Raymond Queneau is an unclassifiable author, which is just what he would have wished. His novels of the 1930’s, when he was associated with the Surrealists, abound in wordplay and experiments with colloquial language, but they are generally set against a somber backdrop of war and working-class life. The characters seem to be controlled by the language that they speak, with the consequence that they are viewed from an ironic distance. In the 1940’s, with his literary reputation firmly established, Queneau took some daring chances. He published Exercises in Style, which, if judged by its narrative content, is of no substance whatsoever; he also published a semiserious parody of the then-popular scandal novel under an assumed name. Yet these were precisely the sorts of risks that Queneau enjoyed taking and that, in turn, make him both so hard to pin down and such a source of invention for subsequent writers.
Queneau’s novels of the 1950’s brought him a wide popular audience for the first time, with their bright and zany depiction of ordinary people having the time of their lives. In 1960, along with François Le Lionnais, he founded l’Ouvoir de Littérature Potentielle, or Oulipo (the workshop of potential literature), a group of writers who met regularly to discuss the infinite potential of language for recombination and creative invention. His association with this group (which remains intact into the twenty-first century), along with the experimental quality of his work, is often mentioned as leading to Queneau’s strong influence over the practitioners of the nouveau roman, or New Novel, of the 1960’s.
Overall, Queneau enjoyed a productive, highly varied, yet playful career as a writer, introducing slang and colloquial language into “serious” literature. In some ways, he is the most significant literary figure to provide a link between the Surrealists of the 1920’s and 1930’s and the more language-oriented writers of the 1960’s and 1970’s.