Raymond Queneau’s long fiction can be characterized by its wordplay, humor, and attentive concern with the lives of people living in ordinary circumstances. His pursuit of radical linguistic measures—such as that of James Joyce, who among other English-language authors served as his literary model—is almost always tied to a depiction of working-class and lower-middle-class conditions. In fact, the language experiments that most identify Queneau’s originality are his various ways of representing colloquial and slang expressions, or how real people actually talk. Interwoven with the depiction of the lives of ordinary people are an extraordinary number of learned allusions, buried quotations, and philosophical statements. Paradoxical as it may seem, Queneau’s work points to the level of what might be called metaphysical thinking even by characters who would not know the meaning of the word. For Queneau, philosophy is interesting and useful primarily as it reflects the insights of simple people, which are often of a startling profundity.
A Hard Winter
Queneau’s novels of the 1930’s deal with a range of subjects, from the lives of ordinary people in Le Havre, his birthplace, to his war experience in North Africa, to some of the crazy artists he knew in part through his associations with the Surrealists. A Hard Winter may be taken as representative of Queneau’s work from this decade. Set during World War I, the winter of 1916 specifically, the novel examines with cool and detached humor some of the contradictions in popular sentiment and the reality of wartime existence. Through a slowly developing romance seen through the perspective of the main character, Lehameau, the novel also investigates the repressed emotional lives of the people from this world.
The novel clearly incorporates elements of Queneau’s background and family experience. Lehameau, theprotagonist, enlisted, was wounded in action, and is now working as a liaison with the English armed forces stationed in Le Havre. At the opening of the book, a group of Chinese soldiers are marching through the streets to the general amusement of the population. Lehameau expresses his feelings to a young woman (Miss Weeds) in the uniform of the British Women’s Army Air Corps. —Zey lâffe, bicose zey dou notte undèrrstande [They laugh because they do not understand]. Il dit encore [He said]: —Aïe laïe-ke zatt: you dou nott lâffe [I like that: You do not laugh].
Here Queneau’s humor and wordplay are at the foreground of the passage, representing a Frenchman speaking accented English through the use of French orthography. Throughout Queneau’s work, the way people speak reveals more about them than they know about themselves. The passage has a deeper meaning as well, concerning the necessary understanding of people from other cultures. The dialogue also serves to set up a relationship between Lehameau and Miss Weeds that the rest of the novel explores.
Lehameau’s sentiments of universal understanding are placed in an ironic light. He is in fact a racist and a protofascist who, behind a pacifist ideology, harbors the belief in the necessity of a German victory to restore France to its true greatness. Queneau’s underlying motive for portraying such a character in a book published in 1939 can only be guessed. It is clear from the work itself that the intended effect is one of ironic distancing. Lehameau’s stunted emotional life becomes the amusing subject of the book, in spite of the antipathy his political views almost necessarily provokes in the reader.
The low level of Lehameau’s emotional development is further explored in the book through the relationship he cultivates with an adolescent girl and her younger brother following a random encounter on a bus. Lehameau courts the two of them through an appeal to English regimental badges and an obviously phony patriotism. He also takes the two to the cinema, after receiving the benevolent blessing of the head of the household, Madeleine, their older sister, who runs a brothel. Annette, the young girl, is one of Queneau’s typically precocious nymphets, and in this way she anticipates two of Queneau’s most famous characters, Sally Mara and Zazie. The way in which Lehameau’s relationship with Annette develops in parallel fashion with his relationship to Miss Weeds is the true core of the novel.
Lehameau and Miss Weeds gradually fall in love, but they are prevented from fulfilling their relationship by a mixture of ignorance and institutional prudery. Miss Weeds, in the service of the British armed forces, at first resists Lehameau’s overtures. When she later gives in to her feelings and they are on the verge of consummating their relationship, Miss Weeds is abruptly transferred back to England, effectively ending their relationship. The double standard of British morality is clearly Queneau’s target here: Miss Weeds is protected by the military bureaucracy from the morally dangerous Frenchman; at the same time, Madeleine’s primary customers in her bordello are the English soldiers stationed in Le Havre. Lehameau temporarily overcomes his sorrow at losing Miss Weeds through a brief tryst with Madeleine, at which time he also loses his virginity. In a surprise ending, on the last page of the book Lehameau marries—Annette. The various levels of irony at work in the novel prevent the reader finally from making any rigorous moral judgments on the actions of the characters.
Exercises in Style and We Always Treat Women Too Well
Queneau’s career as a novelist took a strange turn in 1947, when he published two very different works. Exercises in Style is not a novel at all, but there are many who regard it as Queneau’s greatest achievement. In a dazzling series of ninety-nine variations, the writer tests language to the limits of its possibilities. The narrative kernel remains constant throughout the various treatments: The speaker sees a strangely dressed man on a bus; the man angrily accuses a fellow passenger of stepping on his toes, then quickly grabs a vacant seat; two hours later, the speaker sees the man again talking with a man near the Gare Saint-Lazare. From formal logical analysis to haiku, from street slang to Anglicisms to Italianisms, Queneau shows that the work of the literary imagination has as its primary material language itself.
Queneau’s other work published in 1947 is his parody of the scandal novel, We Always Treat Women Too Well, which he published under the pseudonym Sally Mara. Ostensibly, the work is the translation into French by Michel Presle of a work originally written in Gaelic by Sally Mara, and it presents an account of the events in a post office taken over by Irish nationalist insurgents during the Easter Rising of 1916. The insurgents are inconvenienced when they find, after securing the post office and releasing the postal workers, that Gertie Girdle has been left behind, locked in a ladies room. Poking fun at the macho posturing of men during wartime (as the title suggests), Queneau shows how the insurgents’ freedom of speech and behavior are seriously constrained by this woman’s presence. Gertie also turns out to be more than they bargained for when her long-repressed sexuality reaches full flower and she becomes a seducer. Queneau has great fun with theconventions of both the action novel and the pornographic novel and characteristically enjoys manipulating language and literary reference: The insurgents’ password, for example, is “Finnegans wake!”
The reader is instantly alerted to the tongue-in-cheek nature of the book through its style. The doorman who guards the post office opens the novel with “God save the King!” but is quickly dispatched, as follows: He did no more than murmur, this time, for he had already manifested his loyalty to such an extent that Corny Kelleher had wasted no time in injecting a bullet into his noggin. The dead doorman vomited his brains through an eighth orifice in his head, and fell flat on the floor.
As the insurgents’ names suggest, Queneau’s Ireland owes more to a reading of the work of James Joyce than to the accounts of Irish history. By the conclusion of the first chapter, the insurgents have expelled the remaining postal employees—they think—and have secured the post office. From the perspective of one of the insurgents, Dillon, the chapter concludes, “No more virgins offended his view.”
While spoofing the action-and-sex novel, Queneau also incorporates his more serious literary models, using the unreliable narrator associated with the work of Joseph Conrad and the interior monologue style of Joyce. When Gertie Girdle takes over the narrative in chapter 4, it is as though she had stepped straight from the pages of Joyce right into (where else?) the ladies’ room. Her simple mind reviews its limited contents: the state of modern plumbing, her intended, whether she should fix her hair again. When she sees an armed insurgent, her mind follows its own logic: He is armed and dangerous, he must be a Republican, only the British can save me, I will wait in the ladies room, they cannot touch me in here, it is only proper. As in A Hard Winter, the French perspective on Anglo-Saxon prudishness gives the writer plenty of material for his humorous purposes.
The humor turns dark as the novel progresses. Gertie is initiated into sex in the prurient style that the novel parodies, then begins to take an active role. At the same time the military position of the insurgents deteriorates, and they come under direct attack from British gunboats. The two situations intertwine in the narrative. As the shelling begins, one shot takes off Caffrey’s head as he makes love to Gertie: “The body continued its rhythmic movement for a few more seconds, just like the male of the praying mantis whose upper part has been half-devoured by the female but who perseveres in his copulation.” After Gertie...
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