Raymond Queneau Essay - Queneau, Raymond (Vol. 2)

Queneau, Raymond (Vol. 2)

Queneau, Raymond 1903–

French novelist, critic, and poet.

Inspired by the example of "the first important book in which the use of spoken French is not limited to the dialogue" [Céline's Voyage au bout de la nuit], Queneau proceeded to develop a theory of linguistics that must have astounded Céline. According to Queneau, the gap between written French, as this was established in the seventeenth century, and contemporary spoken French has now become as wide as the gap between classical Latin and the Romance languages; modern literature, if it is to survive as a living language, must therefore imitate the spoken rather than the written form….

Queneau's language, both dialogue and narrative, is sometimes a phonetic reproduction of ungrammatical or slangy spoken French; sometimes it rises to the heights of epic poetry; sometimes it lies between the two. But at all times, and whether vulgar or sublime, it follows a fairly unified pattern of rhythmic rhetoric, full of puns, coined words, polysyllables, alliterations and phonetic ornaments that cannot be classified under any heading other than that of "Queneau-ese." It would thus appear that Queneau's scholarly concern for the ever widening gap between written and spoken French is, at heart, simply a pretext for upsetting the rules and regulations of the written language. To this extent he is really nearer to Joyce, whom he has acknowledged as an important influence, than to Céline.

Germaine Brée and Margaret Otis Guiton, "Raymond Queneau: The Sunday of Life," in their An Age of Fiction: The French Novel from Gide to Camus, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, N.J.), 1957.

The work of Raymond Queneau, the poet, is at least as important as his work as a novelist. Both, however, were ignored by the general public until after the war….

Raymond Queneau has retained from his surrealist days a taste for the humorous and ridiculous aspects of ordinary life. He takes us into the working-class suburbs, with their fairs and circuses, where the work-begrimed inhabitants take life as it is without concerning themselves with its great problems. But the writer does concern himself with the problems and, without them knowing it, makes his characters live the problem of existence (its why and its how), the problem of passing time, the problems of old age and death and the problems caused by the innumerable cares that beset the simple and anonymous at every moment. Le Chiendent was modelled on Descarte's Discours de la Méthode and Le Dimanche de la Vie begins with an exegesis of Hegel. Behind his simple, childlike façade, Queneau is a highly conscious writer, passionately interested in philosophy and mathematics, who seems to abandon himself to chance inspiration only when he has some higher end in view. The humorist conceals a disillusioned, rather bitter and pessimistic philosopher….

One may well wonder if [Queneau's] work represents a negation of literature, a contempt for it, or simply an exaggeratedly literary monument. Arguments can be found equally well for all three theses. What is certain, however, is that Queneau's relations with literature and with the novel are not innocent ones. His work lies at the heart of the problems which have arisen in our time regarding the relation between literature and life and between expression and communication. If he has found a solution for himself, he has kept it well hidden: it is not to be found in his own comments on his work. It is probably this that has given his work a paradoxically esoteric appearance.

Maurice Nadeau, in his The French Novel Since the War, translated by A. M. Sheridan-Smith (© 1967 by Methuen & Co. Ltd.), Methuen, 1967, pp. 55-7.

The works of Raymond Queneau offer many examples of the characteristically ironic reflexivity of much of modern art. Queneau continually reminds us, by various means, that his creations are specifically aesthetic enterprises. The individual words and phrases may be emphasized by unorthodox but revealing orthography …, or the verbality of the texts may be accentuated by burlesques of various styles (Queneau's virtuoso Exercises de style [1947] brought him notoriety in the matter of style). In his novels and poems he often gently mocks the literary conventions he himself necessarily employs. Structurally, his works often double back on themselves…. When Queneau's works reflect themselves in these ways the result is not a cancellation or a negation of art, as Nadeau, for example, has intimated.

Queneau raises questions about the art of literature, and in particular his stylistic forays raise questions about the status of the art's very medium, language itself, but he does not repudiate language any more than he repudiates art. Queneau has explained that he declines to share the Greco-Christian reliance on the logos, and he has often expressed a certain disappointment in the ultimate value, the durability of art. This is a complex skepticism which is rather widespread; for Queneau, however, literature continues to be quite feasible. He may say it is an amusing activity and not more, since he shies away from over-earnest attitudes to art, but in an important sense Queneau is committed to language. His carefully structured books are supported by a broad acquaintance with linguistics and with the philosophy of language, and this knowledgeability has found its way into some of the novels.

In view of the resentment sometimes caused by Queneau's ironies concerning language and the art of language, it is interesting to consider what his novels have to say about language. The reflections of language (style drawing attention to itself) are made significant by thoughtful reflections on and about language. On the surface level of style, problems of language, especially the aesthetics of language, are exhibited for the readers' amusement, while on another level broader problems of language are raised: its importance in ethics, its relation to thoughts (reflection, if you will), indeed, the general problem of the relationships between language and reality. Ultimately the integrity of the art of language is linked to the value of language in these and other such areas of characteristically human concern.

Ronald T. Swigger, "Reflections on Language in Queneau's Novels," in Contemporary Literature (© 1972 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 13, No. 4, Autumn, 1972, pp. 491-506.