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Farce & Philosophy

Stories & Remarks

by Raymond Queneau, with a preface by Michel Leiris, translated and with an introduction by Marc Lowenthal
University of Nebraska Press,155 pp., $45.00; $15.00 (paper)

The Bark Tree[Le Chiendent]

by Raymond Queneau, translated from the French by Barbara Wright
New Directions, 281 pp. (out of print)

Odile

by Raymond Queneau,translated from the French by Carol Sanders
Dalkey Archive Press, 117 pp., $10.95 (paper)

Raymond Queneau (1985)

by Allen Thiher
Twayne, 148 pp. (out of print)

Exercises in Style

by Raymond Queneau,translated from the French by Barbara Wright
New Directions, 197 pp., $10.95 (paper)

Zazie[Zazie dans le métro]

by Raymond Queneau, translated from the French by Barbara Wright
Riverrun Press, 207 pp. (out of print)

å?uvres complètes, Volume One

by Raymond Queneau, edited by Claude Debon
Paris: Gallimard, 1,647 pp.FF420

We Always Treat Women Too Well [On est toujours trop bon avec les femmes]

by Raymond Queneau. translated from the French by Barbara Wright
London: John Calder, 175 pp., $10.95 (paper)

1.

In Paris around 1949, “existentialist cabarets” became very chic. That year the Frères Jacques and Juliette Greco, popular singers on the cabaret scene, recorded a song that quickly became a hit. The words were written by a moody ex-Surrealist in his forties, Raymond Queneau. The simple lyrics, set to music by Joseph Kosma, combined a “seize the day” motif with the low-life diction Jacques Prévert had popularized in Paroles (1945). Such playful-plaintive language is nearly impossible to translate:

Si tu t’imagines
si tu t’imagines
fillette fillette
si tu t’imagines
xa va xa va xa
va durer toujours
la saison des za
la saison des za
saison des amours
ce que tu te goures
fillette fillette
ce que tu te goures
If you really think
if you really think
baby oh baby doll
if you really think
the love show just goes on
goes on like this nonstop
goes on like this nonstop
you’ve got it wrong all wrong
baby oh baby doll
you’ve got it wrong all wrong

Two further stanzas, echoing Ronsard’s “Ode to Cassandra,” encourage the young girl to pluck the roses of life before they and she fade. The phonetic spelling of a vernacular contraction (xa va for que ça va) is Queneau’s trademark in both verse and fiction. The comic wistfulness of “Si tu t’imagines” made him something of a celebrity. But he had to live modestly on any literary work he could find.

Two years earlier, in 1947, Queneau had published an utterly different work. It consisted of the careful notes he took on a seven-year course of lectures about Hegel given at the École Pratique des Hautes Études by the Russian émigré Alexandre Kojève. The lectures and Queneau’s version of them became influential among many intellectuals: Georges Bataille, André Breton, Raymond Aron, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the American Allan Bloom (who called Kojève “the most intelligent Marxist of the twentieth century”). Kojève’s discussion of Hegel allowed him to preach the end of history, the moral equivalence of Soviet communism and Western capitalist democracy, and the bureaucratization of politics. Recently opened Soviet archives contain evidence that Kojève may have been a Soviet agent—all this at a very high intellectual level.

Queneau’s pursuit of knowledge in philosophy, mathematics, languages, and world literature led to a twenty-year commitment to editing an encyclopedia for the Gallimard publishing house, where he also served as a literary adviser. The three volumes of the Encyclopédie de la Pléiade—a total of six thousand pages—cover all world literatures from Egyptian and Assyro-Babylonian to Near and Far Eastern to European and North and South American. So far as I can ascertain, the three Pléiade volumes planned and commissioned by Queneau offer the most comprehensive account of world literature available in any language. Seventy prominent scholars and professors from throughout the world were given their assignment by a freelance writer in Paris who turned out jocose stories and poems and hung out in Saint-Germain-des-Prés bars and bistros. One cannot doubt the seriousness of this immense project, still in print in updated editions after nearly fifty years.

But Queneau’s jocular writings and his substantial contribution to Hegel studies and to writing literary history do not exhaust his literary persona. One soon finds another element, particularly in his early fiction. His first work was Le Chiendent, published in 1933 when he was disentangling himself from the byzantine politics and automatic writing of the Surrealist clique. The word chiendent refers to a common weed that drives out the desired crop—best rendered as “witch grass” rather than “bark tree” as in Barbara Wright’s 1968 translation. This desultory tale of undistinguished yet eccentric Parisians circles around a theme that threatens to take over the book the way witch grass invades a field. That theme is the precariousness of reality around us, the imminence of nonbeing, a principle identified in physics as the second law of thermodynamics, namely, entropy. The universe is running down in a way some of us can feel physically, like falling temperature or fading sound.

Le Chiendent opens with one character emerging from the crowd as a bare silhouette observed by a café habitué who can barely hold onto his own existence. Their lives then intersect gratuitously yet fatally. Before long we read this kind of comment embedded in the narrative: “The being of minimal reality doesn’t know what to think of himself. He looks at the other woman and the man in the back room. The French fries start browning. All this seems prodigiously absurd to him.” Saturnin, a dreamy concierge, tries to engage in automatic writing, which refuses to flow. The most he can eke out is, “There isn’t anything.” Later, Saturnin’s compulsive meditation on a lump of butter carries him deeper into metaphysics. “The point is that nonbeing isn’t on one side and being on the other. There’s nonbeing, and that’s all, seeing that being isn’t. That’s where I was trying to get.” Near the end: “Slowly, gently, Etienne felt himself diminishing.” On the last page, the characters decide that they are all in this book together, written down, and it cannot be crossed out. Yet at that point they separate, flatten out, and vanish.

Queneau’s narrative remains jovial in tone, seemingly unruffled. But I read Witch Grass not, as some critics have proposed, as a pastiche of Cartesian doubt but as a Lewis Carroll–like account of an obsession. Reality cannot be counted on. It may collapse at any moment. We need every trick we can contrive to hold it in place: cock and bull stories, the hocus-pocus of abstract ontological thinking as practiced by Hegel, the repeating mechanism of rhythm and rhyme in poetry. Queneau has accompanied us into the world where a grin cannot disguise an unease that permeates everything and threatens everything. Kafka and Borges hover in the wings, but Queneau had not learned from them. He is working close to a folk tradition of entropy, of unreality.

Try this tale, spoken emphatically by an Irishman:
I was going over Westminster Bridge the other day, and I met Pat Hewins. “Hewins,” I says, “how are you?” “Pretty well,” says he, “thank you, Donnelly.” “Donnelly,” says I: “that’s not my name.” “Faith, no more is mine Hewins,” says he. So we looked at each other again, and sure it turned out to be nayther of us.1 An Irish bull pulls the props out from under everything, even as life goes by on Westminster Bridge. It can happen anywhere. We are loath to record how the ground caves in.

Some years ago when I arrived in Dakar, Senegal, to teach American literature at the university, all my students and all my colleagues were black as ebony. For a month they all looked the same. I couldn’t recognize people I had met recently two or three times. The usual cues for distinguishing one person from another were drowned in a single all-absorbing color. I felt deeply humiliated and lost confidence in my most basic faculties of perception. One fellow teacher always identified himself by name. Did he grasp my plight? Before long he told all. “Don’t worry about not recognizing us. The same thing happened to me in Scotland. After Africa, every white person looked the same. But I finally caught on.”

I almost hugged him for saving my self-respect, and he was right about catching on in time. But the memory of that crisis remains with me. I lost the capacity to distinguish the parts of the world most essential to me. For weeks, my neighbors and familiars remained silhouettes, obliterated by uniformity, absorbed into a category. I recovered. But the traumatic interlude has left me with the lingering prospect of waking up one morning and discovering I cannot recognize my own life.

So Queneau combines the qualities of a joker, a learned man, and a creator of black holes where the world and the mind can unexpectedly vanish into nothingness. At least that is one way to describe this exceptional man of letters. Jean Grosjean, the editor who took over from Queneau as director of the Encyclopédie de la Pléiade, went out of his way in his preface to the 1977 edition to state that Queneau had found sources of wonderment equally in learning and in creation. “We should not dissociate his works in which a singular humor rules from the Encyclopedia to which he devoted equal time.” If Grosjean is right, then Queneau’s contradictions testify to a deep-seated equilibrium.

2.

Born in the port of Le Havre in 1903 to shopkeeping parents, Queneau did brilliantly in the lycée and went to Paris in 1921 to continue his studies in philosophy and literature. At eighteen he subscribed to the Dada review Littérature edited by Breton and Aragon, attended a lecture on occultism by the celebrated medium Annie Besant, discovered Chesterton’s A Man Named Thursday, and went through a period of profound skepticism. “Je m’émiette,” he wrote: “I’m crumbling,” “I’m coming apart.” But his dalliance through the 1920s with the Surrealists did not lead to revolutionary posturing and nonconformity. We know from his autobiographical novel Odile that the Surrealist interlude brought him to a reckoning with maturity. “I no longer feared being a ‘normal’ person…. The days of supercilious scoffing were over. I no longer wanted to resist the love of another but to offer my own.”

Queneau married Breton’s sister-in-law and settled down to a life of steady literary study and writing. Like Marcel Duchamp, Queneau learned in his personal life the art of what I call “ironic conformity.” He didn’t have to be ostentatiously different. Photographs show him always in jacket and tie. He enjoyed the mock pomp and intricate hierarchy of the Collège de ‘Pataphysique, which named him a Satrap in 1950, and he dutifully accepted the responsibilities of the Académie Goncourt. Yet Queneau remained resolutely a freelance writer and thinker. He surrendered his conscience to no party, no clique, no institution. Toward the end of his life, finding a certain tranquillity, he turned increasingly to Chinese literature and philosophy as the path toward the spiritual.2

The unassumingly named Stories & Remarks is Queneau’s last book, published five years after his death in 1976. It has now appeared in a reli-able translation by Marc Lowenthal in an enterprising series, the French Modernist Library. (It’s a relief to be spared another claim to postmodernism.) In its 155 pages Stories & Remarks contains twenty-one pieces of varying length with fine introductory matter by Lowenthal and by the French author-ethnologist Michel Leiris. Since the selections cover Queneau’s career from beginning to end and represent most of his prose styles, the book forms something of a sampler. Word games abound. Ten pages of snippets devoted to homophones, puns, famous quotations distorted, and sheer verbal inventiveness carry the suggestive title “Texticules.” Lowenthal navigates these shoal-filled waters with skill. His neologisms stand toe to toe with Queneau’s:

  1. 1

    C.C. Bombaugh, Oddities and Curiosities of Words and Literature [1890], edited by Martin Gardner (Dover, 1961), p. 257.

  2. 2

    As an intelligent treatment of Queneau’s career and work, I recommend Allen Thiher’s Raymond Queneau (Twayne, 1985).

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