." Apart from the many excerpts of his research which he managed to infiltrate into that novel, Queneau analyzed some of his favorite fous in his collections of essays (Bâtons, chiffres et lettres, 1950; and Bordes, 1963).
Queneau became a well-known name in France after the huge success of his novel Zazie dans le métro (1959), in which he tells the adventures of a 12-year-old girl from the country who comes to Paris for the first time. Zazie was filmed by Louis Malle the following year, when the French nouvelle vague was sweeping across the international movie scene, and the success of both the book and the film propped Queneau to a sort of celebrity -- a fame seldom experienced by writers sharing his level of erudition and complexity. (Queneau also used to write song lyrics, and his Si tu t'imagines -- with music by Joseph Kosma -- was a popular tune of the fifties.)
In the Zazie novel, Queneau explored at length one of his favorite theories: that of the irrepressible growth of spoken, "popular" French language swallowing up the written, "noble" French (like what happened, more or less, to both Greek and Latin). Zazie is full of puns, wordplay, phonetic spelling and multiple strata of slang. Its intensely colloquial nature allowed it to become very popular, which was no small feat for a book with such Joycean qualities! (Queneau was strongly impressed when he first read Ulysses in French translation). Later, Queneau recognized that written French was a harder bone than he'd initially believed, but his experiments with what he called néo-Français remain fascinating, and added much flavor to his literature.
Queneau joined in 1950 the Collège of Pataphysique, the group of intellectuals and writers whose zany, tongue-in-cheek manner brought a sort of Brothers-Marxist approach to French philosophy. Pataphysics was created by poet and playwright Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), and is defined as the science of imaginary solutions, or the science which investigates not the laws of Nature, but the exceptions to those laws. We can have a good grasp on Queneau's approach to life if we bear in mind that, while he belonged to the Pataphysics group, he also was appointed Director of the Encyclopédie de la Pléiade, arguably one of the most "serious" editorial jobs in France.
Also in 1950 he published Petite Cosmogonie Portative ("A Small, Portable Cosmogony"). Employing alexandrin verses, he describes in a sort of alchemical-scientific language the Creation of the Universe. The First Canto of the book announces:
Birth and youth of Earth; it bellows and cries (lines 1-45). The Moon detaches itself from Earth (46-64). Vulcans and sediments (trees and floods) (46-64). Retour to the origins: the primitive atom, the world's age, the seminal nebula (79-98). The numbers (99-134). The disintegration of the primitive atom (79-134), giving birth to the gradient of things symbolized by the rainbow (135-157). (...)
Faced with Queneau's cyclopean enterprise, we wobble, just like we wobbled before Pierre Menard's literary projects, because we see in it some of the babbling grandeur of Isidoro Funes's mind games. But Queneau's poem is a mix of classical epic poetry, science-speculation of a Stapledonian scale, and of course humor, the Absurd, and more colloquialisms. As in almost everything he wrote, he manages to be quite ambitious, and at the same time not to take himself too seriously.
In 1960 Queneau founded, together with François Le Lionnais, the "Oulipo" (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle). This is a group of writers who include Georges Perec, Harry Matthews, Jacques Roubaud, Italo Calvino, Jacques Bens and others. The Oulipo projects were to a great extent a result of Queneau's love for mathematics, a love that he expressed in a series of essays and papers on number theory, set theory and combinatory analysis. His book Borders collects some of those writings.
In 1961, Queneau published Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes. He wrote ten different sonnets, and had them printed on stripes of paper that could combine any of each sonnet's fourteen lines with any thirteen lines drawn from the others. This makes up for an astounding number of combinations (10 to the 14th power, to be exact). It is an interactive work avant la lettre, and online resources have made the process much easier. You may click here to go to a page where this Quennish thing is made possible.
Conceiving abstract structures and patterns is something essential to mathematical thinking, but most writers would find it not suitable to literature. It is curious to realize that one of Queneau's most popular books arose from such an idea. Exercices de style is a collection of 99 short-short pieces which recount, in different styles, the same banal incident: in the bus, the narrator bumps into a man with a long neck, and later sees him on a train station in the company of a friend who fixes a button on his coat.
Queneau employs 99 different "voices" to retell, over and over, this small event, in an exercise that questions our notions about literary realism. Nothing, in fact, can be more "realistic" than the small tranche de vie which is being retold, but the naturalistic quality of the fragment gradually dissolves under layers and layers of voices that range from "Géométrique" ("Dans un parallélépipède rectangle se déplaçant le long d'une ligne droite d'équation 84x + S = y, un homoïde A présentant une calotte sphérique entourée de deus sinusoïdes, au-dessus d'une partie cylindrique de longueur l>n, présent un point de contact avec un homoïde trivial B.") to "Hellénismes" ("Dans un hyperautobus plein de pétrolonautes, je fus martyr de ce microrama en une chronie de métaffluence: un hypotype plus qu'icosapige avec un pétase péricyclé par caloplegme..."), and from "Alors" ("Alors l'autobus est arrivé. Alors j'ai monté dedans. Alors j'ai vu un citoyen qui m'a saisi l'oeil..") to "Anglicismes" ("Un daí vers middai, je tèque le beusse et je sie un jeugne manne avec une grète neque et un hatte avec une quainnde de lèsses tressés.").
Exercices de style has been widely translated, and also adapted for the theatre -- even here in Brazil, where director Gabriel Vilela did an adaptation under the title Você vai ver o que você vai ver (You're gonna see what you're gonna see). Douglas Hofstadter also discusses many interesting questions raised by Queneau's book in his own Le Ton Beau de Marot.
Queneau used to say that there are only two kinds of novel: the odysseys and the iliads . He tried to combine both of them in both the title and the substance of his 1937 novel Odile, where he ficcionalizes his experiences in the French Army. Other works by him seemed to illustrate his remark that "it's possible to rhyme with actions, not just with word sounds": for example, both Loin de Rueil (1944) and Les fleurs bleues (1963) employ pairs of characters who are virtual Döppelgangers to each other, and whose lives have some sort of symmetric relationship.
Queneau was undoubtedly an erudite scholar, but an eclectic, even non-conventional, one. Between 1936 and 1938 he kept in a Parisian newspaper a daily column titled "Connaissez-vous Paris?", with questions-and-answers about curiosities from the city's history. He was capable of attending a college course about Hegel's philosophy, while at the same time reading the thirty-two volumes of the Fantomas series, written by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre. Fantomas was a pulp villain, sort of French blend between Maxwell Grant's The Shadow and Conan Doyle's Professor Moriarty. Queneau claims to have read the Fantomas series no less than four times; he tried to read it again for the fifth time, but gave up at volume twenty-four.
He was made a member of the Goncourt Academy in 1951, and died in 1976.
The whole of Queneau's work is in print and available at Éditions Gallimard (Paris), and most of his books have been translated into English.
Some French magazines and journals dedicated special editions to Raymond Queneau. Among them are:
L'Arc, nº 28, février 1966
Les Cahiers de l'Herne, 1975
Le Magazine littéraire, nº 94, novembre 1974; nº 228, mars 1986
Europe, nº 650 / 51, juin-juillet 1983
Trousse Livres, nº 55, décembre 1984
There is a great number of books about Queneau's life and work. Many of the facts referred here have been assembled from Jacques Jouet's Raymond Queneau (Paris: La Manufacture, 1989), Jacques Bens's Queneau (Paris: Gallimard, 1962, in "La Bibliothèque Ideale"), Luiz Rezende's notes to his Brazilian translation of Exercices de style (Exercícios de estilo, Rio de Janeiro, Imago, 1995) and Daniel Loayza epilogue to the Mexican edition of Bordes, titled Orillas -- Matemáticos, precursores, enciclopedistas (México, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1989)
--Braulio Tavares, 4 August 1999
More on Raymond Queneau
You may order Queneau's works online through Amazon.com by visiting the Libyrinth's Raymond Queneaeu Bookstore.
Annotated Bibliography and Research Aid -- Maintained by Charles T. Kestermeier, SJ, this site is invaluable to Queneau scholars and contains downloadable APF files.
Ron Swigger's Queneau Page -- Among other things, this site contains Queneau's Bibliothèque Idéale, a list of 100 essential books, the results of a poll conducted among fellow authors.
Queneau.net is a fairly comprehensive French page.
A Raymond Queneau homepage, with plenty of materials. (French)
Cunno's Po Hymns is an interactive site for Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes, set up by Beverley Charles Rowe.
Stéfan Sinclair's OuLiPo Page -- In English and French, this is a nice OuLiPo homepage.
Google News Search -- This will search news groups related to Queneau.
Yahoo News Search -- Searched Yahoo for artcles and news related to Queneau.
Northern Light -- This will search Northern Light for online articles and sites about Queneau and his work.
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