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
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
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.
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:
You have to admit it, art has severe principles that go far beyond the fame of the haughties. The haughties: those who believe they have a bit of it. They distinguish. They paradigm. They perpend. They sneakify. They gaudify. With my quill in the air, I say no and put three ens to my name and innumerable “o”s.
Il faut bien l’avouer, l’art a des principes sévères et qui vont bien au-delà de la notoriété des fiérus. Les fiérus: ceux qui s’en croient un brin. Ils distinguent. Ils paradigment. Ils parpitent. Ils sournoisent. Ils tartousent. Moi, la plume en l’air, je dis non et j’y mets trois enne à mon nom et d’innombrables z “o” s.
Yes, sometimes we can cajole language into doing the work by itself, or appearing to. Queneau reveled in word-surfing.
At the center of the miscellaneous collection sits a thirty-page playlet—one insignificant incident in a Métro passage enacted twice with small variations. A couple nearby breaks up on mere whim. Everything from situation to characters to dialogue is based on cliché. Time goes by. Everything repeats itself. Nothing happens. This generically absurdist play, called In Passing, was written in the early 1940s and staged in 1947, three years before Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and six years before Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. But the theater of the absurd did not attract Queneau. He was intent on fiction and poetry.
In his novels and in the shorter fictional pieces in Stories & Remarks, Queneau wrote what I am tempted to call narratives of nothingness. In “A Bit of Glory,” an obscure author is relieved to find his books being read in the Bibliothèque Nationale by a lackadaisical scholar. That way the author will survive. But the scholar loses his manuscript and stops working. The author “felt himself weaken little by little and disintegrate.” Enraged at this indifference, the author murders the scholar. Then nothing remains. This motif of our surmounting death through others’ thinking of us or remembering us plays a significant part in the play No Exit (1944) by Queneau’s friend Jean-Paul Sartre. For both authors, mere survival becomes precarious.
A more fantastic fragment, “At the Forest’s Edge,” contains a member of the Chamber of Deputies on a walking tour, an ape in man’s clothing, and a talking dog. This story too moves toward the disappearance of everything, though with little suggestion of menace. But the three seemingly autobiographical pages of “Green with Fright” begin in spoof and end in terror. The narrator overdoses on chestnut purée, probably an allusion to Sartre’s meditation in Nausea on the sheer disgusting existence of a chestnut tree’s roots reaching into the earth. The narrator’s discomfort sends him down a long hall to piss in a distant WC. In the darkness after the flush, “I sensed the presence of nothingness in the corridor, without any atmosphere of existence.” By this point the mocking tone of the opening, without disappearing, has granted admission to what I read as genuine metaphysical anguish. In such a trivial yet extreme situation, does anything sustain sheer physical being around us?
This unpretentious sampler of Queneau’s writings sets before us many instances of “the world turned upside-down,” a stringing together of impossibilities, a genre practiced since Archilochus and Virgil, revived in sections of Carmina Burana, and welcomed by the Surrealists in dream narratives and automatic writing. But Queneau tempered the rambunctious spirits of the world turned upside down by blending them with an even more ancient motif: “All must die.” The tone produced by this hybrid is sometimes very difficult to grasp.
Queneau’s two most successful books are Exercices de style, fifty-some stylistic variations of a single stupid anecdote about a man on a bus, and Zazie dans le métro, the twanging Parisian lark of a barely teenage girl. The former carries the carnival mood to the extreme of linguistic inventiveness. The latter explores narrative zani-ness spawned by a subversive teeny-bopper left in the care of her female-impersonator uncle. She never does get a ride in the Métro. Both entertain us marvelously and earned their way to best-sellerdom and to dramatic adaptation, Exercices as a play, Zazie as a movie. But because they avoid Queneau’s dark side, I find their appeal limited. A book that will allow us to peer deeper into Queneau’s hybrid universe is a sexy hard-boiled thriller published under the pseudonym Sally Mara and presented as a translation from the Gaelic.
We Always Treat Women Too Well has a curious provenance. Following the Liberation of Paris in August 1944, Queneau was active in the National Writers Committee formed mostly by partisans of the Resistance. The organization published the paper Front National in which Queneau was given a column for a year. The eighty pages he wrote in those tense days of physical hardship and political score-settling contain two revealing columns.
In December 1944 Queneau read in the English review Horizon George Orwell’s essay “Raffles and Miss Blandish.” It led Queneau to comment on the irony that in Britain the favorite “escape” literature during the darkest days of Nazi bombing, James Hadley Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1938), celebrates “fascist behavior” in its gangster heroes. Queneau points out that, in contrast to Chase’s escape novel, Camus’s new play Caligula (about to open with Gérard Philipe) condemned Emperor Caligula’s excessive freedom because “exercised against other men.” Then in November 1945 Queneau’s column discussed the moral and ideological links between Hitlerism in Germany and gangster novels, “black humor,” and a few of the more troubling authors in the Western tradition. Queneau unflinchingly insists on the disastrous influence of Nietzsche and the Marquis de Sade (welcomed by the Surrealists) in preparing the nihilism of the Nazi slaughterhouses. Out of this clearsightedness about the real effects of literature on personal and social behavior, Queneau composed one of his most sustained yet inscrutable spoofs.
We Always Treat Women Too Well reverses the situation of No Orchids for Miss Blandish. Chase’s exploited and violently raped heroine is replaced by a patriotic seductress reveling in the destruction of her captors in the post office they have seized. Chase’s heroized gangsters turn into bumbling whiskey-drinking Irish rebels in the Dublin uprising of 1916. “God Save the King” and “Finnegans Wake” become the two opposing battle cries in a highly imaginary cityscape based on Joyce. The cartoon-like British gunboat Furious on the Liffey, which finally liberates the post office, sails straight out of Jarry’s Ubu Roi. Queneau wrote this extended gag under a false name for a publisher of lurid, violently erotic potboilers. In a review of it in The New Yorker, John Updike observed that Queneau “is both protesting and imitating construed sex and violence as part of a single force field…. This farce feels genuinely sexy.” I think we can probe a little deeper.
We Always Treat Women Too Well leaves a strong impression both as an entertaining and as a disconcerting book. Have we responded adequately if we just chuckle and move on, as is the case for Exercices de style and Zazie dans le métro? A comparison may help. Many filmgoers explained their delight in Pulp Fiction (1994) as a response to Tarantino’s send-up of splatter films. I find the movie, on the contrary, entirely complicit with the “cool” universe of untrammeled violence it portrays. Queneau’s quirky novel, on the other hand, succeeds through a number of stylistic and narrative parodies in producing a true pastiche of the sadistic thriller.
Gertie, the respectable virgin, deploys her considerable charms to seduce all but one of the seven rebels who hold her prisoner. At the end “for the glory of Ireland” the two rebels who remain alive decide to guarantee her silence about their unheroic conduct by submitting her to a sexual move she never dreamed of: sodomy, sparingly described. But why should that act seal her lips? Updike says the novel is about sexual initiation. I find the novel to be about literary manipulation—about abandoning plausibility of motivation and action so thoroughly by the end that only laughter is left to us. Queneau’s asides and absurdities make it impossible to maintain suspension of disbelief. The novel simply comes undone. We don’t often recognize such a category, but, unlike Tarantino in Pulp Fiction, Queneau has written a socially responsible thriller. He does not condone violence.
I have spoken primarily of Queneau’s prose work. The thousand pages of poetry collected in the first volume of his ?uvres complètes show that he lived and breathed every day a variety of verse forms familiar to French readers in the popular works of Villon, Verlaine, Apollinaire, and Prévert. Few of Queneau’s poems have been translated. Once again he mixes into his effervescent lines a constant sense of the comic at the prospect of the world running down:
Ma jeunesse est finie
Ma jeunesse est partie
Je reste sur le cul
avec quarante ans d’Age
My youth has gone
My youth is done
Flat on my ass
Forty years old
He made two major attempts to put aside light verse for something more ambitious. I find Petite Cosmogonie portative (1950), written in traditional alexandrine lines, unconvincing as a description of the universe as it has evolved. Morale élémentaire (1975) remains close to impenetrable with an invented verse form based on Chinese models and two sequences of prose poems. The latter fuse the intensely spiritual tone of Rimbaud with the jarring swerves of automatic writing. Claude Debon’s superb presentation and annotation of the poems do not persuade me that they will remain as a major contribution to French literature of the past century.
One might well conclude that Queneau with his spoofs and his unrepentant classicism and his verbal tricks and his solid learning and his jacket and tie rides off in too many directions for us to follow. Is he merely an author of many disguises for whom every joke provides a further incognito? Yes—but without the “merely.” Queneau never stops his skirmish with himself over what tone of voice to use in talking to us. One result of this running debate about genre and level and language is that Queneau produced no masterpiece, no powerful character or lasting work that stands out. And occasionally he lost his footing and his equilibrium.
The other result of Queneau’s independent path through the period of European modernism from 1920 to 1970 was his rediscovery and reaffirmation of a vital literary tradition. He located the ancient strain of writing that, instead of separating farce and philosophy, maintains the link between them. Civilization grows slowly and powerfully, carrying with it a great cloak of seriousness. It is the most capacious and sympathetic minds that prevent us from being muffled by that seriousness. Plato made sure that we register the ridiculous, awkward, absent-minded side of pug-nosed Socrates. In the Symposium, Alcibiades begins his encomium by comparing Socrates to a Silenus figure—an ugly satyr on the outside and the impressive figure of a god within.
Two millennia later, Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote an equally double-bottomed work, In Praise of Folly, in which the female pagan figure of Folly surveys all conventional wisdom and finds it wanting. She concludes that the wisest of all gods was Jesus, “who became something like a fool in order to cure the folly of mankind” and who chose “the foolishness of the Cross.” Erasmus also used the Silenus figure and passed the metaphor on to Rabelais, who cites it in the first sentence of his prologue. These paradoxes aligning folly and wisdom, ridiculousness and integrity in Socrates and Jesus flow down to us through characters as magnificent and as ludicrous as Don Quixote, Falstaff, and Rameau’s nephew.
In the visual arts I believe that the link between farce and philosophy is given fresh expression in the stunning development of caricature as a dis-tinct genre. Hogarth, Daumier, and Grandville gave “modern” art the confidence to employ ugliness and distortion in order to see beyond the sur-face of appearances. And I attribute to the coupling of farce and philosophy a powerful strain of modern literature that connects Lewis Carroll with Jarry’s King Ubu and with Kafka’s dour fables and Ionesco’s theater of the absurd.
This is where Queneau finds his place. In his various voices of pop songs and preposterous stories with talking animals and characters anguished by the experience of the universe running down, he keeps bringing us back to a secret refuge: the cosmic joke. Queneau’s hearty welcome of ‘Pataphysics, “the science of laws governing exceptions,” tells us that this serious mathematician grasped that there is a comic side even to science. If we ever lose our sense that even the most momentous motif—say, the Crucifixion—can be treated jocularly (Jarry did so in “The Passion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race”), then we have lost an essential part of our humanity.
Near the middle of Erasmus’s masterpiece of self-irony, Folly turns to the topic of royal fools valued by kings above all courtiers and counselors. What gives the fool his privileged status? Erasmus supplies a clear yet contradictory answer. The fool can turn anything into a joke and provoke welcome laughter. And the fool—alone in his privilege much of the time—can tell the truth.
Queneau served no king and no court. He belongs to a separate line of the popular fool, serving us all. He has the temerity to tell us that the bases of reality are dissolving around us as we watch. The world will not last. And he has the gall to respond to the news with unsuppressed chuckles.
February 22, 2001